An article by Eric Lusher, AICP, Lauren Blaszyk, AICP, and Andrew Kohr, PLA, ASLA
For several years, the Pond team has quietly been innovating and perfecting our approach to community engagement on our planning, landscape architecture, and transportation projects. We have always understood that a key ingredient to the success of our community oriented projects is to identify the approaches that allow us to have a meaningful conversation with the communities we are fortunate enough to serve. Our adaptable approach – including community open houses, small stakeholder groups, tactical engagement (intercept interviews at parks, pop up events, and festival booths), social media, online surveys, and interactive maps – has served us well, emphasizing both the need to have lots of conversations while ensuring that those conversations are focused and support our ability to develop the solutions right for each community. Recent Pond projects like the Gwinnett 2040 Unified Plan, the Roswell Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, and the Memorial Drive Revitalization Corridor Study are notable for the amount of quality community input received and how our team was able to use that as the foundation for forward-thinking and innovative solutions.
Our history of innovation and commitment to strong community engagement is now serving our clients well as we navigate the challenges of engaging with the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been able to easily pivot to this new reality due to:
- Our Foresight – back in February, our team starting putting together internal contingencies to prepare for the possibility of the environment we are now facing.
- Our Ingenuity – because of our long standing commitment to community engagement, it is already the Pond team’s nature to develop innovative engagement solutions that work beyond relying on the traditional approach of in-person community meetings.
- Our Experience – that same innovative approach means that we already have useful and significant experiences in engaging with the community digitally, which is emerging as part of the solution during this challenging time.
While there are numerous tools to assist with virtual engagement, the Pond team has taken a less-is-more approach focusing on a few select tools for video-conferencing, live polling, and interactive maps and applying them in multiple ways and in multiple settings. Learn more about the types of things Pond is doing to serve our clients and projects with a handful of selected case studies below:
CONSIDERING A SMART CITY APPROACH FOR THE CITY OF WOODSTOCK
Pond has been assisting the City of Woodstock in developing an overall SMART city strategy and narrowing down to a more specific SMART technology investment to enhance the experience for residents, businesses, and visitors to their vibrant downtown. In tandem with a pre-pandemic campaign of intercept interviews held by the City at a local brewery, holiday events, and in the downtown area Pond set up an interactive website using Social Pinpoint that allows residents to offer input prioritizing different types of SMART strategies, articulate their desires for the downtown area, and indicate specific locations for ideas using an interactive map, with a total of nearly 650 responses. Pond worked with City staff – including their Communications Department – to strategize on timing and messaging to get the word out about the interactive website and even created a brief how-to video on how to use the tool. City of Woodstock Project Manager Katie O’Connor has been delighted with the results saying “It has been easy to get people to visit the website when we tell them that they can leave a location-specific comment for us and vote on other people’s comments to help the good stuff rise to the top. This social aspect of the tool has given us a unique angle to advertise the survey and get the vital public engagement we need.”
COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING IN THE CITY OF ROSWELL
Pond was recently selected by the City of Roswell to facilitate the 2040 Comprehensive Plan with the project officially commencing with a Public Hearing on March 9, 2020 – just before local schools started to close due to COVID-19 and people began social distancing – with additional community events planned for late March through May that were subsequently cancelled. Immediately, the Pond team started to put our pre-planned contingency strategy into place, starting with the development of educational videos that will be available on the City’s website and shareable through social media that describe the planning process with future videos planned that will dive into more specific topics of interest. Pond is also putting plans in place to reschedule a planned stakeholder meeting as a virtual meeting that will include live polling and small breakout discussions. Similarly, the same Social Pinpoint tool that we are using in Woodstock will be re-configured to simulate many of the exercises we had planned for our first community open houses including a variety of specific mapping exercises that our team will use to develop ideas for the future of land uses and character areas in the community.
