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Civic Engagement School: How To Get a Developer to Listen

These days, many of us are too quick to cry wolf (or cry “gentrification!”) when development projects start cropping up. The latest wave of investment is pouring into Franklinton and people are scared. But believe it or not, there are more productive things we can be doing other than flat out opposing new developments.

Here’s the thing. We know how to develop equitably and avoid displacement. We’re just not doing it. I dialled up Chad Rochkind of Human Scale Studio, an urban strategy firm in Detroit, and asked him about this in particular. Here’s what he said:

“We know how to develop buildings that are green. We know how to make places that are mixed income. We know how to do all of this. So it’s not a design challenge. It’s a cultural challenge and a political challenge.”

Let me repeat that: It’s a cultural challenge and a political challenge.

Part of that challenge is getting everyone on the same page. When I say “we know how to develop equitably”, the “we” refers to educated urban planners and others interested specifically in sustainable development practices. That expertise is currently siloed, and if we want any hope of truly inclusive development standards, then the knowledge must be democratized and then enforced. Which is why I’m writing this right now.

Before I dig into some of those actionable and distinct strategies for inclusive development, let’s look at the main players. On one side there’s the community, which is generally anti-development for fear of neighborhood changes and rising rents. Then on the other side there are the developers, who are–needless to say–pro-development and concerned with the bottom line. Then somewhere in the middle there are the government representatives, who are often demonized and rarely trusted by the community (even when they have good intentions).

A lot of our issues stem from the inability for community and developer to see eye to eye. As Rochkind conveyed to me, often developers see the community members as agitators, and the community sees any and all development as negative for their neighborhood. But there generally is no other conversation going on about what type of development the community would like to see.

It’s this sort of hasty blanket opposition that leads to less than optimal outcomes for the community. As opposed to fighting an uphill battle in which laws, zoning codes, and trends favor development, Minneapolis consultant and author of the book “How Real Estate Developers Think” Peter Brown urges neighborhood activists to “focus on what aspects of a proposed development are actually changeable.” Rochkind echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of understanding what design decisions are still in flux and what is negotiable, no matter what stage the development is in.  

So that being said, I’ve put together a three part series laying out some strategies and tactics that are key for inclusive development and anti-displacement practices. Understanding these concepts and being willing to meet developers where they are will help you conduct fruitful conversations around the topic of development in Columbus and beyond. Today I’m starting with two notable community engagement methods.

Community Engagement Methods

Participatory Planning

Historically people have been taught that neighborhood change prompts residential displacement. And while that’s actually not always the case, it has certainly happened. Rochkind says that Midwestern cities in particular have been at risk, since in recent decades they have been so starved for development that the city will sell out and bypass community engagement processes just to get some development done. So it’s also in these cities that residents feel particularly jaded about development projects. This is why transparency and early involvement are crucial for building trust.

Throughout Rochkind’s experiences and observations, the most successful development projects bring the community in at the earliest stages possible. When feasible, community members themselves should help to shape the call for proposals that is put out before a developer is even selected. The ultimate key is to ensure that the residents feel a sense of ownership over the process, and that’s easier to facilitate when the relationships are built early.

Here’s an example: Rochkind and his team at Human Scale Studio recently worked on a large scale streetscape improvement project on Michigan Avenue in Detroit. They installed the longest protected bike lane on a state controlled road in the entire country, and the second longest protected bike lane (period) in the country. Usually when cities put in protected bike lanes, the residents and business owners are the first to come out in opposition because of decreased parking space and the association with gentrification.

To get ahead of these negative sentiments, Rochkind and his business partner Jessica Meyer spent one year holding community house parties in the surrounding Corktown neighborhood. Rochkind and Meyer would bring together 5-10 resident and business owners to hang out and talk about the neighborhood. At these house parties, Michigan Avenue kept coming up as something the community wanted to see improved. Community feedback guided Human Scale Studio’s iterative design process; there was a lot of back and forth engagement as Rochkind and Meyer shared the evolving plans with the community throughout the year. So when it finally came time for implementation of the proposed bike lane, the community was united behind a vision– they weren’t up in arms about the plan, but instead they were the ones who crafted letters to the mayor to convey their support for the plan.

This sort of process takes more time, more patience, and a lot more flexibility, but it leads to more enduring solutions that are better embraced by the community.

Social Impact Assessments

Certain types of development projects and policies require that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is completed before the project is given a greenlight– this is to ensure that potential environmental impacts, both negative and positive, are accounted for and that plans are adjusted to minimize negative repercussions. Less common but equally important are Social Impact Assessments (SIA).

Per the International Association for Impact Assessment, a Social Impact Assessment “includes the processes of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions (policies, programs, plans, projects) and any social change processes invoked by those interventions. Its primary purpose is to bring about a more sustainable and equitable biophysical and human environment.”

So, great! Again, we know how to do these things. The framework for SIAs is in place. No one can say that there isn’t a protocol for evaluating the potential social impacts of a development project in advance. We just (usually) aren’t employing it.

For us lay people, here’s what actually goes into SIAs and why they’re important.

Source: Public Private Partnerships

SIAs seek to answer questions like: what will change, what range of consequences could be seen, what will be gained, what will be lost, who is contributing to the change, who will benefit, and who will suffer. More specifically in the context of an SIA for urban development, the assessment would look at effects imposed on housing affordability and quality, services and amenities, access to reliable transportation, experienced health and security, demographic inclusivity and integration, and quality of life.

This case study about the redevelopment of a low-income neighborhood in Israel followed a process that involved:

  • Understanding the potential impacts
  • Understanding socio economic backgrounds of affected residents
  • Understanding the roles of each stakeholder party
  • then determining the “relative influence power” of each stakeholder to shed light on the likelihood of their needs being addressed.

The SIA team then worked on predicting and analyzing the impact pathways, and concluded by presenting methods for alleviating adverse impacts and enhancing positive impacts.

A combination of demographic data, planning document analysis, field observations, archival data, and interview data were used for this SIA. Ultimately, a number of suggested mitigation measures were laid out for all stakeholders involved, but the most impactful of all fell to the municipality. These measures included the likes of affordable housing policy, educating developers about socially sustainable housing models, improving public transit, and developing social impact management plans.

Another study that reviewed development appeals in Queensland, Australia concluded that many legal cases could be avoided if an SIA were appropriately conducted. As opposed to using top-down development and then receiving legal backlash from the community, this study suggests that SIAs provide a means “to identify conflicts early, identify development or design alternatives or negotiate an agreeable outcome with stakeholders.”

The point is that considering human impact is crucial to development. And it needs to be done early. Developers, designers, and city governments need to be held to higher standards of community engagement. So the next time you’re in conversation with a developer or a neighborhood commission, you can ask about how they’re implementing participatory planning processes or if they’ve considered conducting a Social Impact Assessment.

In part 2 of the Civic Engagement School series, I’m tackling affordable housing, job creation, and workforce development. Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss it.

Header photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash


Staff writer and community manager for 1812 Columbus. Creative community developer for SEEN Digital Media and Snapfluence. Loves doughnuts, kittens, barbells, and oxford commas.