Whether you live in a city that is still in the middle of a blackout, or a city that is beginning the cautious transition back to an appearance of “normality,” now is the time to think about how the reopening process works for you Community will look like. From top to bottom or from bottom to top, community engagement and intelligence can and should play an essential role in this process. This is an uncertain time, there is no blueprint, and we need to rely on community-based and evidence-based solutions for reconstruction and gradual economic recovery in the future.
Although public life has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the recovery phase is predicted to involve a succession of phases that gradually lead us back into public space, with social distancing differing as coronavirus cases decrease . But even with a rough framework, there are many questions:
- Will we return to public spaces and main streets with ruthless dedication or caution?
- How will the transit work and bring its drivers back in the future?
- Will restaurants be able to open to socially distant guests, although this will undoubtedly lead to a reduction in their seating capacity?
- And how will our communities respond to a landscape that is certainly dramatically different from what we used to know, given the closing of shops and the ongoing public health restrictions that will change our way of life for months and maybe years?
If we want citizens to work in our buildings again, use our public transport networks, engage in our services and use public and private spaces, we have to consult with them. We need to develop an understanding of how they feel when this new reality unfolds so that we can meet their evolving needs through evidence-based decision making.
We hope to create a framework for addressing the challenges associated with rebuilding our necessary social infrastructure through and for the community. From our perspective as a city anthropologist at THINK.urban and as director of the stakeholder engagement company Connect the Dots, we see the following key points as a good starting point. We strive to continue to work across industries and communities to build on the ideas below.
1. Together create solutions with transparency and reciprocity.
The path to recovery is through collaboration. across industries, across stakeholders and across equity gaps. We believe that the careful handling of all voices in a collaborative, thoughtful manner is crucial to find solutions to the challenges we face and to move forward with confidence and trust. Remember to return to the Town Hall’s intent. Listen indefinitely and invite all stakeholders to share their contributions and develop solutions together from there.
We see across the board how barriers are dismantled and creative, effective partnerships built in their place. Project recovery in Lake County, California is a wonderful example of what can happen when different skill levels come together. Lake County is one of the poorest counties in California and the region’s hospital has only 25 beds. From the police to healthcare, emergency services, and behavioral health agencies, the county is working to develop a rapid response infrastructure to the current crisis by improving public health outcomes and reducing hospital utilization.
Before the pandemic affected our city of Philadelphia, it was planned to create a pop-up community center to work through the vision process for the South Street Headhouse District (BID) through community building and sharing. Just when we were ready to open this center, the lock prevented the personal connection that would have made the vision process easier and allowed us to pause the physical space. We’re now rethinking our plans by creatively engaging small businesses from afar to coordinate a number of smaller interventions for the public so Main Street can survive in the short term and recover in the longer term.
2. Don’t discount the qualitative.
Due to the digital engagement, we run the risk that online surveys will become the standard method for data collection. A concerted effort is needed to collect data more fairly and comprehensively. Social distance can prevent focus groups from sitting around a table, but online video platforms can help fill the gap. And if you don’t get access to personal contact information, good old fashioned hard copy mailers or community call-in radio broadcasts can always do the trick. You can get more creative with digital dinners, social media such as Facebook Live, offline online surveys, installations at important community nodes and much more. For example, Nicetown CDC in Philadelphia focuses on emailing and telephoning (banking) about needs and important resources, while the City of Philadelphia Planning Commission is working on key neighborhood advisory meetings organized by Resident Community Associations (RCOs) in virtual formats are organized to redefine.
Even observations, especially when we return to public life and create new networks of open streets for commuters and movement, can be safely carried out from a distance and offer immense insight into how we can reopen public spaces. For example, GEHL architects in New York and Copenhagen conducted surveys on public life in public space (while maintaining social distance) to understand the current challenges and potential opportunities in the design and management of public space that result from this crisis surrender. With that in mind, as soon as the restrictions relax, we’ll work with a city park in Center City, Philadelphia to learn about the transition to reuse, similar to what we did before the pandemic. The knowledge that we gain through consistent observation and commitment enables the park to iteratively design interventions and elements that help potentially anxious visitors to feel good again in public space.
3. Consistently collect feedback.
Consistency is crucial to develop a deep understanding of your stakeholders’ needs. New Jersey TRANSIT sends weekly questionnaires to customers to understand their feelings about transit and how it is used for important trips. It will take time and effort to collect the information and understand what people think. However, by checking in during key milestones, we can review and revise as needed based on observable behavior and direct insights gathered. As NJ TRANSIT explains in the information request: “Your answers help us to track improvements, make informed decisions and use our resources where you as a customer find that they are most urgently needed.”
Similarly, the Downtown Development Authority / Main Street program in Rawlins, Wyoming engages the public to assess residents’ needs and concerns and to collect their thoughts on various possible solutions, such as: For example, your feelings about picking up at the roadside and your thoughts on virtual programming and more. As many cities, including Philadelphia, are considering using street space for seating in cafes, there is a similar need for consistent engagement. The aim is to ensure that residents and businesses are satisfied with the changes and that the changes meet the needs of the economic recovery.
4. Think outside the box to meet people where they are.
To do this type of research, reach and engagement need to be adaptable, tailored and far more creative to achieve meaningful and just engagement. Given the impact of the digital divide, this can mean a repetitive, more personal, and more diverse reach to ensure that voices are heard. Or it can mean building capacity and trust in the use of software, or relying more on trusted community ambassadors to enable engagement. And if engagement is digital, as is the case with many community board meetings, simply posting the details on social media and expecting people to show up is not enough. It is important to ensure that you make an effort to ensure fair reach and participation opportunities.
Connect the dots has translated their community outreach and advisory services into a robust remote engagement process that includes digital and non-digital tools that are customized for each project and community across capabilities and backgrounds, as well as digital access. Jacobs Engineering Group has focused specifically on digital tools, including a virtual event space that is fully customizable to any project and includes options for setting event times, information displays, enlarged maps, live web chats, comment space, and more.
Lead with compassion.
Above all, the recovery process will remind us to really listen to the needs of the community so that we can do it together. In many ways, reaching during the pandemic is as much a gesture of support as a means of data collection. It is also about building community relationships and trust, taking stock of current realities and developing strategies for the future. We can take notes from design thinking concepts and focus first on empathy and above all on compassion.
The role of engagement and research specialists will be to remain adaptable, flexible, innovative and understanding. Contributing to research during this time may be an additional stress factor for the residents of the community. By building trust through participation and compassion, we can also do double the work to build resilience for the next period of the crisis. We can only hope for renewed emphasis on empathy in engagement processes and for the design of resilient cities and public spaces that are shaped for and by the people who inhabit them when we are in the uncertain recovery phase of the future. And when we’re done with recovery research, we can continue this practice by leading with empathy if we do something else.
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