by Deanna Murphy, AICP
Director of Planning
Sizemore Group

The outbreak of COVID-19 across the United States has changed the way we interact with each other and conduct business. But in order for economic development and community planning to continue, it is important that city planners and municipal leaders find new ways to gather communities and gain public consensus for projects in development.

How do we reinvent traditional public gatherings and safely build consensus?

When the pandemic hit in March, Sizemore Group had to reimagine the community engagement process for our master plan for Six West, a development on 311 acres of city-owned property just west of College Park’s historic downtown district. Our team, in collaboration with the City of College Park and The Collaborative Firm, produced a project introduction video that was shared far and wide, including on social media, email blasts, public television, and links shared in utility bills. The video provided project background and information on how to get involved.

To gather input from the community, we released an online community survey for Six West. Following this initial project introduction, we hosted two virtual community meetings in lieu of the traditional in-person process. We saw over 200 participants in our Zoom meetings, a great increase from what we would normally see at an in-person meeting, which usually has closer to 50 participants on average. In the virtual meetings, we used the polling function to get direct reaction and input on design concepts and had a facilitator engage and record chat box conversations.

We recently held a Zoom meeting with the Hammond Park and Perkerson neighborhoods in south Atlanta for our Hammond Park and Perkerson Neighborhood Blueprint Plan. For this meeting, we used the poll feature, chat box, and allotted open discussion time to drill into the poll results and better understand conversations and input from the chat box.

Sizemore Group has also found success with other remote community engagement strategies, including:

Socially Distanced Pop-Up Open House: Socially distanced pop-up events allow for the community to see recommendations and concepts in person, in their own time, and at a safe distance. A vacant or underutilized space can provide space for display and input boards for the community to drop-by and visit over a period of a few days. The space can have staff available or unmanned with input boards or comment cards for participants to share their feedback.

Kiosks and Comment Boxes in High-Trafficked Areas: Kiosks and comment boxes provide an opportunity for community members to engage in the process and share their ideas while still adhering to social distancing. Comment boxes could be set up in high-trafficked areas – at grocery stores, near outdoor dining or take-out spots. Comment boxes would be accompanied by project information and specific questions for community members to respond to.

Porch Meetings: These small group meetings in outdoor settings allow for safe interaction of community members to answer questionnaires and discuss their vision for their community. Porch meetings are hosted by a local business owner or community leader on their “porch” and include a small group of stakeholders. We have found success when the jurisdiction and consultant team just provide the meeting structure and questions and let the community take the lead.

Virtual Platforms: There are several tools clients can use to virtually gather the public input they need.

  • Live Stream: For public meetings that are traditionally hosted in person, such as city council and planning commission meetings, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Go To Meeting and Facebook Live are good options to host the meetings online.
  • Zoom Breakout Rooms: Zoom provides the option of assigning participants into smaller chat rooms. We have used breakout rooms during larger meetings when we want participants to have more “personal” discussions. These are great for design workshops with a large audience or when we have pointed questions to discuss in smaller groups – such as at the visioning stage of a project.
  • Chat Boxes: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, GoToMeeting and Facebook Live allow you to collect public comments in the chat box. Make sure you have a moderator in place to field questions.
  • Call-In: We can provide a call-in option to encourage live questions and conversation from meeting attendees. This is a good option for those who don’t have internet or computer access.
  • YouTube Live: For clients or organizations that do not have public Facebook pages, YouTube Live is a great option for public meetings. This also provides public access for meeting attendees who do not have personal Facebook accounts.
  • Polling: If a client requires a public poll, PollEV.com allows us to run polls throughout meetings and provide real-time updates.
  • Interactive Maps: For charettes and public meetings asking for input on specific geography and location, Social PinPoint is a tool that attendees can use to add comments to maps online.