Community engagement is the organized, interactive partnership between a government and its citizens. It is more than just a democratic ideal; community involvement is essential to the effective implementation and maintenance of government-initiated sustainability programs. Citizen participation fosters a sense of ownership, increasing the level of investment in a program's successful outcome. An inclusive approach to policymaking utilizes the broad diversity of ideas and abilities a population offers. It anticipates roadblocks, allowing for proactive, constructive solutions. Taking the time to cultivate authentic community engagement will deliver "triple bottom line" results: sustainability that impacts economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity.
The term "community" has a number of different definitions. For the purpose of this material, “community” is defined as a group of people living in the same physical area, at any scale -- citywide, neighborhood or sub-neighborhood.
Traditional Approaches addresses the fallout of city planning that excludes those residents who are directly or indirectly impacted from the decision-making process.
Community Engagement Benefits outlines positive outcomes of constructive collaboration:
- New Ideas
- Customized Solutions
- Behavioral Change
- Funding Opportunities
- Conflict Prevention
- Positive Environment
- Access to Information
Community Engagement Challenges provides common obstacles for consideration when developing a community engagement framework:
- Time Consuming
- Potential Conflict
- Directional Shift
- High Expectations
Sustainability Principles associated with Community Engagement include:
- Actively solicit the community's input throughout the planning and implementation process.
- Open discussions and events to the entire community.
- Provide meaningful opportunities for involvement.
- Continue to serve in the leadership role while engaging the broader community.
- Prove a commitment to the long-term process.
- Report success and acknowledge community contributions.
Sustainable Strategies leading to successful community engagement include:
- Communicate - Provide access to the information that citizens need to both get involved and to benefit from sustainability.
- Participate - Engage the community in a variety of specific activities where they are directly involved.
- Celebrate - Reward the community and incentivize them for future efforts.
When developing a community engagement framework in relation to sustainability programs, local governments officials should first determine its structure and extent. Will the concept of community involvement be limited to simply informing the public of policy developments, or will it open the decision-making process to a citizen partnership? How much public participation is appropriate, and in what issues should they be involved? What are the objectives, and what are the intended results?
Some issues may not be appropriate for community engagement. For example, a member of the community might develop “green purchasing” policies for the private sector and could offer that experience to help the city. Legally, however, only the mayor and city council can negotiate in that arena. To manage expectations, city officials should outline up front which matters are not open to public involvement.
Community engagement is best suited for these city sustainability activities and decisions:
- Initial engagement strategy and planning
- Identifying sustainability issues and priorities
- Establishing timelines and benchmarks
- Arranging, managing and evaluating community-based projects and programs
- Policy and program evaluation
Clearly delineating engagement objectives and boundaries before involving the public can minimize misunderstandings related to levels of participation and power. Trust is a key ingredient in a working partnership with citizens, and once broken is difficult to reestablish.
People often use the adage "think globally, act locally" to impress upon others the fact that local action contributes to the betterment of the entire planet. For example, a reduction in a community’s vehicle miles travelled contributes both to an improved local air quality and decreased global greenhouse gas emissions. The term also reinforces global linkages such that a local government or community group might be able to leverage the work done by, learn from the experiences of, or participate in a broader initiative with, other communities across the world. In this context, community engagement at the local level can be part of a global initiative, such as the global Earth Hour climate awareness campaign.