PLANNING DURING A PANDEMIC: Challenge Accepted
by Senior Planner Mike Ratajski and Principal Planners Christopher Mynk, AICP and Steve Brandt, AICP
PLANNING DURING A PANDEMIC: Challenge Accepted
Strategic, community-based planning forms the foundation for infrastructure projects that drive economic development, improve the environment, maintain and upgrade operations and systems, and improve overall quality of life for residents.
From initial concept to development of overarching master plans, there are many factors that fuel the planning process and move it from proposed plan to final vision and execution. From garnering community and stakeholder consensus and buy-in via public outreach, to formulating an action plan, to timely planning in order to access available funding, professional planners keep our cities vibrant and growing with an eye to the future.
So what happens when the planning process is seriously impacted by an unplanned health crisis? QK planners step up to the challenge.
When Planning & Pandemic Collide
Community outreach and engagement are pivotal during the planning process as the community are the very people you are designing for. Engagement at all levels must be sought and nurtured with the goal to interact effectively with neighborhood, community, and civic institutions while building trust. This has always been best accomplished via in-person meetings, workshops, focus groups, forums, and special events. But when these avenues are no longer available, planners must utilize their experience and plan for new ways to engage and connect.
Key to public outreach and engagement is assessing your audience and determining the best way to reach them. “In pre-pandemic times, you could offer incentives like freebies, drinks and snacks, giveaways, and contests to build camaraderie and excitement. You could even offer on-site babysitting and children’s play areas so that parents could participate in meetings and workshops. During COVID, all these engagement-building tools are off the table,” said Senior Planner Mike Ratajski. In March of 2020, when true understanding of the Pandemic was just beginning to take shape, Ratajski and other QK planners experienced taxing circumstances on two planning projects, both of which were initiated within a month prior to the State of California’s COVID “lockdown” period.
Back to the Drawing Board
Planners are used to being flexible, stretching the boundaries of what has been done and what can be done, strategically applying limited funds to critical infrastructure projects, and providing innovative ways to plan for current and future needs for populaces of all sizes. To date, nothing has tested planners more than the COVID pandemic.
City of Los Banos: Parks Master Plan
Prior to lockdown, QK planners and the City of Los Banos held an in-person community workshop to gather input for its new Parks Master Plan. The workshop was attended by more than 100 residents of all ages, abilities, and interests. Shortly after, COVID-19 forced a shutdown of public gatherings. Subsequently, the City cancelled all upcoming stakeholder and community outreach meetings and put the project on hold for several months. City officials then approached QK seeking options to maintain project momentum. The firm presented the City with four approaches including: a pivot to outdoor venues; meetings in large, open spaces with masks required along with social distancing; and in-person meetings featuring exhibits and phased citizen attendance. Ultimately, the city embraced QK’s proposed fourth option of an all-virtual presentation format and the scheduling of virtual meetings was enacted to continue active public outreach. The virtual format also allowed people without computers to access the meetings on their cell phones, a first for the City of Los Banos. Establishing an interactive process, albeit virtual, provided the platform for attendees to submit questions, engage in conversation, and provide input and comments on the various park sites being considered in the Plan. Benefits of this strategic and creative pivot included:
- Emphasis on safety at all times
- Expanding participation of attendees who otherwise might not have been able to attend a public meeting in person
- Links to the City’s website to view the progress of the master plan, review concept plans graphic exhibits, and provide comments, allowing the project to proceed while gaining invaluable public comment and feedback
- The master plan (essentially the “blueprint” of the proposed projects) continued through final approval by the Parks and Recreation Commission and City Council, which helped with the City’s chances of submitting for grant funding faster than if the City had waited for in-person outreach to be possible
Communication was key to ensuring that the outreach effort was successful. Online surveys and workshops eliciting participation and comments replaced in-person interaction. If people weren’t able to attend a Zoom meeting, a copy of the survey was sent to them or made available on the city website. Notifications of upcoming meetings were handled via use of prior attendee email lists, multiple eblasts, City website, posters throughout City buildings, and ads in the local paper.
Through thoughtful and creative pivoting, QK was able to deliver the Master Plan within the schedule and budget while fostering a trusted partnership with the City and its citizens. Best of all, the Los Banos Parks Master Plan was honored with a 2021 Excellence and Achievement in Planning Award – Comprehensive Planning; Small Jurisdiction Category award from the Central Section – California Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA).
City of Delano: General Plan Update
The City of Delano’s General Plan Update (GPU) outlines the City’s long-range vision for the future. Just prior to California’s lockdown, QK’s selection to provide planning, environmental, and outreach services for the GPU had just been approved by City Council to proceed. Following Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, the project that QK and the City were preparing to kickoff was put on hold while the team devised a path forward that wouldn’t jeopardize the safety of the community or the project’s tight timeline. After several months waiting for the COVID crisis to resolve, QK approached the City with a plan to kick-start the project by shifting outreach to virtual and other methods, keeping safety the number one priority.
A virtual kick-off meeting, the first of its kind for the City, was scheduled. A series of stakeholder and public meetings, and workshops were held virtually over the past year. Once restrictions relaxed, the first outdoor outreach event, held in conjunction with National Night Out, provided an opportunity to safely meet residents, ask them key questions, and distribute GPU flyers and meeting information. City-provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and other freebies were handed out to incentivize the public to visit a QK booth.
Even after the partial emergence from the COVID fog, virtual meetings continue and the team has noticed one positive outcome: virtual meetings have increased accessibility to a much wider audience than ever before and the number of attendees has increased. “The virtual meetings seemed to encourage attendance by people who normally wouldn’t attend an in-person meeting. It was great to engage those people and give them a voice. While in-person meetings and workshops are still preferred, it was nice to see technology providing an alternative way for engagement,” said Principal Planner Christopher Mynk, who also serves as Interim Community Development Director for the City of Delano. And while the virtual outreach experience continues to teach us and our clients many lessons, what we’ve learned in the office works for outreach as well: encourage the audience to turn their cameras on. While we know it’s not the same, seeing residents’ faces helps create visual engagement and build connection on a deeper level than when cameras are turned off.
For the City of Delano, public outreach via virtual meetings and open-air events have provided a variety of ways for citizens to engage, share, and receive information. After more than a year of conducting outreach online, open houses are now being considered and scheduled with attendees being notified via:
- City’s social media including Facebook and Twitter, and leveraging invested associations and groups to utilize their social media platforms to reach additional residents
- City’s website
- Flyers at public events
- Postings in local newspapers
Innovation at Its Finest
While QK’s planners pivoted quickly to create a virtual meeting platform and schedule for both the cities of Los Banos and Delano, they did notice a disconnect from the in-person process. Not being physically immersed in the community they were working for posed challenges. However, they didn’t allow that to infiltrate the success of their revised approach. “Without face-to-face meetings with the community you have to work differently. We refocused and were very thoughtful on the types of questions we asked to elicit the information we needed. We also re-emphasized data gathered from prior meetings to reconfirm and reinform people of the findings at every opportunity,” said Project Manager Steve Brandt, AICP. The team was totally invested in making and maintaining connection; communicating effectively, continually, and thoroughly; and asking the right questions at the right times to gain thoughtful answers and build relationships.
To engage the innovative QK planning team on your next challenge, contact Steve Brandt at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (559) 733-0440.