What are the key things you should be doing in terms of community engagement for your new development? We are interviewing Ilana Lipsett, she has over a decade of experience working as a community design strategist when a new development is being created. Her work includes all aspects of community including policy, community engagement, and development. Ilana works with cities, real estate developers, international aid organizations, and creative communities around the globe to create and activate spaces.
Tell us a little bit about you.
My background is in community economic development through participatory design. Community engagement has really been central to my career as a community organizer in Washington, D.C., doing neighborhood economic development with the city of San Francisco, running community engagement for real estate firms, and also doing my own independent creative projects and international development. Currently, I’m a senior project manager at the Institute for the Future, which is the nonprofit futures research organization in the South Bay, and we help people think systematically and imaginatively about the future so that they can make better decisions today. A lot of that really builds into the lens through which I approach all of my work, which is that of resilience, especially in these times: how can we create resilient communities? Community engagement is one of the key components of achieving that.
When you get a community engagement project, what is the first thing that you do?
I have a four step process that I like to lay out when I’m starting a project.
Step 1: Get curious, show up and listen. And before the showing up and listening, it’s important to observe, ask questions and listen. People are the experts of their own experience, and that’s your job as a community engagement practitioner to deeply and empathetically understand what their experience is. So in order to show up, you have to ask who is already here, who has been here before, who’s showing up at your meetings at city hall, who’s responding to requests to meet and who’s not. And so a big part of that is showing up everywhere. Get to know local businesses, shop there, spend time there. You’ll start to meet regulars and hear stories, go to neighborhood meetings, go to town halls, go to gatherings. Before you start knocking on doors, it’s important to build those relationships by showing up in public and meeting people. And through that, you can evaluate if you need to be invited and go with a local leader who can introduce you to their neighbors or who can introduce you at a community meeting. Having buy in from the local leadership is really important.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had someone knock on your door for a political campaign or for a real estate development campaign, it often helps to have some sort of established relationship before you do that. And so by showing that you want to be part of the community, by going to local events to block parties, to coffee shops, to bars, to whatever it is, it shows people that you are there and that you’re committed. That’s what I mean when I say showing up. And a key part of that is to not offer solutions yet. You’re still in this curiosity phase and getting a sense of who is here. What’s the history of the area? What has already happened? What already exists here that builds or holds community, whether those are events or meetings or parks. Community exists everywhere, even in places that don’t outwardly seem like it. It’s our job to ask and find out where do people gather, where are the informal gathering places, where are the formal gathering places and ask people about the neighborhood. Ask them about their community. And I feel like this may seem like an obvious thing to say, but you’d be surprised at how many post-mortems I’ve heard where developers say, oh, the biggest lesson learned was that we needed to talk to people and include them in the process. I think that people maybe have an assumption, or it feels a little bit easier to send out mailings and say we’re doing this community engagement meeting and community members don’t show up or only a specific subset of them do.
That’s because we often fail to recognize that there is a whole history of the neighborhood and sometimes that history has been challenging. And so there is a trust deficit that we need to work to overcome. And you do that by showing up to things that are already happening in the community so that you are then able to move on to the next step.
Step 2: Ecosystem mapping. Get a sense for yourself of who exists in the community, who are the leaders, what are their biggest needs? Where do your projects overlap or potentially conflict with theirs? How can you support their projects? What’s the culture? What are the existing cultural assets? What can you offer to enhance or support them? What does the small business ecosystem look like? What are the business opportunities? What different governmental agencies do you need to interface with? Who are your champions going to be within each agency? How does the government interact with the public? How does the public view the government? Lastly, when you’re doing this ecosystem mapping is physical assets: what are the existing physical assets, including public spaces, infrastructure, cultural infrastructure, and how can you integrate into them? It’s always coming from this place of inquiry of what is here and how can I integrate myself into it or support it instead of the other way around.
