To shape an inclusive Boston, we will engage a broader and more diverse group of stakeholders—the people, businesses and communities of Boston, as well as our own employees. We must design new forums and communication tools that enable people to participate in ways that are natural to and convenient for them.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) holds hundreds of community meetings—more than one community meeting per day, every year—but the results of these meetings may not satisfy all stakeholders. There are many reasons for this. One reason: Change is imminent and often unwelcome, and we can count on some opposition no matter what we do to address it. But there are other dynamics that could be addressed through more deliberate context-setting: clearer roles, responsibilities, processes and timelines, and better storytelling.
Participation in community meetings, or any BPDA event, is limited. In fact, many citizens do not know what we do or have done—even when they are otherwise engaged in their communities. The citizens and businesses who tend to participate are often a vocal minority of the population directly impacted by a specific initiative. Sometimes they are composed of NIMBYs—people trying to preserve what they have become accustomed to. Because of the growth of Boston and the great demand for housing, sometimes participants fear that displacement or gentrification will affect their ability to stay in the neighborhood in which they live. The dynamics of these meetings make it difficult for citizens to support initiatives, even those with which they agree.
Our External Engagement Process
This process describes the ideal steps to engaging people and/or businesses in a BPDA plan or project. The content of this framework can be used at any scale, from designing a poster, to facilitating a community meeting, to disseminating information about a project.
Meet People Where They Are
We engage a broad, representative group of citizens to participate in shaping their community.
To do this, we will find new approaches and tools to reach people where they are and have them interact with us in a way that is convenient for them.
Set the Context for the Project
We help people connect a project to how it addresses the big-picture challenges of Boston, and how it may affect them personally.
To do this, we will provide the ‘whys’ behind each project as they relate to people’s quality of life, their community and neighborhood, the BPDA’s goals for inclusivity and the future of Boston.
Define Expectations and Input Needed*
We help people understand our projects, how they can participate and the impact their participation will have.
To do this, we share project goals, and define people’s roles within the project. We explain what the BPDA will do with their input, to align their expectations with our process.
*We recommend a different community engagement process for Planning vs. Development Review. The Planning process feels more like generative research, as it will seek a variety of community input that would address a wide scope of opportunity areas across the neighborhood.
Once an area has been planned, the Development Review process will elicit more specific feedback that will focus on addressing features that request variances from the plan, and building consensus around ways to use extraction funding or assets.
Listen and Analyze
We listen to people to understand community dynamics and character so that we can best serve the people and businesses residing there.
To do this, we listen in many venues and formats to prioritize the community needs that will influence our decisions and advocacy.
Take Action and Communicate Intent
We effect change, and bring people along in our process.
We let people know what is happening now, and share timelines for projects moving forward. We are clear about telling people how they can continue to participate.
What Engagement Might Look Like
The image below depicts what future BPDA engagements might look like. Scroll down to learn more.
An evening work shift, a sick child, or an out-of-town event are just some of the common inhibitors that prevent residents from attending community meetings. With people’s busy schedules, new opportunities for participating can include text updates from, and feedback submission to, the BPDA. Text messaging works across all cell phones, a near-ubiquitous technology equitable in its access.
Residents can simply sign up for text updates on neighborhoods of interest and maintain consistent engagement with planning and development efforts, whether they can attend in-person meetings or not.
Move to a new city, neighborhood, or even block, and the surrounding dynamics will seem novel. Understanding the history of the new area, its context within the larger city of Boston and what’s in progress for planning and development is important for driving engagement with new community members.
As a person settles into his or her new home, a BPDA welcome packet arrives with an overview of the neighborhood, planning studies conducted and development in progress. Additionally, key BPDA neighborhood contact information is listed and recommended methods for participation are provided.
The Freedom Trail emphasizes Boston’s important role in U.S. history, tracing a path through parts of the city to highlight major sites. Boston’s history and the preservation of that heritage is well-balanced with recent growth. Engaging residents in helping shape the future of Boston should include an understanding of where the city has been, where it can go and how the BPDA seeks to help in creating that future.
Future Trail is a set of guided- and self-guided tours with the agency’s employees that showcase Boston’s built environment, how the city evolved and how the future of Boston can continue to change in the years to come.
Focus on internal communication
Employees are looking for greater alignment with the mission, vision and strategy of the BPDA. A focus on internal communication will drive alignment among employees, help reduce disjointed work across silos, create mutual respect and inspire deeper engagement.
The Desired Outcome
All BPDA employees understand and are aligned with the new organizational strategy and brand. They are engaged in their roles and inspired by what we are collectively working toward.
Organizational transformation is an ongoing effort, and new opportunities to drive engagement will continue to present themselves. The following are key activities identified as critical to effecting change as the BPDA embarks on transformation efforts. Some of these activities are already in development.
Translate the strategy internally.
In order to make the brand and organizational strategy relevant and well-understood by employees, it must be brought to life by senior leadership, all department heads and extended team members. Leaders must ensure that they understand and can speak to the strategy, can outline how it will positively impact the BPDA and the city of Boston and have identified how their respective department goals can contribute to supporting the strategy.
Create an onboarding program.
Create onboarding tools that focus on telling the BPDA’s story. Use them to onboard new employees, and train current ones.
- the new BPDA brand identity, what it means, and why it is important;
- our focus on growth with inclusivity, what it means for the BPDA and how we can work toward it for Boston;
- the four frameworks for the external key moments and how to use them to drive impact;
- our progress on the strategy, and the timeline.
Rethink internal touchpoints for all communications.
Currently there are a variety of ways that BPDA staff communicate with each other. Think of department meetings, all-staff meetings, internal emails and the intranet. But there are more examples to consider. Working with employees, identify the most compelling and effective channels and apply the same engagement framework as outlined for use with external communities. Keep staff up-to-date on information through frequent communication.