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How to Engage in a Time of Social Distancing

How do you engage when you can’t meet in person?

Most experienced planners and engagement experts will tell you that online engagement isn’t an adequate replacement for in-person engagement – but what do you do when you ABSOLUTELY can’t engage face-to-face? This is the situation we have found ourselves in during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Active planning and design projects are now having to recalibrate – cancelling scheduled in-person engagement events (open houses, workshops, charrettes) in order to adhere to strict physical distancing requirements designed to keep everyone safe and healthy. Projects that were in early planning phases are now being forced to pivot to a distanced or online-first approach – throwing a wrench in proposed project timelines and/or milestone deliveries. Adding to the uncertainty is that we don’t know exactly how long it will last – or what the lasting social and spatial repercussions will be. What we do know however, is that a shift to distanced engagement will likely last long after the stringent physical distancing requirements have been lifted. It is expected that people will be reluctant to gather in large groups for a while – and that intermittent social distancing may be required for up to a year, or longer, in order to manage the spread of the virus.

Making this transition to a distance-first approach is made easier by the fact that there are many different ways to engage without meeting face-to-face, from utilizing specialized online engagement tools and full-service platforms to re-embracing simpler, more low-tech ways to engage such as telephone calls or postcard mail-outs.

Since the shelter-in-place directives were announced, there have been some excellent examples of individuals, businesses and agencies shifting their engagement approaches during this time of social distancing.

Facebook Live C!C!C! event

Creatives, musicians and wellness practitioners have taken their practices online across a variety of platforms: early in the lockdown, DJD-Nice hosted ‘Club Quarantine’ a 9-hour long dance party (link to playlist) on Instagram Live that was attended (remotely) by over 150,000 people, including Rihanna, Oprah and Michelle Obama. Choir! Choir! Choir! from Toronto hosted a series of ’Choir-intine’ Social Distan-SING-alongs on Facebook Live to keep people connected through song, and Yoga, fitness and dance instructors have been offering classes exclusively through Zoom, promoting physical and spiritual wellness and self-care from a safe distance.

Planners, architects and municipal governments have also been quick to adjust to the new normal.

When the City of Vancouver had to cancel a series of planned Climate Emergency Town Halls – they pivoted quickly and developed a series of Climate Emergency Dialogue Kits in order to keep the conversation going from a distance. Analog (PDF) workbooks accompanied by digital (Video) instructions were uploaded to the City’s website and shared over social media.

Our own team at Urban Strategies has seen multiple projects pivot to an online format in order to meet project objectives.

Our Downsview consultant team, working with Northcrest Developments and Canada Lands Corporation recently launched an online engagement process at www.id8Downsview.ca to reimagine the future of the 520-acre former airfield site in Toronto. The website hosts a variety of engagement tools and opportunities to engage including an interactive mapping exercise, a short online survey, an opportunity to share a story of the site and a video introducing the project and project team. Urban Strategies is supporting Swerhun and Dept. of Words and Deeds, who are leading the engagement.

Our Christie Cookies Site team, working with First Capital Realty (FCR) and a multi-disciplinary consultant team to guide the master planning and related development approvals for a 27-acre former industrial site at 2150 Lake Shore Boulevard (former Christie’s Cookies factory) – recently held a virtual town hall in order to present the revised Master Plan and transportation and mobility plans for the site and answer questions in real-time. The live online event had over 800 viewers and was regarded by both the client and the public as a success. Urban Strategies is supporting Lux9, who are leading the engagement.

Our East Warren/Cadieux Neighborhood Plan team, working on a strategic framework in northeast Detroit, has worked with the City and the local consultant team to create a hybrid digital-physical engagement process during COVID-19. There are significant gaps in internet access across the project area, and new approaches are needed to make up for the loss in quality in-person engagement that was underway. In order to enable participation by as many local community members as possible, the local engagement consultants, C3 (Cooperative Community Consulting), have organized a strategy including weekly “office hours” on Zoom, a web survey, a text message survey, roving physical information boards and resources at key community locations, lawn signs on neighbourhood streets, and mail campaign.

These same tools, and a number of other dedicated tools and platforms, can be fashioned to host meaningful engagement opportunities for your planning and design processes.