Step 3: Public design. Ask yourself where you are open to having public input into your design, whether that’s architecturally, artistically or programmatically. For example, when I was working with Tidewater Capital, which is a San Francisco based commercial real estate firm that really has community engagement as one of its core values, we held monthly community engagement breakfast at one of our interim youth activations of the phase zero of a larger development project, and we were able to incorporate public design into all three of those components. We would give people updates about the project every month and then ask for feedback and input. And sometimes that was in the form of actually drawing on our blueprints, and we would get certain feedback like “you have these windows set back distant from the street and you might be creating shadows which creates areas for people to engage in negative activity in”. Or, artistically, we were required by the city to put a certain amount of our building costs toward public art as per the city’s public art ordinance. And we use that as an opportunity for community engagement. Turning the whole RFP process on its head and opening it up to the community, asking people to co-create a vision statement for what art they wanted that would represent them, and then asking artists to respond to that, and asking artists to engage with the community.
And then also programmatically, we asked people what they wanted to see in the ground floor retail space on their temporary activation. Looking for all the opportunities for public input and public design is an important part of the process.
Step 4: Experiment with pop ups and have fun. Get started with prototypes, get started with pop ups to test out your concepts and get feedback and start engaging with the community as soon as possible. Particularly in San Francisco and in other locations where, as I’m sure your listeners are well aware of, the entitlement process can be extremely lengthy. People can get burnt out on the process, or people don’t necessarily see that their input is leading to something. If you can get started as soon as possible with an experiment, with a pop up, with a prototype. Those are ways to engage with people immediately and show them that you’re listening, that you’re responding to what they’re asking for and build excitement and build community and keep it going for a sustained amount of time throughout the duration of your process.
If the community has so much input and part of it is against what the developer was looking for, what happens?
Part of it comes down to being honest and transparent about what you are and what you’re not, and what you can do and what you won’t do. When you do community engagement, one of the challenging components of it is that you aren’t necessarily going to get input that will be conducive to what you’re trying to do or you won’t necessarily get input that’s helpful or you’ll get input that is challenging your core beliefs or your vision or your mission. Part of it is not necessarily incorporating all of those pieces of the input that you’re getting, but it’s understanding how to best respond to them and how to best respond to the community. Transparency and communication is one of the most important things in addressing that. Having your community engagement process in place allows you to build relationships with your neighbors, with the community, with community leaders, so that when they do ask the hard questions or if somebody does come in with an objection, you’re able to respond to them in a way in which you are showing them respect, that you’ve listened to them and they’re showing you respect that they’ll understand and accept your answer.
It isn’t as cut and dry or as easy as I’m describing it. There have been some really challenging projects where developers and communities remain at odds with each other. What is lacking in a lot of those is that effort and time that it takes upfront to build respectful relationships. And then the second component of that, which is respectful and honest communication about what you are and what you’re not and why it is or isn’t possible to do something. A lot of the challenges stem from historical exclusion of communities in these types of processes. This doesn’t go to remedy all of the injustices that have come from that, but one of the first steps at addressing that is building these respectful relationships and recognizing that there is that trust deficit and that in order to overcome it, you need to engage with people in conversation and listen to them because they haven’t been listened to. Giving space for people to air their concerns is really important.
How do you keep in touch with these people?
That’s a really important question, because we need to remember to keep in touch with the community, whether or not we need something from them. Oftentimes developers will reach out to the community when it’s time for the hearing and they need public support or something like that. Creativity and consistency are two of the most important factors of successful community engagement. Hold regular community engagement meetings and be creative about what that looks like. Let’s be honest, traditional public input sessions are not only not sufficient, but they’re often boring and contentious for everyone involved and they’re not really structured in such a way to allows for meaningful input. They are at inconvenient times for people, they don’t really allow for a big discussion or radical imagination. If we can be creative about the way that we’re doing community engagement and again, consistent.
For example, with Tidewater Capital, we did monthly breakfast and the community was invited to come join. The community was very broadly defined in this sense. We would send out e-mails on our e-mail list. We posted to our Facebook page, there was a lot of word of mouth, and then a lot of continuing to show up. It’s important throughout the whole of community engagement process to continue to show up for other people’s things, for other people’s events, block parties, meetings, other events that the community is holding. And then you have the opportunity to interface with people in person, which is one of the most important parts of community, it needs to exist in person. Being able to interface with people in person and let them know about what’s going on is also important. The regularity of holding meetings, honoring that time and honoring that people are coming to them.
