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Community engagement is an integral part—and often a mandated part—of any major construction project. It ensures the project moves ahead smoothly and ultimately advances the best interest of the builders and the community.

But simply committing to community engagement isn’t enough. Construction leaders need to carry it out in an equitable manner. That is, they need to ensure everyone has a seat at the table and an opportunity to weigh in on meaningful decisions. In fact, inequitable and disingenuous community engagement can do more harm than good. If a community feels their feedback is being ignored or that it is only asked for on superficial matters, construction leaders run the risk of alienating important allies and fueling opposition. In other words: Don’t just do outreach for the sake of doing outreach.

Alternatively, equitable community engagement can have vast positive impacts. Construction leaders will identify how to best use public assets, like parks and plazas. They’ll tap into locals’ deep expertise of the neighborhood. And they’ll address potential concerns and opposition about the project transparently and head on. When community engagement is truly equitable, the local community feels a sense of ownership about the project—and helps drive it forward to completion and success.

Below are two ways to make sure a community engagement strategy is truly equitable.

Be accessible

People share feedback in a variety of forums and ways. Having a single community engagement opportunity—say, one in-person meeting on a workday evening—means only a small portion of the community will be able to share input. Instead, use a broad mixture of methods for collecting feedback. Deploy online tools like social media and digital surveys to reach those who can’t attend an in-person meeting. And use in-person tools, like town hall meetings or place-based outreach, to reach those who may not have internet access. Hold events at different times to ensure people with school or work commitments can attend at least one of them. Also, make sure any venue used is accessible to those with disabilities. (City halls and libraries are always great options for this.)

Another consideration: A community engagement strategy shouldn’t be time constrained. Rather, the process should run parallel to the entire construction project—before, during and after building. It’s okay to schedule the most intensive feedback periods in a shorter time frame, but make it clear to the community that their feedback is always welcome, whether the contractor is first presenting the project to the planning board, or laying the very last brick.

Communicate often

Lack of outreach to vulnerable communities is a common mistake during the community engagement process. Members of the community have a lot to juggle, like work and families. For that reason, the construction team is responsible for making the community engagement process crystal clear; community members shouldn't have to hunt down and read fine print.

Keep the community regularly updated on timelines, milestones and any other relevant changes. Make sure to ask the community the best method to get in touch, and then use those methods. Some community members may prefer to see updates pinned on a local bulletin board, while others may request email or text reminders.

Further, communication should come from a variety of stakeholders, not just a single developer or architect. Identify and work with local community organizations to get the word out about key elements of the project. These organizations know their members and can help build trust between the developer and construction groups and the community.

When contractors begin planning community engagement for their next project, they must ensure it’s equitable. Done right, the effort will benefit the construction leaders just as much as it benefits the local community.

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