Public participation in community initiatives and programs is an essential tool for coming to well-informed, thoughtful decisions that are supported by a variety of community members and interest groups. Good community engagement generally depends on a range of outreach efforts, from face-to-face meetings with interest groups to open houses and public forums, all of which are designed to inspire trust and a sense of ownership among stakeholders. So what should planners, government agencies, and other groups working on public projects to do when group gatherings are impossible? One response is to move it all online.

Some cities have already taken a more tech-savvy approach to their outreach efforts. Amityville, Long Island has created a website that encourages stakeholders to share their feedback online. The city is gearing up to create a new Master Plan, with the new website being lauded as a key tool in that process. An initial survey was sent out to Amityville residents in the past year, and the responses laid the framework for the topics discussed on the site. The mayor and others involved in the process hope that the feedback collected online will allow the site to adapt to meet the interests of residents, and that this will lead to a stronger foundation for the Master Plan.

Another accessible and familiar way to transition outreach online is to make use of built-in features on popular social media outlets. For instance, Instagram offers multiple avenues to collect feedback. Hashtags and tags collect posts, allowing users to call out the issues that are important to them. Polls in Instagram stories can solicit instant responses to specific questions while adding a question sticker to a story allows for followers to provide personal responses. Twitter has its own version of these features, as does Facebook. Actively managing and responding to these streams of feedback can create on-the-go, accessible community forums.

More traditional online forums with moderators and members are also great tools for creating a community atmosphere. Members are able to engage with each other in informal public conversations, while moderators are able to propose questions and administer surveys. Forums work hand-in-hand with local government or project websites. The key is actively updating topics and posing questions to reflect changing circumstances.

Video conferencing is old news, but platforms like Zoom or Webex make video communication with large groups (Webex claims to be able to manage meetings with up to 100,000 people) easier than ever. With tools to host webinars, collaborate online, and share files, the distance may not seem so great!

Last but not least, online surveying is a great tool when face-to-face contact isn’t an option. Urban planning specific platforms like MetroQuest , PlaceSpeak, or MindMixer offer interactive features geared toward tackling the knowledge gaps that typically arise in complex planning projects. Unfortunately, these services can be pricey. There are also quite a few cost-effective options that don’t provide all the bells and whistles of platforms like MetroQuest, but that still get the job done. For example, Survey Monkey, Google Forms, or Zoho Surveys all offer innovative tools for community engagement that go beyond what is possible at a traditional community meeting—they have the ability to reach much wider audiences because the surveys are short, shareable, and interactive, and most importantly they allow community members to respond when they can, where they can. These platforms can also accommodate surveys in different languages, and in some cases may offer translation services.

Across all these different types of virtual connections, the key is to establish and maintain trust between facilitators and community members. Creating a clear framework that establishes expectations and timelines, and that provides feedback on how input is being used is essential to encourage participation.

Though social distancing is a must right now, these tools are all great ways to stay engaged and active within your communities and to think seriously about ways to improve your outreach channels into the future. Public Works Partners believes that public engagement should not be compromised, especially during a time where community feedback is more important than ever. We value participatory interventions that yield impactful results in the health of New York City. And if that requires building a robust online community, we are excited to pursue this endeavor. Tell us how your organization using online tools to create community. Share your process with us @PublicWorksIQ with #engagingonline.