A Guide to Engaging the Community in Your Project

The success of your project depends largely on how well you are able to engage your community. Community/stakeholder input can help you shape your project vision, ensure you are responding to local needs, and help you to build support for your development ideas. Ideally, your community should be involved from a very early stage; this will help you to form lasting relationships with community members, and ensure your development will be an addition to the neighbourhood that everyone can be proud of.

With all stakeholders, your objectives are to build credibility and trust, develop supporters and champions for your project, and make sure that the needs and wishes of your stakeholders are taken into account in decision-making. Community engagement is part of a larger stakeholder engagement strategy that begins at the outset of a project and continues well after the bricks and mortar are in place. Artscape’s approach to community consultations is to ensure that the process is ongoing and cyclical.

Conducting a community consultation process will allow you to form relationships with community stakeholders and to leverage existing community assets and resources for your project. At the same time, it allows you to identify potential threats, such as individuals or organizations that may have concerns about your project or other external issues that may hinder the success of your project. It is particularly important to engage local community stakeholders in the vision development process to ensure that your project’s vision is understood, shared and supported in the community. Community involvement in the building design process is also important, especially if the project will have a significant physical impact in the community, either in its size or architectural form, or in increased traffic, noise, etc.

A comprehensive consultation process allows community members with ideas and concerns to be heard, and even if community members don’t ultimately agree with the decisions that are made, they have the benefit of understanding the process of getting there, and the tradeoffs that were weighed. Adequate consultation with the community, through a charrette or cultural asset mapping, can also help ensure that your municipal approval process goes smoothly and that you establish relationships that can take you through any bumps during the operations of your project.

Many savvy communities will already be familiar with the municipal processes of engagement, as well as how to make any grievances known to local planners and politicians, so your project will be able to get beyond the mandated municipal consultation and sow goodwill in the neighbourhood.

Community engagement and consultation will take place throughout your pre-project development and design and development phases. It may form parts of the contextual research and cultural asset mapping research phase, a feasibility study, architectural design studies and other phases of project development.

Ensuring Your Project Responds to Local Needs
From the earliest stages of pre-project development, you will need to ensure that the project vision responds to the particular identity, assets, resources and needs of the community it serves. Before defining a plan for consulting your neighbours, make sure that you understand the community – the local history, demographics, socio-economics, culture and languages, etc. This will help you overcome barriers to engaging the community, tailor your message to your audience and identify factors that have an impact on community needs and wishes.

Just as you need to understand the broad context of the community in which you plan to develop your project, you will absolutely need to dedicate time and resources to identifying the cultural assets and creative resources you can build upon.  At Artscape, we see cultural asset mapping as an effective tool in the early stages of any development.

Click here to learn more about how Cultural Asset Mapping can help identify the cultural assets and creative resources you can build on in the early stages of any development.


Understanding the Community Context
There are a number of questions that you can ask to help determine the characteristics of your community and work out where your interests intersect with the needs of the local community:

  • What are the socio-economic and demographic characteristics of the area?
  • What are the social, economic and environmental challenges or priorities in this neighbourhood?
  • What is happening in terms of neighbourhood improvement and real estate development?
  • What is the backbone of community economic development?
  • What employment growth strategies are promoted in the community?

At Artscape, we dedicate both time and resources to this critical early stage of research. You will likely find that your local municipality can provide you with economic, social and demographic data and analysis. You may also find it helpful to talk to local business organizations (for example, the local business improvement association or BIA), any major local social planning charities, your local school board, school and post-secondary institution, as well as municipal staff responsible for  community development, local economic development and culture. You will also need to understand your local planning and real estate development situation.

To find out more about this, read What Should I Consider When Selecting a Site? and How Can I Use Planning Tools and Incentives?

Defining Your Community Consultation Plan
When your contextual research and cultural asset mapping is complete, you should have a good sense of the key local issues and of the cultural and broader context in which you will be working. You will also be able to compile an overview of the local groups to engage – local arts organizations, resident associations, local merchant associations, architectural conservancy groups, local politicians, social service agencies, grassroots organizations, community leaders – and develop an implementation plan and schedule for consultation and engagement activities.

The aims of a community consultation plan are to:

  • Engage community members in the development of a strong shared vision
  • Inform and educate the public about your project and its construction
  • Bring to life the mission/vision/values of your development
  • Engender a sense of community ownership, pride and stewardship of the project
  • Create excitement around opportunities for the community to use and participate in your project and ensure its success as a social anchor and outlet for local artistic and cultural expression
  • Create strong relationships between your organization, your tenants, the local community and local arts and cultural groups
  • Engage youth and children to become active participants in arts and cultural activity within their neighbourhood
  • Seek champions and an ever-expanding circle of friends/supporters for your project
  • Build and maintain momentum for the project

Your community consultation plan should outline a schedule of consultation events and communications, ideally coordinated with approval and construction milestones, and regular community events.

