Community Planning Projects and the Importance of Stakeholder Engagement

By David Jaber

When working for more resilient communities or responsible businesses, one pattern that emerges is that they are more process oriented than results-oriented.   This comes across perhaps most clearly in larger-scale planning projects, where a vital piece of the work revolves around stakeholder engagement.

As an illustration, a proposed residential/entertainment/hotel complex in coastal California became quite controversial as the diverse perspectives of a wide array of groups became clear. Chambers of commerce and labor groups wanted the jobs, badly-needed in the economically-depressed area.  Citizen and environmental groups were concerned about the air pollution from increased traffic and ecosystem impacts of coastal development.  The state’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission needed to know that the project met their standards.  The Greenbelt Alliance, an open-space preservation group, needed to know that the project met their standards.  A casino was part of the complex, raising ethical concerns around gambling.  Yet, the social justice imperative for the project remained.  Gaming has been one of the relatively few robust economic development avenues available to Native American tribes, and it was a tribe leading the development effort — seeking to improve the community health that had been decimated by federal policies over the decades — to lift its people out of poverty.

Clearly, it’s a challenge to manage the expectations and concerns around a project of this nature. And any number of architects and planners could share similar stories (and, actually, you’re free to share those below).

In stakeholder engagement, we strive to make sure that affected communities have a voice, that they feel heard and that their considerations are incorporated into development decisions. It’s not easy. And it raises additional challenges – a small minority can be disproportionately vocal and skew our sense of what a community wants, what people articulate as their concerns may not be the real reason behind what they want or don’t want, and some key stakeholders may not be comfortable expressing themselves in certain formats.  One tactic to get around these challenges is to give people multiple opportunities to provide input, and do so with a variety of formats (public meeting, online surveys, etc.) You can think of this multiplicity tactic as another sustainability principle — resiliency, or perhaps more accurately, redundancy.  This at least provides a planning team with more information, allows patterns to emerge, and allows the team to see how consistent feedback is in any one direction.

As another example, HUD’s Office of Sustainable Communities catalyzes and supports regional planning efforts across the U.S. In just two years, they have several dozen communities in their network.  As part of this planning network, Oyate Omniciye (“people [in] talking circles”) represents the effort of the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  In the work, we’ve found that providing multiple fora for people to have a voice, and going to where the people are (community festivals, etc) versus staying limited to official planning hearings, is critical activity.  Other key activities:
– coordinate, keeping all local agencies on the same page and integrating their ongoing efforts into the plan
– make it clear the community owns the planning effort
– create a new brand for the effort, separate from any one agency or community non-profit
– adapt the original workplan to the realities of community process.  When we found that we didn’t have as much baseline data as originally envisioned, it was important to not force the planning effort forward.

In stakeholder engagement,  listening, leveraging, and coordinating, we see a solid path forward to a more resilient community.  And so much of the path lies in honoring process.

David Jaber is a Principal at inNative.  He can be reached at and found online at

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