Public Engagement


Public Engagement

In brief

One of the most important principles of smart growth is broad and sustained community involvement. Ensuring effective public engagement is necessary to gain public confidence and establish credibility for the planning and implementation process. Successful and sustained engagement over a long process can be challenging as communities compete with the many demands on their citizen’s time. Creativity, transparency and clear two-way communication is needed to provide diverse opportunities for involvement and feedback and prompt response to ideas and concerns presented by the public. Greater understanding of the goals, polices and strategies that a community is trying to achieve can help alleviate fears and create a community dialogue that can build understanding of divergent points of view. Success of any project is much more likely if a wide range of community members have a direct and active role in the process.

The issue

Are you concerned that local residents do not come to public meetings? Are residents complaining that their views are not being heard? Public participation has long been part of the tradition of planning, but effective public engagement does not happen automatically.  Communities must develop creative ways to engage citizens in land use planning issues.

Active public engagement is important for many reasons.  First, it gives residents the opportunity to learn about the perspectives of others and develop an appreciation of the common ground between their values and those of others. Towns are made of different types of people, with different backgrounds, needs, and expectations. Some people have just moved to town, while others have roots in the community spanning several generations. Well-designed public participation strategies encourage an open exchange of information and ideas that can help put people at ease. In this way, public participation can bring a community together to establish a shared vision and path to ensure that vision becomes a reality.

Second, public participation can help governments be more accountable and responsive and ensure that decision-making becomes transparent. It can help establish (or re-establish) public confidence and trust in local government.  This is absolutely essential if a community is to take on the difficult and contentious issues that are at the heart of land use, from protecting working lands to concentrating new development in and around existing built-up areas to ensuring that everyone has a decent home.

Finally, the collaborative problem-solving that characterizes a well-designed public process can lead to innovative solutions that might not have emerged otherwise.  As participants come together to understand the opportunities, costs, roadblocks and options involved in a proposed project or policy, they may come up with creative ideas that can be incorporated into the plan, policy or by-laws.

While an effective public engagement strategy is well worth the effort, poorly designed and executed public engagement can waste staff and volunteer time and financial resources and increase public frustration and distrust. Thus, it is critical to take the time up front to carefully design your public engagement process and consider asking the following questions:

  • What do you want to achieve by involving the public?
  • How do you hear from different perspectives, rather than from a vocal minority?
  • How the information you receive will be incorporated into your planning process?
  • How will you communicate the process to the public?
  • What tool will most effectively engage the community?

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s Public Engagement Principles Project has identified seven key principles of effective public engagement:

  1. Planning and Preparation – Plan, design, and convene the engagement specifically to serve both the purpose of the effort and the needs of participants.
  2. Inclusion and Diversity – Incorporate diverse voices, ideas, and information to lay the groundwork for quality outcomes and democratic legitimacy.
  3. Collaboration and Shared Purpose – Support organizers, participants, and those engaged in follow-up to work well together for the common good.
  4. Listening and Learning – Help participants listen, explore and learn without predetermined outcomes — and evaluate public engagement efforts for lessons.
  5. Transparency and Trust – Promote openness and provide a public record of the people, resources, forums, and outcomes involved.
  6. Impact and Action – Ensure each participatory effort has real potential to make a difference.
  7. Sustained Participation and Democratic Culture – Promote a culture of participation with programs and institutions that support ongoing quality public engagement.

There are many different tools for public engagement, and not all are appropriate for every situation.  If all you need to do is raise awareness or educate the community about a particular issue, a promotional flyer, newsletter, or open house might be appropriate. Perhaps you want community interaction and collaborative partnership, in which case a survey, workshop, focus group or citizen commission might be better suited to your needs.

The key is to understand your community and design a process to involve a diverse cross section of the population, old and young, fifth generation landowners and recent immigrants, business people and stay-at-home parents. Be creative — hold a pot luck to kick off the project, get folks to take photographs of what they like and dislike about the community, have participants identify their “sacred spaces” on a map, or hold a pancake breakfast to discuss what people want the community to look like in twenty years.


Below is a list of some tools that can be utilized to promote public engagement. 

Design CharretteA series of workshops that take place over a defined period of time during which community members collaborate with professional designers to create a conceptual plan for a particular project.

Community Visioning:  An event to which all community members are invited and encouraged to describe their own visions for the future of the community.

Alternative Dispute Resolution:  A set of techniques for helping participants in a contentious process identify and move past their differences, focusing instead on areas of common ground.

Community Design Workshop:  An event with site plans, models, and maps whose goal is to help the public understand and engage in the design of local buildings, parks, or other community spaces.

Visual Preference Survey:  An assessment of public preferences that presents a range of design elements and densities and asks participants to rank them.

Publicity Techniques:  Effective use of posters, flyers, and media outlets such as newspapers to capture the public’s attention, generate new ideas, and build support.

Effective Meeting Facilitation:  Strategies and tips for facilitating meetings in a way that maximizes effective public engagement.

Citizen Advisory Groups:  Small groups of stakeholders that are charged with researching a particular issue and advising local officials on how best to address that issue.

Focus Groups:  A facilitated small group meeting where community members are invited to express their personal insights about an issue of planning concern.

Survey:  A written series of questions that is typically distributed to all residents and/or property owners in a given area to establish broad parameters of public opinion about planning issues of concern.

Educational Briefing:  A meeting to introduce a planning topic, motivate the public to get involved, and assess the next steps.

Related Tools


Public Engagement Principles Project
A collaborative effort by leading public engagement advocates and organizations to define a shared set of principles for what constitutes effective public engagement.

Browse or Search the Toolbox