Each stage of a project may have its own group of unique players and may require different types of community consultation methods that can range from one-on-one interviews to small focus groups to larger public meetings. Your implementation plan should therefore also define the various methods of consultation with the community as a whole or with subgroups at each project stage or milestone.


Consultation Goals and Methods
Community consultation methods should be chosen based on desired goals, which can range from informing and educating to gathering input, seeking discussion and direction and encouraging ongoing involvement. It is important to understand each of the methods to determine which one is right for the information that you are trying to obtain and goal you are trying to achieve. For example, a newsletter to the community may be used to inform community members about the project, whereas a needs assessment survey or one-on-one interviews may help to identify some key issues and needs in the community.

Just as importantly, you will need to give careful thought to the best methods to engage the diversity of individuals and groups in the community with whom you will need to consult. For example, your approach to consulting with parents of young children will likely be different from your approach to consulting with youth in the community. Make sure that you use the evidence from your contextual research to inform your approach to community consultation. Ask yourself the following:

  • What languages are spoken in this community? How I can make sure that print and other forms of communication are accessible to as many community members as possible?
  • What physical barriers might prevent community members from participating in consultation opportunities and how can I best address these? This will include thinking about the needs of people with disabilities, the needs of seniors and access to public transit.
  • What is the best location for a meeting or event? Is it well known, accessible by public transit, physically accessible and in an area generally regarded as “safe”?
  • What is the best time of day for a meeting or event? You should always consider the difficulties that local community members with jobs outside the area will have in attending daytime events. You should also consider the needs of caregivers and parents, seniors, those reliant on limited public transit and others for whom daytime meetings or events might be more accessible.
  • What is the tone of my meeting, event or other form of communication? Is it friendly, welcoming and informative or full of jargon and difficult to understand?
  • What other established organizations in the community can help encourage people to attend and/or “host” a meeting or event?

Informing and Educating
Examples of informing and educating might be:

  • Sharing the vision, values and goals that inform your project’s design and future operations
  • Keeping the community up to date on the process and progress of the project’s development
  • Providing information about opportunities for further consultation and participation.

Many of the methods for informing and educating are able to reach many people at once, providing a good way to kick-off a community process, and to keep neighbourhoods updated on a periodic basis. Some methods include:

  • Newsletters/Flyers
    These can be dropped off on postal walks to all households and businesses in a neighbourhood. A good way to widely advertise a schedule of consultation events or timeline for construction.
  • Information Sessions/Town Hall Meetings
    At these meetings the project team makes an informative presentation, with an opportunity to answer questions from the audience. As with all community consultations, those who come to meetings are usually the people who are most interested and impacted. If a project is controversial or contentious, this format can provide an opportunity for opponents to dominate the discussion.
  • Information Open Houses
    These sessions are typically held over the course of an afternoon and evening, and are a drop-in format, with information boards and staff on hand to answer questions. This format can be useful in diffusing anger, mistrust or opposition, by providing a very tangible way for people with concerns to be heard, and to have a true one-on-one conversation about the project. It is important for all staff to be well-versed and consistent in the messages provided to the community, so that there is no inconsistency or confusion created. It is also recommended to provide opportunities for feedback, so that people can think about what they learned and provide considered comments by email, mail, etc.
  • E-Bulletins/Social Media Updates
    These depend on gathering a list of email addresses and subscribers, and is a good way to provide ongoing information to those who have already attended consultation sessions.
  • Hoarding and Signage
    Once your project is under construction, it will require some kind of protective hoarding, which provides an opportunity to include images, information, website addresses, etc.  Hoarding at ground level can become an opportunity for art by local artists or neighbourhood kids, which can tie into your community event program.
  • Community Events
    Consider participating in already-organized community events such as sidewalk sales and festivals. Have an information table and perhaps some project-related activities for young people in the community. Flyers, postcards, info sheets, renderings, etc., are good props to have on hand for neighbourhood events. You can also create your own community event, perhaps an open house and tour of your project site pre-renovation.

Gathering Input and Understanding Local Needs and Issues
Gathering local input may be useful to the project team to help understand community needs and issues, determine the best design and program of the building, or to get feedback on preliminary ideas. It is also a great way to test the market for a new business or operating model, or for new programming ideas. Some consultation methods to consider:

  • Interviews/Focus Groups/Roundtable Discussions
    These are face-to-face meetings, either one-on-one or in small groups (up to 12 people). They can focus on one main theme or question during the project planning, or they can be used early in a project to seek advice from community leaders and learn about any opportunities and threats to the project. It is often wise to mix people of different backgrounds and perspectives in these sessions, to enable different viewpoints to be heard. It also helps provide an appreciation among community stakeholders of the various trade-offs and balances that need to be taken into account when making project decisions.
  • Email/Web Surveys
    These can be accessed through your project website or sent to your mailing list. Surveys need to be carefully constructed so that you can easily compile and interpret the answers. Free online survey tools include Survey MonkeyZoomerang and ESurveysPro.
  • Request for Expressions of Interest
    The Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI) is a briefing document that may be used as a tool to stimulate and assess interest in a project and to solicit useful information from interested parties. Click here to find out more about this tool and how Artscape uses it in the pre-project development phase.