NAVIGATING THE FEDERAL TRANSPORTATION PLANNING PROCESS FOR THE ROME-FLOYD COUNTY METROPOLITAN PLANNING ORGANIZATION
Pond has been assisting the Rome-Floyd County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in preparing an update of its Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) which will identify transportation initiatives for the region that will utilize federal transportation funding through the year 2050. As a federally required planning process, a particular emphasis is placed on community input and involvement to help guide the decision making advocated by the plan. Similar to our efforts in Roswell, the community engagement was supposed to begin this Spring so our team has been developing strategies to keep the process moving despite the inappropriateness of in-person meetings at this time. Using a combination of live-polling, interactive maps, and virtual breakout sessions, the Pond team is developing several mechanisms to engage with planning stakeholders and the general public. These tools will be used to map and understand locations where the community cites congestion or transportation safety concerns as well as to develop and prioritize broad systematic goals for the future of the region’s transportation system.
DEVELOPING MODEL MILES FOR TRAILS IN THE AEROTROPOLIS CID
Pond developed a clear engagement strategy for a coordinated effort with the seven communities included in this project: Atlanta, Clayton County, East Point, Forest Park, Hapeville, South Fulton, and Union City. Pond developed dedicated websites through Social Pinpoint for each community, which includes a home page to provide a project overview and description of each project phase, virtual public meeting dates, and links to an interactive mapping tool and online survey, providing a “one stop shop” for online engagement. While Pond originally planned to offer two community meetings covering all seven model mile trails within the larger study area, the team is now conducting seven separate, hour-long virtual forums to present project information specific to each community. The meeting presentations will integrate Pigeonhole Live, which allows the presenter to ask questions of participants to get their input in real-time, and has a Q&A feature, all through a dedicated project “Pigeonhole” page which can be accessed via a computer or smart device. Within the Q&A feature, questions will be monitored for content appropriateness while meeting participants can “vote” questions up or down, ensuring that the most relevant questions about the model mile are answered.
DESIGNING THE FUTURE OF SR 9 IN FORSYTH COUNTY
“This is a much better open house than actual in-person open houses. Much easier to see the information and give specific comments.” – Forsyth County resident
Pond has been assisting Forsyth County in developing an initial identification of improvements and conceptual designs for the SR 9 corridor through an Atlanta Regional Commission funded study. Pond was in the final stages of the design process with a planned Public Information Open House (PIOH) for the month of April where members of the community could view and comment on the recommended concept. While early discussions centered on simply posting the recommended concept on the County’s website for viewing, Pond worked on a more engaging approach reconfiguring the Social Pinpoint tool – typically used for early input in a more conventional planning process – so that the concept layout could be viewed in detail on top of aerial photography with commenting features using the tool’s interactive map function.
While Pond has historically seen more engagement from these virtual methods than from traditional in-person approaches, our team is also sensitive to the dynamics that these methods rely on some level of internet access and comfort. Even within metropolitan areas like Atlanta, there are areas that remain undeveloped. In these areas, two conditions can exist. One, access to broadband is increasingly difficult resulting in reduced access to the internet and online digital media. Second, populations are less dense and may have not previously participated in public planning processes. Pond is currently working with the Cities of South Fulton and Chattahoochee Hills on the development of a master plan for the former community of Campbellton. This area remains rural with an older population that may be less experienced with digital engagement. Pond realizes that online engagement is not a solution for all situations and requires a case-by-case approach for each client. For the Campbellton community, we are relying on multiple strategies.
- Mailings to all owners who live within or near the study area. These postcards are a soft introduction to notify people of the process. The postcards will provide a Social Pinpoint website for further engagement as well as contact information for each community. Pond will send out multiple mailings to keep people informed.
- Incorporate Social Pinpoint and Pigeonhole Live as ways to expand the reach of the audience.
- Early communication with both city councils who have direct access to stakeholders, businesses, and residents. Pond is encouraging elected officials to be advocates for engagement.
- Pond is working with both communities to establish workstations at their respective city halls that people can use to access Social Pinpoint and provide feedback.
Nonetheless, this necessary shift to rely on virtual forms of engagement is actually an opportunity within our community and design-based practices to get more diverse and broad input than is typically achieved by the formality of static community meetings. By focusing on tools that are intuitive, developing engagement exercises that replicate in-person events, and keeping engagement opportunities succinct and to the point, the Pond team is ready to help communities of all shapes and sizes achieve the bright future we can look forward to once this crisis subsides.