Early Lessons from Community Engagement Evaluation

12/19/13 by Ellen Shelton

Wilder Research is providing evaluation support to the Corridors of Opportunity (CoO), a three-year regional collaboration based on two major federal grants. The CoO seeks to advance the vision and build-out for the region’s transit system in a way that enhances both overall regional economic competitiveness and also the quality of life of individual neighborhoods, especially those historically left behind by major infrastructure developments. One focus of the evaluation efforts has been the efficacy, outcomes, and sustainability of the community engagement efforts that are part of this initiative. You can now read about preliminary findings of this study on the Corridors of Opportunity web site.

One important strategy of Corridors of Opportunity has been to bring new voices into planning for transitways and the changes they bring to neighborhoods. Since one major goal is for transit-related development to benefit low-income and minority communities along with the rest of the region, significant efforts have been made to engage members of these communities in the planning.

Preliminary findings on the effectiveness, impacts, and sustainability of these community engagement efforts reveal promising progress. The evaluation – based on the first two years of region-wide efforts and the first round of grants to grassroots organizations –shows:

  • Increased engagement of community members in planning for their own neighborhoods.
  • Increased capacity of the organizations to educate and mobilize community members.
  • Stronger relationships between community organizations and local officials.
  • More regional consensus on the importance of continuing this work in order to promote better quality of life in historically under-invested neighborhoods.

Grants were made to 19 grassroots organizations to help them inform and mobilize community members to participate in planning. Here are some examples of impacts from the first eight grants whose one-year outcomes were examined:

  • Grant leaders estimate about 20,000 members of historically underrepresented communities have become more aware of plans for new transit lines and related development.
  • About 1,000 people gained access to decision makers through meetings and gatherings, and almost 150 became actively involved in networks promoting community interests.
  • As a result of their experience, two-thirds of grant participants say they are now more likely to believe that the new transit lines are being planned with their communities’ needs in mind.
  • Public agency staff who worked with community members through these grants report that they are better aware of community needs and perspectives, and better able to represent those in planning decisions
  • 23 community members have taken seats on formal or informal advisory groups for new transitway planning.

The initiative’s Community Engagement Team helps support the grant-funded work through region-wide efforts. This has included advising the Policy Board and member agencies on best practices in community engagement, support for relationship-building between community and agency representatives, and convenings and other activities to create a cross-sector dialog on equitable development. The work is also shaped and supported by the Community Engagement Steering Committee made up of representatives of a wide variety of community-based organizations who have also helped advise and support both public agencies and grantees.

The grant period of Corridors of Opportunity wraps up this December. How sustainable is this new level of engagement after the two rounds of grants are done? Will the new level of engagement wrap up as well? Based on early results, there is reason for hope:

  • Over half of the grant participants who were interviewed said they had increased their own capacity to take leadership in community issues.
  • Most public agency staff who worked with grantees say they have expanded their efforts to engage community members and have changed some aspect of their planning processes to facilitate engagement.
  • Outside of the grant-funded activities, there has been some movement among other public agencies in the region toward greater openness to community involvement, beginning at an earlier stage of planning, and with a more intentional focus on equity in the impacts of development.

Genuine engagement requires a true partnership of community and planners. This can be challenging when the issues are as long-term and technical as transit planning, and when there is a history of some communities being left out and, in some instances, being harmed by previous major developments. However, preliminary results show that it is possible to move beyond contentious history, and provide the kinds of support grassroots organizations need to fully participate in planning for transit-oriented development.

The preliminary report represents findings at just a middle stage of the initiative. Stay tuned for a final report in the spring of 2014 for updates.

Reprinted from The Corridors of Opportunity website.