While the conventional community participation approach – open houses, public hearings, and the like – still gets plenty of mileage, much of the really interesting community engagement work involves a fundamental inversion. Instead of asking the community to come to City Hall, City Hall goes out into the community. In my town of Golden, as part of our Golden Vision 2030 process (in partnership with the Orton Family Foundation) we hosted neighborhood picnics all across town. More than eight hundred people (in a town of 18,000) participated, partly drawn no doubt by the amenities (lunch, free bike tune-ups, a veterinarian provided free pet check-ups, activities to keep the kids occupied, and the like) but also by the convenience (the events were held in neighborhood parks). The result was a wealth of great input on community vision and values, neighborhoods, more than 300 video interviews, and specific feedback on issues like transportation and trash hauling.
Another variation on the theme: as part of the riverfront revitalization project in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (Allegheny Riverfront Vision), community members were invited to participate in bike rides around the riverfront area as well as kayak and boat trips on the river. While it’s not exactly a “going to them” approach, it very much represents a “get out of City Hall and into the community” attitude, and offered the added advantage of giving participants an unusual vantage from which to think about and discuss the future of their riverfront.