Thoughtful urban design and planning has long been an essential aspect of our work at Cunningham Quill Architects. All of our urban design studies and master plans are based on a strong foundation of public engagement, outreach and listening to the community’s needs and desires, as well as educating the public on key design issues.
Since early 2020, the COVID pandemic has impacted the way we’ve interacted with the communities we work with and serve. From March 2020 through April 2022, a large portion of our community meetings, though not all, have been structured around online formats, such as Zoom and GoToMeeting seminars. Despite being virtual, the attendance and public engagement in these online meetings has been tremendous. Virtual community meetings have generally fallen under two types: the Online Workshop Charrette and the Virtual Town Hall.
The Online Workshop Charrette
In the online Workshop Charrette meetings hundreds of people may log-in to attend; the design team will present core concepts, then send the community into “breakout groups” of 8 to 12 people. In a recently-held online workshop charrette for the DC Office of Planning’s Chevy Chase Small Area Plan, the break-out room guidelines (shown below) encouraged optimal participation while note-taking software, such as Whiteboard, allowed participants to share visual ideas and to stimulate active and creative brainstorming discussions.
Afterwards, the breakout groups were reengaged to talk about overall conclusions and observations. Break-out rooms proved especially helpful when it’s difficult to have one-on-one community conversations with stakeholders.
The Virtual Town Hall
In virtual Town Hall meetings, the project teams will often spend up to an hour presenting with visually detailed images for the community to learn and understand the project. After the presentation, the team will open up the meeting to a Q+A style community discussion format where community members can share their thoughts and observations, as well as feedback on the design ideas. A couple of months ago, the Cunningham Quill team employed a virtual town hall meeting format for the DC Office of Planning’s Pennsylvania Avenue SE Small Area Plan.
Occasional In-Person Community Meetings During the Pandemic
In navigating the pandemic surges, we have had the opportunity to do in-person meetings in Charrette Workshop and Town Hall formats with the community. These in-person meetings require careful planning with local government clients and participants. All in-person meetings have been compliant with local laws and health regulations. Our recent experience with in-person meetings has been very rewarding, and though participants were masked, it has allowed for a depth of human connection that online methods cannot replicate.
When employing the Town Hall format, because it is less interactive than a workshop, at times it is possible to have a hybrid meeting that is in-person and includes a virtual component for participants wishing to participate from home. Other ways to approach the “hybrid” method have been to record the meeting and then post it on the jurisdiction website, providing a vehicle for comments and suggestions.
The key is be sensitive to community attitudes and feelings about public gatherings. During the ups and downs of the pandemic or throughout waves of infections, our success in community outreach has stemmed from being creative to engage the public in a meaningful and effective way.