The Asakura Robinson Equity Committee, founded in April 2019, is an internal group of employees working to ensure equity and accountability throughout the firm and our practice. In the summer of 2020, the committee expanded and one of its working groups, the quarterly Equity in Planning Blog Series, was formed. The Equity in Planning Blog Series looks to highlight issues that we have faced as practitioners in our work and, more generally, in the Planning and Design field. We aim to be transparent in bringing light to these issues, and we hope to achieve a more equitable and honest conversation about positive change and solutions for the communities we serve.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a multitude of things in the past year; specifically, how we engage with those around us – close friends, elderly relatives, complete strangers – has been altered in a way that we have never seen before in our lifetime. If, like many of us here at Asakura Robinson, you’re a planner, architect, or designer whose work is built on the foundation of comprehensive community engagement, you’ve had to rethink how and when to “engage.”
Under normal circumstances, community engagement is difficult. There is a lot to consider, such as who the target population is, their respective history under the context of planning or otherwise, and their immediate priorities and challenges. You then have to think about developing an engagement strategy or set of strategies that builds upon that information, uses it to actively connect with your audience, and tries to do so as equitably as possible. As a planner, I have traditionally done this in-person, where I can see reactions and listen to suggestions or grievances in real time and space.
But what happens when those key face-to-face encounters can no longer happen? How can we still engage in a meaningful way with the stakeholders we are planning communities for and with and ensure that we’re doing so equitably? This was the biggest challenge of adapting to engagement in a pandemic reality: making sure the engagement we continue to conduct and the relationships we continue to develop are just as meaningful and as equitable. And because we’ve had to adapt and come up with new and innovative ways to engage many of our stakeholders, post-pandemic community engagement has helped us better understand how to engage equitably for three primary reasons.
We’ve been able to reach populations we traditionally haven’t before (and have become more aware of populations we’re not reaching)
Although it might seem counterintuitive, conducting the majority of engagement online has helped us reach populations that previously might not have been engaged. Because the pandemic helped normalize engagement online, many more populations were open to the idea of attending a public meeting or taking an online survey.
For example, during the engagement process of the Pasadena Healthy Parks Plan, we hosted our second community workshop on Facebook Live and had the residents and staff of the Madison Jobe Senior Center attending and dancing to the music performed by DJ Constant Shame. In any other in-person context, it would have been difficult to imagine such a large turnout from the Senior Center; however, it has also helped shed light on people that don’t have access to the Internet or don’t have social media, and we’ve had to pivot and come up with engagement methods that target those populations as well.
We’ve had to innovate to provide different experiences for users.
Whereas there have been numerous in-person engagement methods Asakura Robinson has used such as pop-ups (or kikis in the Montrose Livable Centers Study), there have had to be a number of different virtual engagement methods so we can avoid the dreaded Zoom fatigue.
Some of our most successful engagement processes have been the virtual summit, which brought together almost 70 economic development professionals for the Texas General Land Office’s Economic Development and Diversification Study; the My Home Is Here choose-your-own-adventure storyboards, which allowed participants to see the options real families had for affordable housing in Houston; and the self-guided tours for the TIRZ 13 Mobility Study, which allowed “tour takers” to experience mobility and accessibility of the Old Sixth Ward Area from their computer screens.
Transparency has improved as a result of a more virtual environment.
Finally, just by nature of moving everything online, planners and stakeholders have been able to take note of almost every comment and question in forums or on virtual maps. Many times, meetings are publicly available online and so anyone is able to rewatch meetings at their own convenience. This era of newly minted transparency helps us become better planners because all this feedback, all this data is transcribed, retained, and/or archived.
Prior to the global pandemic, in-person open houses, community workshops, and focus groups dominated our civic life as the primary form of traditional engagement methods employed through projects, from initial project kick-off meetings to final presentations in the halls of city councils for plan adoption. While quickly changing COVID-19 public health and safety guidelines and regulations virtually eliminated opportunities for large, in-person gatherings, traditional engagement methods evolved and are adapting, finding new life online.
It may seem ironic that restrictions on in-person meetings have brought more people together in online spaces, but the flexibility and format of online platforms provides additional opportunities for engagement that traditional engagement methods simply cannot counter. When we examine traditional engagement methods primarily pursued through in-person events, readily identifiable barriers to participation emerge, such as limited time to attend meetings or lack of transportation to an event location.
Online engagement presents additional opportunities to bring events to people where they are and whenever they are available according to their own schedules in the form of pre-recorded presentations or interactive mapping and survey portals. Valuable meeting time strained by the added duties many at-home households may now be juggling can now be used to prioritize discussion between presenters, project staff, and participants in such a way that either was underutilized or untapped before stay at home regulations changed our public life.
Although online engagement may transcend some barriers to participation related to transportation and time constraints, virtual platforms must also be accessible to the broader cross section of participants attending these engagement events and activities. The ability to use real-time closed captioning for presentations and meetings hosted through platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams means that attendees may interact with presented information in a variety of ways.
While American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation is becoming a more standard practice at government press events and online meetings, closed captioning is another tool that is not just for people who may be deaf or hard of hearing: folks with auditory processing disorders or who are not fluent in ASL also benefit from accessing spoken and auditory information in another format that is rarely provided at in-person meetings, if ever.
Real-time translation is another practice Asakura Robinson has been developing in conjunction with project partners through Zoom breakout rooms and restreaming providers, opening new channels for more fluid discussion between presenters, project staff, and participants across different languages. Read more about how we’ve been exploring with new platforms for real-time translation with Tecolotl below.
One important caveat to note is that lack of access to technology and internet service is a barrier for many populations. Moving forward into a future post-pandemic era, it is important to not let online engagement completely replace in-person events and vice versa; both are valuable tools to increase access to as many people as possible. Online engagement opportunities are showing us not all barriers may be solved through technology alone, but rather this form of engagement is just one piece in the puzzle.
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Asakura Robinson is working with Tecolotl, a collective of language workers and cultural organizers who work with communities to sustain, heal, and empower them toward better design and planning.
Tecolotl’s work has been especially important as we partner on the Precinct 2 Parks and Trails Plan, working within a community that identifies as 48% Spanish-speaking. Their work is centered on equity and inclusion, and they have been a thought-partner in our efforts to uplift community voices.
Beyond providing Spanish and English materials for engagement and hosting events in both languages, Tecolotl has been essential in our work to be intentional about whose stories are told and uplifted, a task that can only be accomplished with a partner embedded in the communities within which we work. They worked with local organizations to get input from Spanish speakers and Latinx communities, including people who are part of immigrant communities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ communities, and day laborers. The feedback and input we have received has been richer and more inclusive of the communities of Precinct 2, and as a result, the recommendations in the Precinct 2 Parks and Trails Plan will be a better reflection of community needs and desires.