Lessons from Land Development Public Engagement in the Pandemic

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that business needs to keep moving – even in a pandemic.  In the land development industry, it forced a change in the way developers engage with communities.

Effective community consultation goes a long way in building support for a project among local residents, stakeholders and political representatives. Engagement done right and early-on can help avoid drawn out and possibly contentious development processes.

Despite the pandemic, development projects in the GTA continued to push forward, and when in-person consultations became impossible, it required re-thinking how engagement is conducted, to adapt to these changing circumstances.

The pandemic has been difficult, but it has demonstrated that there are ways in which digital tools can better engage stakeholders and remove barriers to participation to ensure meaningful feedback for development projects.

Here are some of the things we think can put developments ahead in 2021 and beyond:

  1. Communicate creatively, empathetically, and most importantly, clearly. It has always been important to establish clarity around the development process. Every project ends up engaging stakeholders who are going through the process for the first time, and don’t understand how the full process works. Being able to clearly communicate what the application process looks like helps ensure stakeholders understand critical issues – like the fact that a rezoning application is a first step in a lengthy process. Without being able to sit down in-person, this process of stakeholder education must be a greater area of conscious focus.
  2. Embrace virtual engagement platforms. The pandemic removed many barriers to participation, like the need to physically commute to a venue or arrange for childcare. Stakeholders are now able to join the conversation from the comfort of their own living room, and we found that the level of engagement for a virtual town-hall was largely the same, if not better, than what we saw for our clients’ in-person town halls. This has been very successful – even across every age group in a community.
  3. Conduct research. It’s remarkably easy and cost effective to do public opinion research about the community you’re developing in. You can get important information about their views about a project that can help you better structure your project communications and engagement process.
  4. Bring the engagement process to people. Engagement platforms are not a one-size-fits-all tool, and it is important to think carefully about the platform that will allow people where you’re developing to best engage with your development team. Stronger participation means more balanced opinions are heard, ultimately resulting in more impactful results for shaping decision-maker thinking.
  5. Get specific. Digital engagement is also an important tool for deploying targeted engagement tactics directly to your most important demographic segments. Having the know-how to use these tools effectively will ensure your target audiences receive your message.

Online engagement makes information more accessible, and a more accessible process is naturally more inclusive and considers the voices of those who are often silenced through traditional means of engagement.

Going forward, we expect that a blended approach of both in-person and virtual engagement will be most effective, allowing participants the experiential benefit of speaking and engaging with a development’s project team, while having the option to virtually participate from home.