Involving Citizens in Impact Assessments

Going to the Grassroots Creates Long-Term Beneficial Partnerships

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Tracee Strum-Gilliam is director of Mid-Atlantic Client Solutions at PRR.

Michael Allen is Community Partnership Specialist at the National Park Service.

Chancee Martorell is executive director and founder of Thai Community Development Center.

Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2016 1:46 pm

Impact assessments are typically conducted as legal requirements to identify the economic, social and environmental effects of public policy. They usually involve public meetings led by government officials in government buildings.

But, what if the role of the citizen wasn’t limited to that of a spectator in these assessments? What if residents were given the opportunity to lead these discussions?

Some planners are advocating just that. These labor intensive impact assessments can create a dialogue with often overlooked populations, which can be more effective at identifying potential blind spots in community planning.

Three urban planners discussed this topic in a recent webinar hosted by the Planning and the Black Community Division of the American Planning Association; the Planning Webcast Series Consortium; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Justice.

Tracee Strum-Gilliam, director of Mid-Atlantic Client Solutions at PRR, specializes in grassroots approaches for community impact assessments. She said community involvement and engagement takes “really getting out there in a community.”

“You need to identify what a community is," Strum-Gilliam said. "In the CIA (community impact assessment) spectrum, you are going to go beyond just a block. You are going to coordinate with local residents and stakeholders to find out what the community is really comprised of. You may be looking at the community as a block or two. But based upon history, that community may extend three or four blocks. You've got to go beyond the mapping,” she said.

An example of this type of impact assessment is the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Management Plan. The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor extends from Wilmington, N.C. to Jacksonville, Fla. It was designated by Congress in 2006. This is the only National Park Service heritage area that deals specifically with African American history and culture.

The NPS selected 25 individuals in 2009 to form a commission that would develop a management plan for this coastal area, said NPS Community Partnership Specialist Michael Allen.

“This management plan would become the road map. It dictates how the community, along with NPS, state and local governments and nonprofit organizations would come together to form this management plan,” Allen said.

Between February and August 2007, this commission held 21 public meetings in 19 different locations across four states. The meeting places were centrally located so that participants did not drive more than 30 or 40 minutes to attend a public meeting.

“It was an ambitious journey,” Allen said. “This was the first time that the National Park Service conducted 21 public meetings on a single topic. The locations were strategically selected. We chose places like churches, where people would feel safe and connected and engaged to talk about the Gullah/Geechee heritage.”

Strum-Gilliam advocates for this type of “holistic program” when conducting grassroots outreach. She recommends conducting community engagement at neighborhood centers and to use interview techniques.

“Barber shops are really great for this. Outreach at transit centers is really great for low-income and minority communities,” Strum-Gilliam said.

The commission for the Gullah/Geechee Heritage Area received more than 1,500 public comments through this innovative process. These comments were used to develop the vision and mission of today’s heritage area.

“We worked to keep the public involved in all the turns and activities (of the heritage area),” Allen said.

He said the commission took into account the digital divide that exists in the United States. Instead of relying only on electronically submitted public comments, the commission partnered with churches to collect data from their members.

“We were able to collect data the old-fashioned way -- by mail,” Allen said.

In the final 294-page management plan, there are highlighted quotes collected from participants at the 21 public meetings.

“We did that because we wanted people to feel connected to the end product,” Allen said.

Creating connections and instilling a sense of pride in cultural heritage were also driving forces in the establishment of Thai Town, said Chancee Martorell, executive director and founder of Thai Community Development Center.

Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, there was a “massive rebuilding effort” in the city and “sadly in this rebuilding effort there were some communities that were overlooked after they were adversely affected by the civil unrest,” Chancee said. “That included the Thai community.”

Chancee, who was a graduate student at the time, conducted the first needs assessment of the Thai community in Los Angeles.

“This needs assessment would document and identify community demographics, welfare and human needs and social economic characteristics. Once we documented and identified all that data, we could use it as an advocacy tool to raise our community visibility,” Chancee said.

She trained Thai students in data collection to help with her effort. In the end, they collected 600 surveys. The survey results showed “overwhelming support” for a designated Thai Town in east Hollywood, Chancee said.

In 1999 Thai Town was designated. But the work to develop this cultural neighborhood and recognize its residents didn’t end with that ceremony.

Chancee said the results from this 1994 community-based survey continues to influence projects in Thai Town. She said Thai Town Marketplace, which will be built this year, will be a hub for small business owners and is expected to create 40 jobs.

Strum-Gilliam said these types of impact assessments can be conducted with a small budget.

“If you have more money, you can do some things that are creative and if you don’t, you can be creative to work within those budget constraints,” she said.

Strum-Gilliam said there is a lot of attention on consensus building in impact assessments. But she pointed out how an impact assessment can “broaden horizons and understanding” of citizens and stakeholders.

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