Community Engagement

Submitted by Livable Memphis

Community engagement is, at its simplest, making sure that people who are directly affected by a decision, at a minimum, have an opportunity for input and, ideally, actual influence. Often those decisions are being made by a unit of government, but nonprofit organizations and private businesses also use community engagement to get feedback and direction on their plans and initiatives.

It is important to note that ‘community’ can be defined a number of different ways, and does not necessarily refer to geography. Community could also be individuals who speak Spanish or people with disabilities, for instance.

There are many different ways engagement can happen. Some common tools include public or community meetings, surveys, focus groups, and interviews. Some engagement is done in association with a particular initiative, and in other cases it is ongoing or embedded into regular operations. All of these strategies are regularly used in the local community and region. Some examples:

  • As part of their redevelopment of Overton Square, Loeb Properties held a number of community meetings to get feedback from neighborhood residents.

  • The Shelby County Office of Sustainability has conducted a number of online surveys in recent years (among other engagement strategies) to get input from the region on the Mid-South Regional Greenprint Plan and other initiatives.

  • At Frayser CDC, everyone on the board of directors has a direct tie to the neighborhood, either as a resident, business owner, or nonprofit director, ensuring that the CDC’s work is consistent with the needs and desires of the community.

Recent years have seen some innovations in community engagement, such as the Livable Memphis Mobile Porch, a front porch on wheels that goes into communities where people provide input on a variety of initiatives using both high- and low-tech tools.

Proponents of effective and robust community engagement believe strongly that:

  • Citizens should have an equal voice with other stakeholders in decisions that affect the community.

  • Citizens should have equal access to data and knowledge to support their positions and influence decision making. While historically this has not been the case, online information and tools such as WHEREweLIVEmidsouth|WHEREtoGIVEmidsouth have leveled the playing field somewhat.

  • Plans and projects should support or align with the needs and desires expressed by community members.

Engagement is also important because, quite simply, it can significantly increase the success of a project or initiative. For example, an affordable housing developer who has listened to the community’s desires regarding location, size, scope, etc. – and used that input in the project planning – might be rewarded with support from community members when the project pursues government approvals or incentives. Other benefits to community engagement include more knowledgeable community members, stronger local networks, and increased trust.

At the same time, a number of barriers to engagement exist. Often community members do not find out about engagement opportunities or something about that opportunity makes it inconvenient to participate. Or, very often, community members have more pressing concerns. Someone worried about crime in their neighborhoods might not be inclined to provide input on the location of bike lanes, for example, even if the neighborhood is lacking in good transportation options.

While it is particularly incumbent on government to ensure that decision making is as transparent as possible and the public has plentiful opportunities to provide input, citizens also have a responsibility to take advantage of those whenever possible.

Locally, there a number of ways that the public can participate in planning and decision making.

  • Attend a town hall meeting held by one of your elected officials. The Memphis City Council has an email mailing list, as does The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and most other state and federal representatives.

  • The Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has an email list through which they publicize a wide variety of public meetings, surveys, etc. about transportation in the region.

  • Livable Memphis publicizes many community meetings through its web site and email newsletter, and also holds a monthly Pizza with Planners meeting at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on an issue related to planning and development in the community.