12 Ways to Make Community Engagement Actually Worthwhile

2013-08-13 11.50.08

community engagement

participatory design


community-led design

human-centered design

At the root of these methods is end users being central to the design process–and being involved from as early as possible.

The myriad tools and tactics to achieve this design practice are extensive:

  • workshops
  • surveys
  • interviews
  • focus groups
  • observational studies
  • analogous situation research
  • expert interviews
  • and many more

With so much at your disposal, how do you choose the best ones? How do you know which will result in effective and meaningful results? How do you if those activities will lead to a fulfilling outcome?

Well, the honest truth is:

There is Not One Fit-All Approach

I distinctly remember my first attempt at participatory design, albeit a miserable one.

As part of an ad-hoc group of architects and designers enrolled in the course, Architecture as Activism, we engaged in a renovation and expansion for the health services program at Glide Memorial Church. Glide is a San Francisco institution that provides health services, housing, meals, and more for homeless and disadvantaged people, and we were elated to be working with them.


After dutifully following in the typical first step of documenting the existing conditions, one team member suggested conducting a survey with the staff, which we all eagerly agreed to do.

This was the first time I was introduced to a survey. In the four years of work experience, I had never given a client or building occupants a survey to learn about their experience.

Adapting an existing survey, we sent it to the facilities manager to distribute to the staff.

We waited.

Time ticked away.


We followed up, didn’t hear anything, and eventually, as time went on, the project fizzled away.

Four years since that first survey was sent out, I’ve been working to improve and expand upon the methods for participatory design. There are so many other methods we could have implemented–interviewing staff members and patients face-to-face; conducting observational studies; hosting workshops; and even altering the format of our survey.

However, the choice in tools needs to respond to project intentions about setting expectations and respecting volunteers’ time.

12 Top Tips to Make the Most of Community Engagement

Recently I sat down with four London-based designers–Kate Swade of Shared Assets, Eleanor Shipman of something good something useful, Pauline Roberts of Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, and Catherine Greig of make:good–who are exceptional community engagement practitioners.

Each one shared an immense amount of thoughtful insights on the methods and mindsets that I wish I possessed four years ago when conducting the first user survey.

I hope these 12 tips help you implement more meaningful engagement and participation and improve your design process.


1. “People will see through the ‘tick-boxes’ for community engagement if the purpose is not communicated clearly.”

Understand why you are doing the engagement, communicate that why to the people who are participating, and further communicate what is going to happen with the information they provide. The people who are being asked to engage need to clearly understand what they have control over and what they don’t.

2. Design the engagement methods to be user-focused.

When developing any community engagement tool or tactic, ask yourself:

Would I use this tool? Would I give up my Saturday to do this?

Put yourself in the shoes of a resident, business owner, or passer-through. What would make you want to voice your opinion?

3. Ask what they love about a place first.

This will reveal the prized “assets” of a place rather than initially going down a road of negativity.


4. Incorporate a variety of methods to capture insights for different ages, abilities, and comfort levels.

Use paper and digital surveys. Conduct one-on-one and group meetings. Allow people to use audio, video, drawing, or writing to record ideas. As much as time and budget allow, the variety of options will lend itself to more people getting involved.

5. Utilize in-person activities to gain traction.

All four designers interviewed stressed the importance of having in-person contact with community members to build trust and accountability. As Pauline said,

There cannot be any substitute for face-to-face dialogue.

6. Understand the political agenda behind projects.

Elected representatives and local leaders will voice their opinion or become involved in projects at different stages, whether it be in opposition, support, or neutrality.

It is important to understand the politics of an area from the outset, particularly as this could inform the consultation strategy.


7. Make it a joyful experience.

Utilising creativity is so important. If it’s something fun to do, accessible, and familiar, then people will want to engage.

8. Use familiar activities and spaces to initiate dialogue.

One of Eleanor’s tried and true methods to successfully collect input is setting up market stalls.

People recognise the aesthetic language of the stall and understand it as a place to trade something.

In the case of engagement, it’s not something that is bought or sold but rather a trade of information and opinions.

Similarly, Catherine often works in socially-isolated areas and uses arts-based activities at the beginning to “make it okay to be in a room.” People are hesitant to participate when there is not a lot of activity going on so m:g focuses on creating ‘safe’ activities to get them initially engaged.

The craft gets them into the room. The conversation is what’s important.

9. Create regularity and routine with engagement activities.

The market stalls are set up regularly at a place where people can easily visit, often as part of a marketplace itself to create even more visibility. This gives people a chance to stop by when it’s convenient for them, as well as helping to reach more isolated local people who might have a chat as they pop to the market for some veg but may not attend a more formal workshop or consultation.


10. Talk with people who live, work, and play in a place.

At the beginning of every project, spend time talking with people who live, work, and play in an area to get an understanding of existing groups, networks, and services. This ‘map’ will help provide an understanding of the relationships and dynamics of a place and find a ‘point of influence,’ as Catherine puts it, which is the question that people have power to influence.

11. Stay aware of the divide.

This is true for any form of engagement: there is always the risk of doing more harm than good. When selecting methods, know that people who are interested will participate and people who are not probably won’t.

12. Be conscious of your influence and involvement in the long run.

When deciding on projects to work on, Catherine and her team consider the future of what their work could lead to.

Do you want it to be a tool that has been used to legitimize bad development?

Thank you to the following practitioners for sharing your wisdom:

1-3. Kate Swade is Development Manager at Shared Assets, a consultancy that supports community management of woodlands, waterways, green spaces, and coastal areas. Working with community members who have a shared project idea, Shared Assets offers resources, guidance, and advocacy support. Kate has over eight years experience working with communities to develop regeneration and community-owned projects, where engagement is imperative.

4-6. Pauline Roberts is a planning and development surveyor and chartered town planner with Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners (NLP), a large planning, design, and economics firm. With experience on large-scale mixed-use town centre, education, and health-care schemes, Pauline brings an understanding of how to balance engagement to benefit both the developers and community members.

7-9. Eleanor Shipman founded something good, something useful (sgsu) to connect those initiating regeneration projects with those affected by them. As a socially-engaged artist, Eleanor employs a variety of creative, arts-based approaches to collect public responses to projects and, in turn, presents the results to clients in ‘ready-to-share’ packages, including e-books, short films, and exhibitions.

8, 10-12. Catherine Greig is an architect and founder of make:good (m:g), a small but mighty design studio that engages with communities to create positive change in their neighbourhood. m:g works with schools, local authorities, developers, community groups, and housing associations to make physical and service changes to improve neighborhoods based on the input and involvement of community members. The majority of their projects occur in deprived and socially-isolated areas, which heavily depend on face-to-face contact to ensure trust and accountability.

Image sources: SF Environmentsomething good, something usefulmake:good

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