“The people are listening.” Creating a city’s inaugural comprehensive plan is a daunting task. Comprehensive planning requires the collaboration of a wide variety of community stakeholders, and affects every resident in a community. Seeking to craft a vision for a revitalized Struthers, local officials in the city’s planning department and their partner Samantha Yannucci (Director of Planning and Community Development of KO Consulting of Ombud) have been working hard to ensure that this plan is inclusive and representative of their entire community by going directly to their residents with a range of innovative methods.
Through their online community engagement platform Discover Struthers, the government has created an engaging and consistent process for community engagement that makes it easy to gather and analyze a variety of perspectives, including everyone from the young to the elderly.
Imagine walking into your barbershop and hearing your fellow patrons discussing your city’s new engagement platform. The Mayor of Struthers, Ohio, Catherine Cercone Miller experienced just that not long ago.
Addressing the challenges of public participation in developing a comprehensive plan
There are two main challenges that Struthers faces that have notoriously inhibited the success of public participation in local government policies and projects.
The first challenge was around educating the community. The Struthers team knew that this would be the first time that most residents would ever hear of a comprehensive plan and anticipated a significant educational hurdle upfront. Comprehensive plans are incredibly complex, and while incredibly relevant to every single resident in the community, it can be hard to be heard above the noise. Struthers capitalized on the novelty of this process by balancing being both informative and efficient in their project communication.
The second challenge was bringing in a more diverse set of voices and broadening feedback beyond the “same ten people” the City normally hears from. While these high-participators do provide a lot of value, Struthers wanted to ensure that residents from a variety of backgrounds and experiences were involved in such a crucial planning process. In particular they identified specific age demographics that don’t normally participate in City projects: youth and students and older members of the population.
For the under 18 population, it is difficult to portray the importance of (and frankly gather interest in) complex local government policies. Many kids and teens have had limited experience in or exposure to local government or community involvement outside of school. Older populations can also be harder to reach whether it be from a lack of mobility and/or technological savviness. Especially during the pandemic this population was hard to engage via the remote online modes of communications.
Enter Discover Struthers and the Struthers team.
“Equitable community engagement is not a passive process. Cities, planners, and engagement specialists need to be proactive and intentional in their efforts. That means finding populations that are often left out of the conversation, and meeting them where they are. Partnering with existing institutions and organizations can make more efficient use of limited resources in the process.”Samantha Yannucci, Director of Planning and Community Development of KO Consulting of Ombud
Community engagement methods used to encourage youth and senior participation in comprehensive plan
In order to connect with these hard-to-reach populations, the Struthers team got creative with their platform, leveraging a hybrid approach to engagement as the foundation to consolidate feedback. While they set out to create their first comprehensive plan to establish a framework for growth and development over the next ten years, they involved the community in as many ways as possible, both in policy and in specific projects. With a strong focus on youth and senior outreach, Discover Struthers has become the impetus for achieving their goal of a better and more inclusive comprehensive plan.
To target the youth population, the Struthers team went directly to the schools armed with a fully functional platform and a defined “Share Your Ideas” project. Junior and Senior students were introduced to the planning effort in hour-long workshops, led through an active ideation process, and were shown how to sign-up for the platform to submit their ideas directly on the project page.
“We had hour-long workshops with both classes. It was a lot of fun. Students shared their ideas with the class and they bounced ideas back and forth and fed off of each other with a lot of energy. Then they were shown how to put the ideas onto the platform. It was really cool to see how engaged they were.”Samantha Yannucci, Director of Planning and Community Development of KO Consulting of Ombud
As an added incentive, students that participated were entered into a raffle. Eventually this project yielded 249 total participants, 132 of which were in the 10-19 population, with ideas ranging from improved sports facilities to safer hang out spots for teenagers.
The conversation didn’t end there. As part of their take home collateral from the event, the Mayor printed flyers and included a QR code to the platform that students then distribute to and discuss with their family, thus expanding its reach. The Discover Struthers team received very positive feedback on the experience and it prompted additional engagement, with some ideas generating dozens of responses from other residents.
Struthers also wanted to be sure to hear from their senior residents. As a member of the AARP Age-Friendly Communities, Struthers has a strong commitment to becoming an age-friendly community which they carried into their community engagement. Using the platform, they led an ideation workshop with the senior population to get feedback through a community conversation and survey in-person. Similar to the youth engagement efforts, they leveraged their online platform at in-person events using community conversations and surveys. By piggy-backing off of a well-known and trusted organization, they were able to reach a broader audience and build immediate credibility that encouraged participation. They were also able to provide direct technical assistance to those that required it.
The Discover Struthers team took every single idea into consideration, giving thoughtful replies to each and every one. It was their goal to make everyone feel heard and to signal to the community that they were taking this seriously. And by meeting people where they were, they successfully reached traditionally un-heard audiences, boosting this sentiment of the Struthers community feeling heard.
The success and future of online community engagement in Struthers
With over 500 registered users on the platform, Struthers has been able to engage with a wide range of their population, and are proud of the level of engagement and dedication that their residents have shown towards improving their community.
As it turns out, a comprehensive plan was a perfect project to kick off their community engagement initiative for Struthers. Working to create a shared vision with great representation for the entire community, their comprehensive plan was able to span a wide range of topics and demographics to draw in interest. They were able to define Discover Struthers as a specific consolidated place where engagement happens from the beginning, and have found great success in their subsequent projects on revitalizing their downtown as well as improving mobility in the city to improve walkability and bikeability.
The people of Struthers are listening, and they are motivated to be a part of building this framework for a better future Struthers.