The Community Review Process Takes Time, Effort and Empathy

Winter 2018/2019 Issue
By: David Chilinski, FAIA, and Dave Snell, AIA, Prellwitz Chilinski Associates

Five things developers should do to soothe residents’ concerns and fears.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO overstate people’s reluctance to change. While the reasons vary, a departure from the status quo is often the biggest fear. There’s a longstanding preference for the familiar place and the established routine. An entire new industry — change management — has grown up around the notion of overcoming people’s resistance to change.

People facing a change in the built environment of their established neighborhood often see it as a challenge with only one option — defending the status quo. Architects and development clients are in the change business. The challenge they face is recognizing the inherent human response when proposing something new, and then finding common ground by building trust and engaging the community with empathy.

The community review process is typically considered to be oppositional, seen from different perspectives by the community and the developer. Community members often believe they need to be adversarial to ensure that they don’t give away something they value. The development team often thinks they should ask for more because they will inevitably need to be reduced in scope and/or density.

However, there is an alternative to these predictable attitudes and approaches. Here are five actions to create a more collaborative outcome:

1. Redefine Purpose and Behaviors. Achieving a meaningful and mutually successful public process starts with changing the way it’s viewed. Too often, development teams approach the approval process like it’s a performance. They walk through a presentation of data and renderings in a public hearing or meeting without a lot of creative thought about what is in it for the community.

Community engagement is not an approvals process. It is a campaign to earn the trust of the community, and like any campaign, it requires a strategy to succeed. Building trust in a community means reaching out to adjacent landowners and local neighborhood associations on an informal basis. It requires engaging with local business leaders and elected officials to discuss the proposal and its effect on the community. Frequently, key stakeholders cannot attend project review meetings. By listening to their opinions and seeking their advice in informal face-to-face meetings, you are able to hear their valuable insights. Trust is earned by showing up and listening. People want to be heard.

2. Apply the Insights and History Lessons Learned from These Conversations. Bring what you heard and learned from the campaign into the formal community meetings. Approach that first public forum with the intent of discovering what the neighborhood needs before focusing on the plan for the site.

This dialogue, especially at the outset, should be a conversation where questions are asked and answers are heard. What are the challenges and opportunities? What is missing in the neighborhood? Green space? A grocery store? Daycare? During this question-based initial conversation, values and needs will be revealed.

A recent example of this dialogue took place in Allston, Massachusetts. Neighbors of the proposed RADIUS Apartments expressed frustration with a dangerous, busy intersection at Western Avenue, Leo Birmingham Highway and Soldiers Field Road. It provides a gateway for residents to access the Charles River. The simple act of crossing the street at this corner is seen as unsafe, especially for elders or parents with small children.

In a response to this clear communication from the neighborhood, the development team funded a traffic study for the intersection and brought together elected officials from city, state and federal agencies to focus on the problem. The team could not implement the entire solution due to its complexity, the jurisdictions involved and the multimillion-dollar cost, but the community appreciated the commitment to begin the process of fixing this longstanding problem.

3. Share the Stories. Once you are ready to present project information, express intent through stories and experiences people can relate to. For example, a citizens group might say: “We have been hearing that there is no place right now for people to socialize and gather with their neighbors. This is something we noticed and talked about as well. Incorporating a gathering place, a community destination, could benefit both the existing community and new residents.” Explain how this new intervention can make a positive contribution, and share the stories and observations you heard from other residents.

4. Stay Out of the Weeds. The review process is a conversation, one held with empathy for neighbors and their issues. Stay focused on what is important to the audience. Avoid speaking in jargon and acronyms. When people raise difficult requests, listen carefully and commit to looking into solutions. Avoid an immediate debate on the merits, cost and consequences; instead, go to the next meeting and report either progress on the request or an explanation of why it would or wouldn’t be feasible.

5. Be Opportunistic About Change. Development teams can be understandably reluctant to change a design in response to neighborhood concerns or suggestions. However, focusing on both the short-term considerations and long-term positive impacts might reveal opportunities for change. For example, in a neighborhood close to a large university, the community was united in a desire to increase home-ownership rates. It was discovered that the university was also interested in the same thing for its administrators, researchers, faculty and staff. Given this, it made sense to add condos to the development plan, and it was seen as a win/win by the community.

Most projects will benefit from the public review process. Yes, it’s often frustrating and stressful for all parties. However, the conversations contain ideas and opportunities that can make the project a better fit for the community.

Teddy Roosevelt is credited with saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” A new approach to community review begins with realizing how important empathy and trust are in creating a collaborative environment where great results can be accomplished.


David Chilinski FAIA is co-founder and president and David Snell AIA is a senior associate with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based PCA/Prellwitz Chilinski Associates.