How to grow community engagement for your sustainability project

If you’re a devoted sustainability planning or policy leader in the public sector today—particularly within a city or state government office or agency—you’ve probably asked yourself one or more of these questions:

  • How can we be sure we’re responding quickly and effectively to residents’ ideas and needs concerning environmental issues?
  • In our planning processes, how can we include the voices of residents in neighborhoods with long histories of disinvestment?
  • How can we expand and deepen our community engagement with a tight budget and scarce resources?

Well, we have a few ideas, courtesy of some outstanding ioby Leaders, projects, and friends:

hampline memphis ioby

1. Partner with ioby!

This isn’t just number one because we love what we do. We’ve also witnessed firsthand, too many times to count, just how powerful a tool civic crowdfunding can be for changing the way residents engage in municipal project planning and delivery.

Take it from Sarah Newstok, program manager at Livable Memphis and a member of ioby’s Action Corps, who was featured in this NationSwell article: “When ioby and Livable Memphis first discussed paying for a portion of the Hampline [a multi-million-dollar greenway infrastructure project] through micro-donations, Newstok was cautious about setting a precedent in which nonprofits solved problems that were the rightful responsibility of city government. But those concerns were trumped by the sense of community ownership that came with more than 500 local donations. ‘We’ve been able to say to elected officials, ‘Look, we don’t want to delay this project, and we’re going to put our money where our mouth is,’” Newstok says. ‘That’s a big, big message.’”

ioby helps governments add to their community engagement strategies to be more efficient, meaningful, and impactful. Learn more about how we could help your city, and find recordings of our “Civic Crowdfunding for Government Employees” webinars, on our Public Sector Partnerships page.

robyn mace ioby

2. Reach out to neighborhood associations—and keep reaching.

The people in your jurisdiction who are already committing their time and skills to neighborhood concerns are an excellent place to start (or deepen) your engagement efforts—and they can help you make additional connections in the community.

Three-time ioby Leader Robyn Mace, who also happens to be Chief Data Officer for Nashville, used a variety of methods to raise the money, buy-in, and helping hands needed to convert a neglected lot adjacent to her family’s home into a stormwater-thirsty rain garden.

To build community engagement for her idea, she says: “I relied on two pretty strong neighborhood associations: the Evergreen Historic District Association and the Evergreen Garden Association. Both were great for building awareness and helping to raise funds. I had also been petitioning to get the sidewalks around the lot fixed, which put me in touch with some good people. Lastly, I actually went door to door and talked to my neighbors.”


ifeoma ebo ioby

3. Think “activation”—not just problem-solving.

While the technical, easily quantifiable, problem-solving aspects of your sustainability project—like how many reflective rooftops should be installed on your city’s buildings or how much square footage you’re trying to reclaim for green space—are no doubt important, it also pays to think about how you might contribute to “activating” the neighborhoods you work with as another facet of your efforts.

Ifeoma Ebo, Senior Design Advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, describes how this idea comes into play in her work: “We use the term ‘neighborhood activation’ to address public safety in public spaces because we’re not just talking about cameras, lights, and security infrastructure. Sure, we want to put in better lighting, but we also want to fix the basketball court and put benches there so people can watch. We want to change the use of the space—activate it—so that residents can build stronger social networks and become empowered to keep watch over their own community.”

In your environmental work, try replacing Ifeoma’s “cameras, lights, and security infrastructure” with “plantings, bike lanes, and green infrastructure”—or whatever you’re up to. Sure, you want to reach the concrete aspects of your goals, but how can small improvements get people more involved with where they live? See where approaching your work with “activation” in mind leads you. 

brownsville ioby

4. Let neighbors lead, then jump in.

We’ve said it before and we’re happy to say it again: the people who live in a place are in the best position to know what their real problems are—and what could really solve them. As Ifeoma says: “There’s really not a one-size-fits-all solution; it’s about what the particular community wants. Residents can come up with the best solutions for their public spaces, since they’re the most aware of their own challenges.”

Case in point: the Brownsville Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, New York recently identified three dead end streets in their neighborhood that had been neglected and were becoming “hot spots” for crime and other public safety concerns. The organization worked with local young people to paint murals on the streets, installed seating and umbrellas in them, and put in a request with the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) to make one a pedestrian plaza. The community did the initial legwork of identifying a problem and rolling out a solution; now it’s the DOT’s turn to step in to formalize and fortify their work: to site trees there, to maintain the areas, even to help support event programming.

These fabulously reimagined public places can now become a part of Brownsville’s infrastructure—and a model for more of NYC’s capital projects in the future—thanks foremost to its visionary residents!

resilient new orleans

5. Spell it out.

Sometimes just making clear your commitment to public involvement at the outset can go a long way. Take New Orleans’ Regional Planning Commission’s (RPC’s) “Connecting People + Places,” a citizen’s guide to transportation planning in the NOLA metro area. Bright and early, on its first full page of text, the guide highlights the role of community engagement in planning for increased sustainability, improved transit, and better public places:

“We want to hear from you. With competing needs and limited funding, our work is most effective with robust public involvement and support.” It goes on to state that “RPC strives for a balanced, efficient and sustainable transportation system, one that takes into account the needs of all users, including motorists, transit riders, pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Similarly, the city’s “Resilient New Orleans” publication asserts that “developing a reliable and comprehensive multimodal transit network will help New Orleans be more resilient, enable low-income families to connect to opportunity, and improve safety and connectivity. This point of entry might seem like a single infrastructure project, but it has the potential to create benefits across sectors.” The publication also shouts out “unprecedented resident engagement” in city research and planning efforts in the past decade—and that said engagement has been instrumental in shaping their current strategy.

Why not take a hint from these documents and wear your belief in community engagement on your own sustainability sleeve (and/or website, flyer, and report PDF)? You’ll be putting your words where your goals are, and letting any and all readers know you care about what your community wants.