Community Engagement and New Development: A Quick Guide
Situate is a planning consulting firm specializing in rezoning, permit and subdivision coordination services for awesome infill projects. In our How To series on Edmonton’s standard zones, we dive into the nitty gritty of Edmonton’s most common infill zones and overlays.
A community engagement strategy that establishes communication, strengthens trust, highlights common interests, and fosters interconnectedness is one of the most important facets of any infill development project. Without one, it can be difficult to provide accurate information, bridge gaps in understanding, and incorporate community feedback into a project.
Urban planning and development projects can be disrupted, delayed, or even completely derailed if the decision-making process doesn’t adequately account for the desires and needs of the community. When neighbours feel they aren’t being considered, they are more likely to oppose your development.
Here at Situate, we are devoted advocates for inclusive urban development. We are constantly striving to enhance community engagement on our clients’ projects and cultivate synergy between our clients, the community, the neighbours, and ideally, the future residents.
However, many community engagement strategies and best practices stem from high level, long range policy work. These strategies don’t necessarily transfer over to individual real estate development projects, which typically have a shorter timeframe and can be far more contentious.
Below are some of the most effective community engagement strategies we have identified for engaging with neighbours and the community during a typical land development process, such as rezoning.
1. Neighbour Mail Drops
The people most directly impacted by a project—and usually most interested in it—are the direct neighbours. The City understands this, which is why notices for direct control rezoning applications and development permit decisions are sent to all neighbours living within a certain radius of the site.
However, it’s very important not to let the City’s communications be a substitute for your own direct communication with neighbours. This is because the City’s notices are written in formal, official language that can be very difficult to understand. The City also often only sends to landowners, not residents, which means that many renters who live in the area never get notified at all. In addition, the City’s communications inevitably highlight any elements of the project that the neighbours might be concerned about, such as increased height, without mentioning the merits of the project. As a result, it’s up to you to fill in the gaps and provide the full picture.
At times direct communication with neighbours isn’t always possible, like for example on larger scale projects where the neighbours live in apartment buildings. However, on smaller-scale projects, we recommend at the very least to write a letter in plain language to the neighbours and drop it off in their mailboxes. If you don’t already know the neighbours that share a lot line with you, use the letter drop as an opportunity to introduce yourself. Some neighbours will invite you in for coffee, some will dislike you immensely. Don’t take it personally—what matters is that you’re making yourself available.
The letter should provide an overview of the project and contact information for communicating questions and concerns. Use the letter as an opportunity to tell a bit of your story—who are you, what is your company? Why are you investing in the neighbourhood? What are you proposing to build? What is the general timeline for the project? These are important pieces of information that no one will find out from the City’s notices. A letter from you will help to put a human face on what would otherwise be an anonymous (and possibly scary sounding) project.
2. Project Webpage
A project webpage is like a neighbour letter, but on steroids. While a letter is a one time community engagement exercise, a project webpage is an ongoing communication tool that allows you to provide information and updates to people in real time, throughout the entire process. It’s also a great place to answer frequently asked questions, some of which can be guessed at the beginning of a project, and others that come up along the way.
A webpage also gives you the space to link to resources and relevant sources of information that may be useful to the reader, such as general information about urban planning and development as well as other city planning projects.
3. Community League Outreach
Nearly every neighbourhood in Edmonton has a community league, a volunteer run organization that provides access to wellness programs, recreational facilities, child care services, and many other events and activities where social interactions take place. Most community leagues also have a civics committee, which reviews and comments on land development applications.
We recommend reaching out to the community league early on in your project to let them know about it and to offer to meet with them to answer questions and hear their comments. Send the league a copy of the neighbour notification letter and a link to the project webpage, if you have one. Community members often turn to the league with questions about a new project in the neighbourhood—the better informed the league is about your project, the better their answers will be.
Pro tip: consider buying community league memberships for the future residents of your project for at least a year. The cost is minimal, and it shows that you value the community league, that you’re serious about integrating future residents into the neighbourhood, and that you care about the wellbeing of future residents and the community at large.
The purpose of community engagement is not to try to bring everyone onside, which is impossible, but to build relationships and establish a two-way channel of communication. Make sure you document your outreach endeavours and track communications so you can refer back to them later, and so that you can let the City know what steps you took to foster these connections.
This post explored tips for community engagement above and beyond what’s required for typical land development applications. On some projects, like rezoning to custom direct control (DC2) provisions, the City requires additional engagement, such as a formal pre-application circulation letter. We have a post coming up soon to explore how to make the most of those letters—check back soon!
Need Help Executing Your Community Engagement Strategy?
We understand the importance of community involvement in urban development and we’ve taken the time to perfect our public engagement techniques and tactics and to build them seamlessly into our rezoning and permit coordination processes. Contact us to find out how we can help move your project past the finish line.