Seeking Discussion and Direction from the Community
You may wish to seek community direction on the vision for your project, specific design elements, programming goals, opportunities for public art or animation of public spaces, or other forms of participation. You may want to discuss with the community the use and time allocation of a community-accessible space. If you’ve chosen your tenants or building users, you may want to seek their advice and direction with respect to design and program requirements, which will ensure that they will be able to make best use of the space provided to them. Methods include:

  • “Visioning” Charrette
    A visioning charrette is a technique for consulting with some of the most interested community stakeholders early in a project. It typically involves full-day, intensive meetings, whereby municipal officials, developers, organizational leaders, community members and potential tenants are invited to gather and discuss issues, challenges and desires related to the project. A successful vision charrette achieves a shared vision and helps to defuse potential confrontational attitudes between different community stakeholders by providing a common understanding of issues, opportunities and challenges. This process is also extremely useful for identifying potential threats that could arise later in the project. A charrette can also help the project team understand the steps required to arrive at the shared vision.

Click here to learn more about how to host and plan a Visioning Charrette.

  • “Design” Charrette
    Similar to the visioning charrette described above, a design charrette is used to solve a complex design problem, often at the neighbourhood scale with a focus on how the physical parameters of your project intersects with the rest of the local community. It requires thorough preparation of drawings and design limitations by the project team, and can last a full day, or even two days, depending on the level of complexity and detail you are seeking from the group.
  • Roundtable Discussions
    As noted above, these are ideal for groups of 12 or less, with a mix of perspectives and viewpoints. At this stage of consultation with the community, it is best to limit the topic to one main question or theme. Often you will want to invite those who have been most involved, as well as those who may have outstanding concerns on the particular topic you are seeking to address.
  • Small Group Workshops
    These are ideal for groups of 20 to 30 people. Small workshops are similar to but less intensive than a charrette, and can be useful for larger groups or if there is more than one related topic to cover.  It begins with a presentation and question/answer period, and the participants are then divided into smaller groups to discuss specific questions. The groups can all have the same question(s), or each group can be asked to discuss a different question. A facilitator for each group keeps the discussion moving and on track. Each group records their main points and then reports back to the larger group near the end of the session. The reports are typically recorded on a flip-chart and then distilled later by the project team. As above, your aim is to invite those with the most to contribute, and those with ongoing concerns.

The following websites provide useful information and resources on hosting a charrette:

Canadian Mortgage and Housing Council
Sustainable Community Planning and Development: Design Charrette Planning Guide

National Charrette Institute

Community Stewardship
At Artscape, community engagement continues throughout the design and development phase and into the operational life of the building. Community stewardship through involvement in project governance involves a real sense of ownership and decision-making in the project.  Opportunities can include membership of a community steering community during a project’s pre-project development and design and development phases; the inclusion of community members on your organization’s board of directors and involvement in programming and operations through membership of a community association, community programming or other committee.


Recording Consultation Results and Closing the Feedback Loop
In general, it is wise to keep a detailed record of the consultation activities you’ve undertaken as a template for future work and as a demonstration of the work you’ve done with the community prior to and during the development of your project. You should keep a written record of the meetings you’ve held and the groups you’ve consulted, as well as an archive of meeting notes and drawings, emails and comments from attendees at your sessions or on your website, etc.

Your organization may even seek recognition and awards for an exemplary consultation process from groups such as the Ontario Professional Planners Association.

Once you have completed a consultation activity, compile the comments and feedback into a format you can use for decision-making. You can begin by transcribing any meeting notes, and then organizing the responses into themes or categories. This will allow you to see areas of agreement or of contradiction among the community groups you’ve consulted. Where there is consensus that fits with your project’s vision and mandate, the path is clear. Where there is disagreement, you will need to work with your project team and other stakeholders to come to a decision. It’s a good idea to let your community stakeholders know about your decision and the reasons for the direction you have chosen. As noted in the beginning of this section, this allows your community stakeholders to feel heard and to follow the process. If they don’t agree with the outcome they will at least understand the reasons for your decisions.

Depending on the level of involvement of your community group, you may wish to report back the main findings to ensure that you have heard and interpreted them correctly. This can be done via a short bullet list of main points and sent via email or posted on a website. You may also wish to include the main points in the next newsletter to the community group. Hosting an open house or town hall event can be one of the best ways to present final outcomes and plans to the community, particularly after a lengthy or substantial consultation process.