Find Common Ground to Build Community Buy-In for Project Success

Make sure community buy-in is high up on the to-do list for planning the next project. It’s hard work that requires diligent planning, research and analysis, but the return on investment is unquestionable.
By Celeste Frye
November 9, 2021

There’s often a long to-do list that construction executives need to accomplish before breaking ground, from gathering the right permits to hiring the right crew.

An equally important box to check is building community buy-in. Any industry veteran will tell you: It’s far easier and more cost effective to fully understand and build consensus with a community before the work begins, rather than attempting to do so after the cranes and backhoes arrive on site. Indeed, working to foster buy-in early is an excellent way to understand and address some of the biggest challenges developers face when engaging with a new community.

First, let’s look at those big challenges.

Often, a community feels that a project fails to address their needs, like more affordable housing or more green space. A community may also feel that a project doesn’t reflect the historical or social context around it, like a modern high-rise in an enclave of Victorian homes, or a luxury apartment building in a working-class neighborhood. And of course, there is often anxiety about what a project might bring with it—higher rents, traffic jams, clogged parking lots, noise or gentrification.

All this community opposition can manifest as more than resentment and strained planning board meetings. It can evolve into legal action against developers, work stoppages and other major obstacles. Consider the Two Bridges saga in New York City, where a Lower East Side community filed a lawsuit to stop the construction of four new skyscrapers.

Even if a community is apathetic about a project, failing to engage with them can still result in problems, like negative economic impact. If a project isn’t properly designed to address community needs, then that new apartment complex might sit empty, or that new retail space could remain vacant.

The benefits of garnering community buy-in are clear. But how do you do it effectively?

To begin, developers should be confident and clear about how their project will benefit the community. Draw on past projects that actively supported their communities as evidence of your expertise.

Transparency is also key. At planning board meetings, community forums and other events, address any and all questions in a straightforward and candid fashion. Issues that will most impact the community—like construction times, noise, street closures and proximity to schools—should be answered early and head-on. In fact, the entire community engagement process itself should be transparent: Communicate early and often about how, when and where neighbors can learn more and ask questions.

Building strong relationships is also essential to a successful community buy-in process. Get to know the agencies, organizations and other groups in the community that are knowledgeable and trusted. These stakeholders may be lawmakers, business owners, nonprofit leaders or even religious leaders. They can act as a conduit to the broader community, and also advocate on project stakeholders’ behalf. To succeed, create a “stakeholder map” at the outset—the key people with whom the team needs to meet and collaborate.

It’s also vital to build consensus in a realistic way. No project will please everyone. For example, some community members may support a new multi-use building, while others may want a community park to make up for a lack of local green space. It’s the team’s job to find the common ground. In the case of this example, that common ground may be an environmentally friendly building that incorporates pocket parks into its design.

When contractors begin their next project, they must make sure community buy-in is high up on the to-do list. True, it’s hard work that requires diligent planning, research and analysis. But the return on investment is unquestionable—it will go a long way in making your project a success for you and the community.

by Celeste Frye
Celeste Frye, AICP is co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners, LLC, a WBE/DBE/SBE certified planning and consulting firm specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the government, nonprofit and private sectors. For more information, visit

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