Below, we will explore a small sample of the tools on offer (both digital and analog) – and offer some suggestions on how and when you should deploy them to ensure a robust and defensible engagement process – even in the time of physical distancing.

Be Strategic

As overwhelming as it may feel at first – it can also be exciting to develop an online approach to engagement. Some of the tools on offer are enticing, offering attractive interfaces and dynamic features…but as with all engagement work, strategy is key. It can be tempting to pick an online tool or engagement approach before you fully determine what you are engaging on, who you are engaging with, what type of input you are seeking, and what your desired outcomes are. This temptation can be even harder to resist given the allure of elaborate digital engagement tools.

A comprehensive Communications and Engagement Strategy is more important now than ever. Having a strategy in place before you begin engagement will be key to the success of your project. It will allow you to determine which tools are most appropriate to your needs, not which look the best or are the most cutting-edge. While always best practice, this is the time to really consider: WHY are you engaging? WHAT are you engaging on? WHO are you engaging with? and HOW and WHEN are you engaging them? Taking the time early in your process to thoughtfully develop this strategy will save you considerable time and effort down the line.

Know Your Audience(s)

It is also important to consider who you are engaging in order to develop a strategy that reaches the widest possible audience(s). One of the benefits of distanced engagement can be the opportunity to participate on one’s own timeline, as opposed to showing up at a fixed time and place which may not be convenient. But we must also consider that there is still a wide range of internet capacity across households and many degrees of comfort with technology, especially across generations. Not everyone has the ability to live stream a one-hour video or navigate a complex engagement tool. Providing low-tech alternatives can support all who want to participate.

Additionally, many people have faced increased hardships due to the pandemic, including health challenges, job and income instability, pressures related to working from home and remote learning, and increased child and elder care responsibilities. These hardships have been felt disproportionally by marginalized communities – adding to an already inequitable situation. These hardships must be considered when seeking community participation. For example, timelines may need to be extended, and opportunities to engage must be crafted carefully in order to give people adequate time and space to participate in a meaningful way.

This is also the time to consider the accessibility of your materials. Because participants will be engaging with the content from a distance, without the opportunity to engage one-on-one, measures must be taken to ensure your materials are accessible. Is your content presented in plain language, free of jargon and unnecessary technical language? Does your material need to be presented in multiple languages? Are you providing closed captioning or ASL translation on videos? Are your digital materials compatible with screen-readers, and other assistive and adaptive technologies? And are you offering a simple, low-tech way to engage such as a telephone number so participants can engage without the use of an internet enabled device?

The Right Tool for the Job

One you have crafted your Communications and Engagement Strategy, you will be able to choose the tool(s) to meet your specific needs. Below, we have laid out a ‘representative’ engagement process – illustrating the high-level phases of work that typically take place in a planning or design engagement process – and have included a selection of online and analog tools that could be utilized during each phase – addressing both the functions of getting ‘Information Out’ – and gathering ‘Information In’.

This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a curated selection to help you better understand what is on offer. Our team has compiled a comprehensive database of online engagement tools, providers and examples – and would be happy to talk with you about your engagement needs.

Sample Engagement Timeline

1 Project Management and Project Start-Up

Objectives of this Phase: Clarifying expected outcomes, roles, and responsibilities for the project, stakeholder identification and management, pre-engagement activities (e.g. stakeholder interviews), content development

Some important things to consider when exploring these platforms are:  Data privacy and storage (e.g., is data being stored on Canadian/US/UK servers?), number of users it can support and integration with other tools and apps.

This early in the process, pre-engagement is required in order to help develop your communications and engagement strategy. This one-on-one, conversation-based engagement can be done using various methods including email, video-calling (FaceTimeSkype), and the telephone*.

*When possible, default to the most intuitive, user friendly option. As conditioned as we are becoming to Zoom and its counterparts, it is often easier for everyone involved to just to pick up the phone.

Online stakeholder management tools such as Jambo or Staketracker can help you keep track of stakeholders during long-term and complex projects.


2 Public Launch

Objectives of this phase: This is the moment in your project when public facing engagement begins – a time when generating awareness and excitement about the project is key. During times of face-to-face engagement, this phase can involve a launch event, an open house plus the requisite LS