Is public participation possible during a pandemic?
That was the question facing Iowa’s Living Roadways Community Visioning program staff in mid-March, when Iowa State University canceled all in-state travel for employees.
Julia Badenhope, ISU professor and visioning program director, decided to use COVID-19 as an opportunity to explore innovative ways to engage the public without compromising the safety of staff, students, and community members.
The result has been a hybrid of virtual meetings and socially-distanced, in-person gatherings held outdoors when possible. At in-person gatherings, masks and hand sanitizer are available for all participants.
A key component of the visioning process is the design workshop, a public meeting at which, under normal circumstances, residents gather to provide input on transportation enhancements proposed by a design team consisting of a landscape architect and student intern(s). Engaging the public in a similar manner during a pandemic posed a unique challenge.
To compensate for the inability to hold large gatherings, visioning program staff and private-sector design consultants created installations highlighting design proposals, installing the displays throughout the communities and soliciting feedback through online surveys, interactive window displays, community websites, and social media. Because design proposals are on display for several days—either as physical installations or online—rather than during a one-day workshop, residents had more flexibility to offer input.
"Creating more dynamic engagement within communities through social media and installations has led to not only a safer process during this pandemic, but also a more inclusive and public process,” said Badenhope. “The investment of time and design thinking of the landscape architects and interns and the willingness to experiment in communities are ingredients that made the program a success,” she said.
Going forward, the program will continue to employ a variety of engagement techniques and offer virtual options for meetings to improve the ability of program staff and participants adapt to unexpected situations.
“To think—we have delivered Community Visioning for over 20 years and we still have ‘new’ ways to deliver the product (planning) to the community!” said Patty Reisinger, Trees Forever field coordinator and visioning facilitator. “Of course, many of these same virtual meeting techniques can be used when facing snow or ice storms or other issues that prevents people being together in one room.” she added
The Community Visioning Program is sponsored by the Iowa Department of Transportation in partnership with ISU Extension and Outreach and Trees Forever. More information is available on the program website (www.communityvisioning.org).