Centering Community in the Public Engagement Process

by Vision Zero Network | May 30, 2019 | in Case Studies, News, Webinars

Meaningful public engagement can make or break a worthy campaign, including any Vision Zero effort. Yet, it’s one area that can often be shortchanged of time, attention and resources. In our webinar, Meaningful Community Engagement to Advance Vision Zero, we learn from leaders in the field about strong engagement strategies that prioritize equity and inclusivity on the path to safe mobility.


This question is key to recognize in a meaningful community engagement process. As emphasized by both of the webinar presenters, meaningful community engagement requires a shift in power from institutional leaders to those who are most impacted by decisions. There should be an intentional effort to engage residents whose voices are often marginalized for various reasons, including economic, social or racial factors.

Danielle Sherman, Manager of Healthy Parks and Places for the Safe Routes Partnership, a national nonprofit that works to advance safe walking and bicycling to and from schools, calls equity and community engagement the foundation of their work. To explain their approach to community engagement, Sherman shares the slide (below) showing the power dynamics of various engagement processes. Moving from left to right on the image below, you can see decision-making power is concentrated in agencies that inform or consult with the public, versus projects that give community members greater authority of decision making and empowerment to devise and “own” solutions.

Source: Collective Impact Forum Community Engagement Toolkit

Using the spectrum to develop clear outreach goals is helpful to right-size expectations and be transparent during the engagement process. For example, is the purpose of a public meeting to inform the community by sharing already-shaped project details and timelines, without them necessarily influencing the outcomes? Or, is the goal to solicit community input at the beginning of the process to shape the work early on? Can community members really influence the outcome and results through this process? Understanding intent and being clear about possibilities for influence early on are both key to an authentic community engagement process.

Dignity-infused Community Engagement

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) has been “working to meet communities where they are” in their Vision Zero outreach. Dr. Destiny Thomas, a transportation planner in LADOT, explained the agency’s application of dignity-infused engagement with the community on issues including traffic safety. LADOT wants to move away from the role of an agency serving as the lead or most powerful voice on a safety issue; instead, staff are working to help reassign power to community members whose daily experiences can guide solutions that best reflect their concerns and needs.

For instance, community members facing barriers to stable housing, food and transportation access are especially vulnerable to the lack of safe mobility. Strategies to connect with people on issues such as Vision Zero must take into account impediments that could limit their ability to engage. For instance, Dr. Thomas shared an instance of realizing that a child needed an appropriate pair of shoes before learning to ride a bike during an LADOT-sponsored community event. Though that wasn’t part of the original intent of the event, the very real need was addressed.

Strategies to Meaningfully Engage Community Members

Photo: Safe Routes Partnership (Portland, OR)

The following seven strategies were shared by the Safe Routes Partnership:

  1. Identify the engagement process: Referring back to the spectrum shared above, determine if the goal of outreach is to share information in a one-way manner, or whether community feedback and ideas will be incorporated into the project.
  2. Build personal relationships with target populations: Are you building on existing, strong relationships with community members in the project area? Or should focus be placed on building relationships? Are there community/cultural centers, boys/girls clubs, senior centers where you can find natural community leaders?
  3. Partner with diverse agencies and organizations: While it’s important for agencies to partner with organizations that have existing relationships with a target population, funding groups you want to partner with is a must. Provide stipends or contracts to support their time, effort and relationships. For example, Durham’s Planning Department requested City funding to hire 30 community members to conduct equitable engagement on the city’s comprehensive plan — a great example of valuing the community engagement led by community members. [See the Vision Zero Network’s piece on Building Capacity & Empowering People with Funding]
  4. Increase accessibility: Encourage participation via language translation services, gift card incentives for groceries, transit passes and/or childcare during the event. Also, be thoughtful about the timing and location of engagement events; for instance, weekday or evening events might be difficult for working parents to attend; opportunities to integrate outreach into existing, accessible community events are helpful.
  5. Create a welcoming atmosphere: Solicit feedback from local organizations who understand the local community for suggestions about timing and venue. For instance, a government office or auditorium setting might not feel as welcoming as a local community center.
  6. Think about how to grow community capacity: It is not enough to just engage the community but also important to leave something behind. Create and develop opportunities for training or funding to help develop skills that will last beyond this project. For instance, local trainings such as Transportation 101 workshops can offer long-term leadership development opportunities.
  7. Maintain a presence in the community beyond project scope: Expand involvement with the community to maintain meaningful relationships beyond the life of the project. This means participating in and supporting community activities in an ongoing way.

A Multidisciplinary Approach to Community Engagement

The LADOT recognized the need to shift the narrative around its Vision Zero community outreach from Education to Engagement to better acknowledge the need to not talk at people but with people about what they want to experience on their streets and in their communities. The agency used the following four approaches to authentically tap into a multitude of community concerns and needs, keeping in mind related issues of homelessness, food insecurity and crime:

  1. Resident Advisory Councils: comprised of thoroughly vetted, self-identified community leaders well known in the civic community who can guide and evaluate engagement strategies, and inform the development of public facing project materials, based on their knowledge of the community. These members also advocate for traffic safety improvements in their community.
  2. Street Teams: focus is on those populations of residents who face the biggest risk from a lack of traffic safety such as those who are homeless, survivors of violence, veterans or aging. For these community members, an injury from a car crash can result in lost daily wages resulting in the loss of a home or access to transportation and escalating medical bills. The Street Team, recruited directly from the community of those working on these issues, aims to remove barriers to unemployment and provide opportunities for long-term economic security. They provide the agency with a solid stream of communication at the community level.
  3. Mixer for Community Based Organizations (CBOs): LADOT invites thousands of CBOs to a full day mixer to learn about Vision Zero but they spend the day learning about the values and priorities of these groups so the agency can develop connections between its work and that of the CBOs (such as with homelessness, youth engagement or the arts). CBOs interested in the agency’s Vision Zero work are then invited to a “Capacity Building Institute” to learn how to navigate city processes.
  4. Conduct a Social Climate Analysis: while data and engineering are the crux of many traffic safety improvements, there are social and cultural factors at play as well. The social climate analysis creates an opportunity for project engineers and community members and leaders to discuss meaningful ways to address barriers a proposed project might create.

A Systems Based Approach to Community Engagement

While Vision Zero, or any traffic safety project, aims to focus attention on people and the lives impacted by traffic crashes, often times the community outreach processes associated with these projects are less people-centered than they should be. Instead of relying on formulaic processes that predetermine expectations, real energy and time should be spent on drawing out the desires, concerns and needs of community members.

A well designed community engagement process can be one of the most valuable aspects of project development providing insight into the potential opportunities and resources that exist within a community. Traditionally, a community engagement process has been designed to show the community how a project can make a community better. But, as LADOT and Safe Routes Partnership have shared, there is tremendous value in public outreach models that harness the people, history, culture, talent, skills and knowledge within a community to enhance and improve a project such that it is a community project, and not an agency project.

Watch the webinar.

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