Engaging Communities Online in conversations about growth: Learnings from Colorado city governments

Most of the nation's rapid population growth is expected to occur in 11 Megaregions around the United States.
Amanda Nagl, Engagement Manager at Bang the Table | September 27, 2018

Most of the nation's rapid population growth, and an even larger share of its economic expansion, is expected to occur in 11 Megaregions around the United States 

As one of the nation’s eleven megaregions, the front range of Colorado is challenged to make quick and thorough decisions amidst growth rates as high as 2.8% annually. Denver alone has grown by over 100,000 in seven years. Population growth and stress on current infrastructure translates into residential division between newcomers and long-timers. It also places increasing demands on local governments to provide comprehensive online tools for a public voice. 

Colorado is embracing online community engagement practice, setting the stage for learning and development of best practice in the field. While Parker, Greenwood Village and Boulder are responding differently to their implementation of community engagement, each has developed practices that look to be best in show and other governments around them are quickly following suit.

Parker, Greenwood Village, Boulder: community input and best practice

The City of Parker is looking to its Main Street project as a guide for how people prefer to move in, out, and through the community and, what they want to do and see along the way.  Parker recognizes there are different types of community members—some who are acutely interested in detail, expert opinion and testing, while others want to know the gist of the project only and focus on the impacts of decisions. As such, they provide resources for these diverse community members through an extensive document library and infographics that hit the highlights in seconds. Parker emphasizes the inter-relatedness of planning processes; enabling the community to show up to provide specific insight on projects of interest while utilizing the space to teach about what is upcoming in the pipeline and how decisions made now will impact their future options. https://www.letstalkparker.org/welcome-to-lets-talk-parker

Greenwood Village is located at the south end of the Denver Metro Area I-25 corridor.  TheTransportation Master Plan project was initiated by the provision of information—a description of the issues, clear explanation of why the master plan is important at this juncture in the city’s history, and how residents could, and should, be involved. Surveys have been utilized for quantifiable data that will be provided to decision makers and also reported back to participants in graphs and diagrams, to close the feedback loop. Alongside the survey, they utilized anideas tool - much like a virtual sticky note that allows residents to show their love for one another’s ideas. This enabled residents to grasp differing opinions and prepare themselves for the reality that there is no “obvious” solution pending implementation, but rather a series of decisions and trade-offs to be made.

The City of Boulder could be considered the roast in this metro-region’s pressure cooker—a savory location, stewing for the long-term. Hosting a population of 108,707, median detached home price of $845,000 and home to over 100,148 jobs, the community is charged to accommodate approximately 50-60,000 in-commuters daily.  Much to the city’s credit, and the community’s commitment to multi-modal transportation, commute times across town have reportedly not increased over the last twenty-five years.

Boulder’s demographics, coupled with a commitment to open space and progressive goals for carbon reduction, make obsolete transactional approaches to community engagement. That is, project by project outreach. Instead, Boulder has embraced acommunity hub approach to mobility conversations and crowd-sourced solutions. Clear expectations regarding timelines and costs, provided through lifecycle widgets, help to keep the community informed about how decisions are being made, when, and by whom. They also display the inter-relatedness of various plans and how they work together for long-range efforts; expanding the scope of the dialogue.

“Our Engagement HQ platform helped us quickly gather information from the community, especially groups and populations that do not come to the in-person meetings. It helped us understand the key issues for the community using the quick survey and question tools, that shaped our recommendations on next steps in the project to the City Council”, said Chris Meschuk, AICP, Assistant City Manager, City of Boulder".

The utilization of thePlaces tool (dropping pins on a map to correspond locations to community comments, uploaded images, and surveys ) increases community capacity to provide precise locations of issues and opportunities on the city’s bike paths, trails and roadways. To combat what is often called the “behind the curtain phase” of master planning—the computations and expert analysis that must be done on alternatives—a monthly question is posed to the public and the input received will directly tie to new policy in 2019.

The most compelling of all Boulder’s input has been provided through personal stories, such asMaria’s where she describes how mobility and isolation resulting from language barriers are tied together for herself and her family.  Insights such as these are not obtainable through a survey tool.  Stories are incredibly valuable for staff in a one on one dialogue but sharing these with the entire community, through online engagement, has the power to open hearts and change minds.

The Colorado experience suggests that long-range transportation planning conversations should be hosted in the same online space as project-specific interactions to create muscle memory for participants. This practice will also build confidence within the community that an organization is aware of the gaps between short-term and long-range solutions and allow the community to track the work that is completed to fill those gaps. Having multi-mode dialogue in the same space is critical to a holistic community mindset and aids in building bridges between transportation, housing and sustainability goals.   

These lessons can be applied to other population centers and to localized growth areas as well as areas that are not under pressure - but who value community input and best practice.   

About the Author

Amanda Nagl is an Engagement Manager with Bang the Table. She has led community conversations and engagement efforts in three of Colorado’s front-range cities as a professional problem solver, in local government, for almost 20 years. Currently, she assists governments in the creation of consistent, comprehensive community engagement strategies, utilizing online tools as a mechanism for inclusion. 

Amanda has degrees in Psychology and Organizational Leadership and Human Resources; graduated from Colorado Chiefs of Police Command School and IACP Leadership in Police Organizations.  Her work in Restorative Justice has been recognized by Harvard as a “Bright Idea in Government.”