And when you say “continuing showing up for other people’s meetings or events”, how do you show up? Are they going to recognize you? Do you start the conversation with people that are there? How do you show yourself up as being the representative of that project?
The more that you are just physically present in the community, the more people will start to recognize you and you can have conversations that maybe start small, but then you give them time to grow and you can talk about the project that you’re working on. And it’s an art, not a science of when and how you talk about your project at other people’s events. Sometimes it’s not appropriate. Sometimes you’re in the community space or you’re at an event or you’re at somebody else’s hearing. And in those moments, it’s important to respect where you are, just like you would want the community to respect you if they’re coming to your event.
Going back to the oldest form of how we build relationships, how we build friendships, how we communicate with people: by spending time with them, getting to know them, getting to know what motivates them, what moves them, what’s important to them, and what’s challenging to them. And through those conversations, you naturally and organically will talk about your project and they’ll start to associate you with that. Another component of this, which we haven’t totally touched upon, and this is very dependent on the site where you’re working, if you have the ability to do a phase zero activation of a vacant space or a pop up on a vacant lot, or something that will start to build a sense of place on the site where you’re going to be developing at, that’s also really important.
Then people will start to associate you, these pop up events, this activity, with your physical site and with your company or with the specific project, depending on how you decide to brand it. But that’s a way of 1. activating the site and doing something that’s positive for the community 2. Starting to build a sense of place, and 3. A way of conducting community engagement. It’s a really creative way in that you can invite in feedback or input or ideas and get feedback in real time on what you’re doing or on what you’re planning to do. That was one of the goals of The Hall, which was this project that I did with Tidewater Capital. We had acquired a building on Market Street, one of the main arteries in San Francisco in 2013. Knowing that the entitlement process was going to be quite lengthy, we didn’t want to wait and have this building sit vacant for what ended up being close to seven years.
The building just broke ground a few months ago. We invested in building out about 4,000 square feet of the interior and opened it as a food hall with five local vendors, a bar and the communal seating area where we hosted hundreds of events over the course of three years. Happy hours, local music, fundraisers, talks, art events, etc.. And that’s also where we had the hub for our own community engagement for the larger project where we had these monthly breakfasts that I talked about, where the community would come in and hear from us updates about the project. They would give their feedback. We would also hear from a local community member who we invited to speak about their work or their organization. It was a really great way for us to meet and build relationships with the community here about what was important to people in the neighborhood. And get feedback in real time on our project. Having a physical space where you are able to do some sort of pop up or activation or engagement that is centered around public design and participatory design is one of the more important ways of being able to do that.
What is the project going to end up being? Is it a food court as well, or an office, mixed use?
It’s a mixed income, mixed use residential project. So it’s going to be a mix of studios, one, two or three bedroom apartments, mixed income, with ground floor retail. And it just broke ground a couple of months ago.
What was some of the community feedback that the developer took and actually implemented into the project?
We had some really great conversations with the community about what community serving retail and neighborhood amenities might look like in the ground floor. And we also, in the course of operating The Hall, where we had this communal space, we were able to observe a lot of things in terms of the ways that people use the space in the interplay between the public sphere, for instance on the sidewalk where we had an encroachment permit to put picnic tables outside. The interface between that and the interior. A lot of the programmatic and philosophical design was definitely informed by those conversations and by the way that people used the space while it was open as the whole.
Is there anything else that our listeners should know about community engagement?
There are a couple principles that are really important for people to keep in mind. One of them is to really know why you are you doing this: is it to check a box, or are you doing it because you really are committed to community enjoyment because you know that it will make your product or your process better. In these times we need to think about doing things differently and doing things in a way that are not just generative, but regenerative for communities as opposed to being extractive, which is how historically the development process has been. Another principle people can keep in mind is that it’s really important to respect and trust the community and in turn they’ll respect and trust you.
This can look like a lot of different things. Logistically, define the purpose for your community meetings. Why are you gathering people and asking them for their time? Philosophically treating community and local residents as experts of their own experiences and experts of the area, and collaboratively treat the notion of co-creation as something that is really beneficial for you. Not just of ideas for the physical space or development, but also how can you co-create community goals, success metrics or rules of engagement. Co-creating these benchmarks can build trust, build respect and also mutual accountability so that you have a smooth process.