Community Engagement 101 for Small Developers
We spend the vast majority of our time at KW working on projects that will make communities better. For us, “better” means more inclusive and more connected, with more access to housing and services. Our efforts typically come through private and/or public investment and development. This means we spend a significant amount of time at community meetings discussing and negotiating approvals for our projects. As a small developer trying to do the right thing (i.e. trying build a project that improves a community and is more than a single-family house), you will inevitably need a variance or rezoning. This typically requires some form of pubic approval.
If we were ever to write a how-to book, it would probably be on the topic of public engagement for architects and developers. Proper community engagement is an art form that requires a significant amount of knowledge. It typically involves having a close understanding of the specific neighborhood: the hopes, dreams, challenges, and realistic assessments as to how our project does or does not fit into this matrix of place. Understanding these dynamics takes a great investment of time on our part.
Monte Anderson of the Incremental Development Alliance speaks regularly and eloquently on the importance of finding your community, your “farm”, and committing to that place. He notes that if the neighborhood you are thinking about is successful and thriving, there is a good chance it doesn’t need you. There are many struggling communities across this nation that need you much more. Find one with good bones – a good street grid, good building stock – that needs a lot of spit and polish. These are the places that a small developer can have an outsized impact. In case you don’t know, most of suburbia lacks both good street grids and good building stock.
These are the places that need you, and typically, these are the places that have a community organization made up of a ragtag group of volunteers working hard to make their community a better place. They are organizing stream cleanups, tree plantings, zoning and redevelopment feedback, councilperson engagement, police engagement, and on and on. I have never met one of these groups that didn’t need more bodies and hours donated to their efforts. Building up neighborhood karma is important. Not as a form of currency, but as a critically valid thing to do with your time.
The absolute best way to learn the art of community engagement is to volunteer for the community you pick as your farm. Help with clean ups, attend the meetings, learn what is going on in the community and the city. Watch how other folks with development requests handle the process. Take notes as to what works well and what doesn’t. It really shouldn’t be hard to tell the difference. Expect that there is at least one neighbor that is off their rocker. Most communities have one, some have multiple. Have patience. One of the most important things to remember is that typically, no one is getting paid to run a community organization. Everyone is donating their time to make their community a better place. Be respectful of this. When folks disagree with a specific project, it typically comes down to not understanding how your project makes their community a better place. This is what you need to articulate.
This post was inspired by a very well meaning post on social media giving a tip to small developers about using NextDoor as a way to engage with a community. All the neighborhoods we work with vote on matters solely by those that show up. You can’t phone or text it in. This goes for building karma, cleaning up streets, streams and sidewalks, and votes of approval for development matters. NextDoor has an important role in tracking down lost animals and garage sales, but it is very hard to cultivate a farm remotely. I’m thinking of the cartoon above. What if I invest all this time volunteering for a community to make it better and I never need a zoning approval from them? Volunteering to make your community a better place should be a priority, period.
Cartoon credit: Joet Pett, USA Today