This blog post was co-written with Jessie Bauters, MindMixer’s Community Builder. This is part one of a joint MindMixer and Sasaki blog post series on the topic of community engagement. To learn more about the series, click here.
The capital city of North Carolina has steadily grown every year since 2001, up 43 percent in 13 years to a population of nearly 432,000 people. This rapid growth calls for structural and cultural changes—a challenge the city was tackling when it hired Sasaki to head up its downtown development project in early 2014.
“They’re at this point now where they’re transitioning into a bigger city,” says Brie Hensold, Sasaki project manager. “And we were excited to get involved at just the right moment.”
A key component to that transition strategy is capturing and catering to the needs of a changing downtown demographic. “They have a really active downtown base, but they knew they had to do a lot of engagement to reach more than just the loyal downtowners to land on a vision for Raleigh’s future that would resonate broadly,” Brie explains.
Changing Outreach for a Changing City
Raleigh took a comprehensive approach to engagement. The Sasaki team already had an enthusiastic client and interested participant base to work with when the Planning for Raleigh site launched. The site became a critical component of the city’s multi-pronged engagement strategy to give voice to all of Raleigh’s populations.Raleigh had practice connecting with people in creative ways. A year before the downtown discussion kicked off, 1,400 people took part in the park system planning process online at Your Parks Your Future. “The city government and Raleigh community were primed and ready to engage online, which was a major contributor to our success,” Brie notes.The project kicked off with three planning sessions. The first public open-house introduced MindMixer. Then a downtown-wide visioning session followed. Subsequently, the team embarked on a blitz of sessions in six downtown neighborhoods.The city succeeded in gathering input from beyond a passionate core; new downtown residents took to the digital forum in strong numbers. It is a city experiencing an influx of innovative, entrepreneurial talent. This burgeoning population, already collaborative in their working communities, easily got onboard with the idea of collaborating—whether face-to-face or virtually.
Throughout the discussion, subjects like tourism; pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure; and parks and open spaces were popular online and off. But Brie says the role and expansion of public transit struck the biggest chord with residents.By having the ability to ask people open-ended questions—rather than relying solely on survey responses—the online discussion on transit was able to go deeper than either Sasaki or the city anticipated.”We were able to dig in a little more on the R-Line Downtown Circulator,” says Brie. “It started a discussion on changing the route, and even the fare. People know that the R-Line needs to be more efficient, but it’s not a subject that had been broached in such depth previously.”The open-ended format also affirmed the city’s decision to invest in creating and maintaining open spaces downtown. “As the city has become denser, the need for green space has become really paramount in everyone’s minds. Where can I walk my dog? Where can I find open spaces? That really rose to the top,” says Brie.
Finding Your Champions
The city and the team at Sasaki have been pleased with the level of involvement they’ve received from citizens. “Downtown populations proved themselves to be really engaged, and MindMixer slotted into that nicely,” Brie says.
While the master plan will be implemented over the course of years, the city of Raleigh is already embarking on planned projects: moving forward with improvements to historic Moore Square Park and conducting a study of the city-owned facilities master plan.
The biggest takeaway for the Sasaki team was the importance of tapping into early adopter communities like the entrepreneurs of the growing Raleigh tech scene. It helped build buzz and create advocates for the process.
Brie observes, “there was an alignment there. These people are all about online engagement and being part of a community. This resonance between platform and users is important to find when conducting any kind of community engagement.”