Social Equity in Engagement

October 7, 2020

When it comes to starting a new project, engaging with the community that you’re developing in is critical. Neighborhoods create a sense of community, a sense of place, and a home for the residents of the area, and it’s important to get feedback to make sure that your development adds to the community, rather than detracts from it.

The long-standing myth is that the only way to get feedback from the community is to run an old-fashioned public meeting. Ten years ago, that may have been true, but in today’s environment, that’s simply not the case. Not only is the public meeting an unattractive option to many residents, it carries the stigma that concerns are heard but nothing is done about them. Additionally, restricting comments to an in-person meeting can silence the voices of community members who don’t have the time or cannot otherwise make it to the meeting.

Social equity is defined as “The fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract, and the fair and equitable distribution of public services, and implementation of public policy, and the commitment to promote fairness, justice, and equity in the formation of public policy”.

Despite the fact that developers don’t create or enforce public policy, it’s incredibly important to embrace the idea of social equity as you plan a development in an existing community. Social equity in development means hearing the concerns of every community member, regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, and disability, and taking them into account. By giving an equal voice to every type of person in the community, you have a much greater chance of getting good community buy-in for your project.

Why is community engagement important? According to a 2008 study published by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania (CRP), there are multiple upsides, ranging from an increase in the likelihood that your project will have wider acceptance from the community, to increasing trust and establishing legitimacy in the community as a developer that cares about the needs of existing residents. The study also notes that working with the community to get their feedback can create effective solutions, and empower and integrate people from different backgrounds.

One of the major fears that existing residents face as a developer moves into an area is the negative effects of gentrification. While gentrification does have positive effects, like raising overall property values and enticing higher-income residents to move in, there are a number of negative effects that residents are afraid of.

Take, for example, the housing market in east Austin, Texas. Named as the 4th-fastest gentrifying neighborhood in the country, home prices shot up 148% from 2012 to 2017, with a median listing price of $424,000. As housing prices increased, East Austin residents began to feel the effects of gentrification, with many residents being priced out of the neighborhoods that they had lived in for generations.

What does development with heavy community involvement look like? In 1999, the City of Austin changed airports from the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. This move left over 700 acres of land in east Austin, a historically lower-income side of the city.

After hundreds of hours of community meetings and feedback sessions, the Mueller Master Development Agreement was created in 2004. This plan, authored by the City of Austin and Catellus Development Group, included space for residential neighborhoods, retail spaces, and offices. The plan also included community-driven mandates for affordable housing, sustainable buildings, and a walkable and bikeable community that people of all backgrounds could use and enjoy.

In the years since the development was completed, the community has received numerous awards, including awards for sustainability and affordable housing. Additionally, the development has been praised by both city and community leaders for its effort to preserve the deep cultural heritage of East Austin and it ensured that residents of the community were happy.

This is just one example of how community engagement is beneficial to developing communities. Across the country, more developers and planners are taking initiatives to make sure the voices of neighborhood residents are heard and taken into consideration.

Are you ready to take the next step into community engagement? We’ve created a checklist of community engagement methods you can pull from so that you can ensure that your next development involves the whole community, and leads to a successful project!