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Virtual Community Engagement: Opportunities and Strategies for Increasing Access


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For this virtual community engagement meeting, we used color-coded backgrounds to distinguish different stakeholders. Image: David Baker Architects

By Sarah Ahmadzai, Assoc. AIA,
LEED AP ND; Meghan McAllister, AIA;
and Brooke Calhoun

 

A vital part of building housing for people is connecting with the current and future residents. We believe that successful housing is rooted in the community it serves, and it follows that participatory community engagement is a pillar of our practice at DBA. We had two projects in play after public health concerns cancelled our in-person community engagement—one which had already started with a few in-person events, and one that needed to be reformatted for a completely virtual process. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us to expand our community engagement with new platforms and strategies that meet people where they are—online.

 

The Projects

Sunnydale Block 3. Image: David Baker Architects

Sunnydale Block 3 is set to serve as the new gateway of HOPE SF’s Sunnydale Housing in San Francisco. Part of a larger master plan, the building will include 170 affordable homes, ground-floor retail, an early childhood education center, a wellness center, and residential courtyards.

East Santa Clara Mixed-Use. Image: David Baker Architects

The East Santa Clara Mixed-Use project will bring approximately 650 affordable homes to San Jose, California—a mix of senior and family housing supported by ground-floor retail, public open space, and bike and pedestrian pathways.

The Process

The community engagement process on Sunnydale Block 3 started in June 2019—long before Zoom became an everyday tool and “unprecedented” an overused buzzword—with posters, banners, and postcards advertising for community meetings. We held six in-person meetings before we migrated to a fully digital process—a transition that was made possible by flexibility and optimism of our development partners Hope SF, Mercy Housing, and Related California.

Sunnydale Hope SF - Block 3 community engagement website. Image: coUrbanize

For our last community meeting, we made a 9-minute video presenting our design and all the community input that had gotten us there. We had the video dubbed in four of the languages that are spoken in the neighborhood, and we posted it on our project website alongside a discussion board posing a series of questions for the community. We had already been using a coUrbanize website to share information and collect feedback from stakeholders. Since we haven’t been able to meet in person for over a year, this interactive website has been a great way to stay connected with the community.

Unlike the Sunnydale project, the East Santa Clara community engagement process was just kicking off in March 2020. What was originally planned to be in-person pivoted to an entirely digital process. We contracted CivicMakers as our community engagement consultant to help us develop a strategy for connecting and following through in the new virtual process, to ensure that our visual and text communications were easily accessible to the public, and to serve as a resource to all parties involved. CivicMakers facilitated the process of connecting to project stakeholders through traditional methods like flyering and sending emails, as well as new approaches like directly texting neighbors and posting in online neighborhood groups. Text messaging, in English and Spanish, helped us directly reach community members who may not have easy access to email.

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Community survey for 675 East Santa Clara Street. Image: SurveyMonkey

 

For East Santa Clara, we created a longer 16-minute video explaining the project in English and Spanish and released a survey via SurveyMonkey to garner feedback from community stakeholders, asking them to rank preferences that would directly impact the design. A few months later, we released a 27-minute video outlining the decisions and updates. Responding to the request for an addition of an opportunity to give input directly, we then hosted two live community meetings on Zoom to answer questions alongside our design partners from Paulett Taggart Architects, Perkins & Will Pfau Long, Fletcher Studio, as well as the Santa Clara Housing Authority.

 

The Feedback and Follow-Through

Perhaps the most important part of community engagement—in-person on virtual—is following up with the community. It is critical to report back and let them know that their input was heard and integrated as well as possible. For in-person community meetings, collecting feedback is relatively immediate, but the virtual process can be more time intensive. It takes anywhere from 20 to 30 working days to create the content, get client approval, record and translate a video, distribute it to the public, and collect and synthesize usable feedback.

Virtual Community Engagement Timeline. Image: David Baker Architects

After that, we can start integrating the community’s input into the design. By the time the updated design is prepped and we’re ready to return to the community, several weeks or months may have passed, so maintaining communication with stakeholders over this time is key to a successful virtual community engagement process.

In the East Santa Clara process, CivicMakers helped create a report summarizing the community input after each meeting. We shared those reports with the community and published them on the Housing Authority’s website, assuring stakeholders that their feedback had been documented and considered—even if it took a while to see the integrated results. Like well-considered design, thorough community engagement takes patience and ongoing communication.

 

The Take-Aways: Increasing Equity and Access

Virtual community engagement has both benefits and challenges—and recognizing them helps us strengthen our strategy.

We’ve found that the virtual process opens up community engagement to a wider audience because it is more flexible and accessible for people’s schedules and circumstances. Participants can view the presentation and complete the survey at both a time and place of their convenience. With pre-recorded videos and translated surveys, the content is delivered in an entirely in-language experience, limiting the amount of information lost behind language barriers.

