Engagement is at the core of Ayers Saint Gross’s mission and our planning practice. We strongly believe in the collective wisdom of a facilitated, inclusive planning and design process. In our rapidly changing world, communication, knowledge sharing, and connections are vital to generating consensus around shared visions. We work with varied and diverse groups of stakeholders to generate creative ideas that respect local culture, climate, and setting.
Our planning process involves overlapping activities that bring together the people and information needed to create a plan for the future. Effective implementation of planning visions is only possible through a carefully designed and executed process that engages stakeholders to reflect the mission and values of each institution, organization, or municipality.
Project success is more easily achieved through better knowledge, understanding, and buy-in. Engagement achieves all three of these things. Engagement not only allows us to be better designers by coalescing more input, but it is also an opportunity to generate excitement and harmony among stakeholders around a shared vision.
Engaging On Campus
In a higher education setting, in addition to the senior leadership that typically makes up a steering committee, broader public engagement is a way to bring students, faculty, technical staff, operational staff, and community members to the table. These stakeholders are the experts on how the campus is working and what is needed to best support student experience, student success, and operations.
Higher education clients also bring unique challenges; a significant one is finding the right time to engage stakeholders. Students, staff, and faculty have different schedules and are on campus at different times throughout the day. Identifying the best time (or times) to engage with stakeholders is the first hurdle.
It is critical to market the event through multiple avenues (email blasts, posters, web postings, adverts, etc.) and convey why it is important. Support from the client helps in this arena. They are critical in spreading the word, providing space to host an event or activity, and supplying incentives. Perhaps even more important, the client is the one that can best identify who should be in the room. This entails not only bringing in the right stakeholders to provide input, but also making sure that they are comfortable sharing their thoughts in a safe setting.
Stakeholders can tell when planners and designers are not genuinely interested in hearing their thoughts. At Ayers Saint Gross, we emphasize the value of bringing a broad and diverse set of stakeholders into our process and incorporating their valuable insight and input into our projects. Ultimately, this is the best way to produce dynamic projects that have wide-spread support, clear implementation, and create great experiences for all.
Ayers Saint Gross helped assist Tarrant County College (TCC) in creating a vision that would help to transform their traditional format libraries into Learning Commons to better meet the needs of today’s students and faculty. Building off our previous work with TCC that identified a college-wide need to increase pedagogical connectivity between learning inside and outside the classroom, we knew that the existing libraries were less than ideal for educators and students alike. Our team lead an engagement-heavy planning process for all five physical TCC campuses that included parallel in-person and online efforts for students, staff, and faculty.
Each group was asked a unique and comprehensive set of questions that collectively helped formulate the vision and scope for what the new Learning Commons could be. Responses highlighted the opportunities that existed to capitalize on the transformation of libraries into Learning Commons by incorporating spaces, programs, and resources that would help redefine the relationship between pedagogy, teaching, and the library space. Ayers Saint Gross then took this feedback to college leadership and used it to guide and facilitate the decision making that led to final designs.
At each student open house, we brought 40 pizzas anticipating that we would be well covered. Thanks to fantastic event marketing by the client, students showed up and participated en masse leading to the pizzas quickly disappearing. In all, we went through 200 pizzas over a 48-hour period.
Engaging in the Community
In urban planning, the most important stakeholders are community members. To produce an ethical, sustainable plan, it is vital that we begin by openly listening to the needs of the residents, business owners, elected officials, city government, and other stakeholders. Engagement must continue throughout the development of the plan to ensure the vision accurately depicts the desires of the community. This requires listening and a thoughtful exchange of knowledge; the community educates us on their needs and we educate them on components of the planning process. Engagement strategies include addressing individual questions in breakout sessions, polling, design stations, or boards where people can deliver comments and have conversations more intimately. This makes engagement more personal and is the kind of one-on-one interaction required to build rapport and consensus.
For the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan, the community had been the unfortunate recipient of decades of underinvestment, discriminatory practices, and neglect. There was an understandable skepticism of planners. The residents remembered decades of urban renewal when whole neighborhoods were razed and communities were torn apart. The team needed to develop trust to create a Master Plan that captured the community’s fundamental needs and served as a vision for them to champion moving forward.
When designing exercises, it is critical to make a strong effort to minimize implicit bias and design activities that accommodate variety of perspectives and abilities. This covers everything from the selection of images and wording of questions to the actual physical layout of exercises to enable stakeholders of differing backgrounds and experiences to participate. It is vital that everyone feel and be included.
Our carefully crafted engagement strategy was founded on these principles and we were able deliver a vision and plan for the community while building relationships, trust, and confidence within the community to carry the plan forward into implementation.
Transferring planning knowledge to community members should not be approached didactically, but instead as a two-way conversation to help inform and empower community residents. Speaking personally, during a final community meeting for the Southwest Neighborhood Plan, while reviewing final recommendations, I carefully walked one woman through a recommendation for increased zoning capacity, as it was a crucial move in order to be able to provide adequate affordable housing in the future. About 15 minutes later her friend arrived and had the same concern, I watched her explain to her friend exactly what I had walked her through. Not only allaying someone’s concerns, but giving them the tools to share with their fellow community members is incredibly rewarding and a great reminder of the real-life impacts of our work.