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Program results from community survey for 675 East Santa Clara Street. Image: CivicMakers and David Baker Architects

 

 

"I feel like the video and survey should always be available. In-person meetings are fine, but the fixed schedule is not always suitable for everybody. Also, I find that naysayers take up too much time, but it's important to hear everybody's perspectives. This format is awesome, and we should include it going forward."

—East Santa Clara community member

 

The virtual process also lends itself to more precise feedback, with clear objective data taken from surveys. Community members also have the opportunity to write in all of their input that may or may not have been fully captured by the recorder at in-person meetings. With digital tools, each person is given ample time and space to provide feedback, and each voice is heard at equal volume, rather than being eclipsed by those who are most outspoken in person.

In-person community engagement meeting for Sunnydale in December 2019. Image: David Baker Architects

Technical Tips for Digital Dialogue

As architects and designers, we talk people through our designs regularly, but we’ve only recently started creating pre-recorded presentations. These strategies—specific for presentations that will be completed ahead and played later— have helped us produce digital presentations that communicate our ideas clearly.

Recording

  • For consistent sound quality, record each person individually and splice the video and audio together later.
  • If you don't have this capability, capture the video by simply recording a zoom call—just be sure to have as few people on the call as possible to avoid distractions.
  • Designate one person as the slide advancer, so the presentation moves at an easy casual pace without being passed back and forth. Practice the pacing of the presentation, so it is clear when to advance the slides.

Audio

  • Write the script or bullet points out. Practice your tone, cadence, and emphasis by reading it out loud. Remember to breathe evenly and pause in between sentences and topics.
  • Build a pillow fort around your recording equipment to reduce echo and background noise.
  • Make sure the other speakers are muted to reduce feedback.
  • Have your script or notes in front of you while you record. Use it for reference, rather than reading straight from it. Remember that you’re talking to a person.

Visual

  • For pre-recorded presentations, consider showing a photo to introduce yourself, rather than a video feed.
  • Be sure your recording space is tidy and well-lit and that your background is free of distractions. Stand to speak, as you would if you were speaking in front of a group of people.

You don’t have to have a professional recording studio to create an effective presentation. A working setup can be constructed out of household items. Image: David Baker Architects

A Both/And Approach

There are limitations to virtual community engagement—namely a lack of the face-to-face conversation that helps build trust between designers and users. Several respondents noted that they wanted a venue for discussion and real time Q&A to have more opportunity to interact with the team and chat about the implications of the design. In-person meetings create a forum for residents to hear their neighbors’ opinions and bounce ideas off one another. These chats often result in more subjective interpretations that can be just as important as quantitative data.

Virtual community engagement can also provide barriers to different social, economic, and age demographics as it requires access to and knowledge of digital tools. Not everyone has access to a smartphone or the internet, especially when libraries were closed in accordance with stay-at-home orders, and a certain level of tech savviness makes participating in virtual engagement sessions easier for some than for others. These barriers—plus the lack of an in-person local event with childcare, snacks, and opportunities to socialize—take away the community’s incentive to participate.

As things begin to open up again and we start to plan in-person events, we will continue to use the insight we have gained from the virtual community engagement process. We will likely start using digital tools in tandem with in-person feedback to broaden the range of voices and input. We’ve learned that identifying and responding to access and information barriers is essential no matter the platform. We must continue to identify barriers and strategize ways to surmount them. The marker of a successful community process is not simply a well-produced video or a meeting going well, it is that the community feels included, respected, and heard. Because in the end, it’s all about the people.

 

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Sarah Ahmadzai, Associate AIA, LEED AP ND, is an Associate at DBA. You can contact Sarah here

Meghan McAllister, AIA, is an Architect at DBA. You can contact Meghan here

Brooke Calhoun is a Designer at DBA. You can contact Brooke here.

For this virtual community engagement meeting, we used color-coded backgrounds to distinguish different stakeholders. Image: David Baker Architects

Sunnydale Block 3. Image: David Baker Architects

East Santa Clara Mixed-Use. Image: David Baker Architects

Sunnydale Hope SF - Block 3 community engagement website. Image: coUrbanize

Community survey for 675 East Santa Clara Street. Image: SurveyMonkey

Virtual Community Engagement Timeline. Image: David Baker Architects

Program results from community survey for 675 East Santa Clara Street. Image: CivicMakers and David Baker Architects

In-person community engagement meeting for Sunnydale in December 2019. Image: David Baker Architects

You don’t have to have a professional recording studio to create an effective presentation. A working setup can be constructed out of household items. Image: David Baker Architects