Amid social distancing orders, municipal officials and planning professionals are turning to online forms of communication.
Over the last few decades, transit-oriented development (TOD) in New Jersey has been shaped by countless public meetings, stakeholder workshops, and development review hearings. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and state-wide social distancing orders, local governments, planners, and the communities they serve are scrambling to figure out how to keep the conversation going through online engagement.
Aside from the usual technical challenges of using web conference platforms like Zoom and Webex, planners must ensure that hearings, public engagement, stakeholder workshops and other forms of online engagement adhere to legal requirements and provide meaningful opportunities for public input.
Trish Sanchez, Public Outreach Specialist with the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation at Rutgers University, was coordinating public and stakeholder engagement work for several Central Jersey counties when the stay-at-home orders came into effect.
Continuing public outreach activities has proven challenging, she says. Local governments are focused on managing their COVID-19 response. Community groups recruited to disseminate information and carry out engagement activities are now under strain and using limited resources to address the immediate needs of communities they serve.
One county client decided to delay the public outreach effort, fearing that a shift to an online format would exclude people who lack internet access or are uncomfortable interacting in an online format.
Some planning professionals see new opportunities emerging. Paul Grygiel, a partner with Hoboken-based firm Phillips Preiss Grygiel Leheny Hughes, continues to represent clients before planning and zoning boards through online web conference platforms. He’s noticed several benefits to holding hearings on a computer screen. Municipalities provide information related to the application prior to the meeting, and exhibits, such as architectural drawings, displayed on-screen are easier to see than the boards typically displayed at in-person hearings. While some municipalities have experienced technical challenges, Grygiel says the meetings he attended were well-moderated and provided all participants a chance to speak.
Online forms of public outreach are hardly new. In fact, use of online engagement tools by planning agencies and firms has increased dramatically over the last few years. Here in New Jersey, the Mayor of Passaic has attracted a large following on Facebook thanks to frequent livestream videos of meetings, events, and more recently of COVID-19 response efforts. A recent transit hub planning effort in the Borough of Dunellen maintained an active facebook page that kept followers engaged with study updates, shared media content, and opportunities to provide feedback through comments and polls. Online surveys have become a standard outreach tool for planning efforts. Web-based interactive tools, such as streetmix, WikiMapping, or CrowdMap allow members of the public to add their input directly to maps and diagrams.
The COVID-19 shift to web-based formats may accelerate the ongoing trend of online engagement, but conducting planning workshops and meetings on web conference platforms will be new territory for most local officials, planning professionals, and community members.
The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA), a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that plans and programs federal transportation funding for a 13-county region, produced a concise virtual public engagement best practices guide based on their experience running meetings and practices of other MPOs and state Departments of Transportation (DOTs).
According to Melissa Hayes and Ted Ritter, NJTPA outreach staff members who led development of the guide, federal and state agencies have been pushing, over the last few decades, for more inclusive and meaningful public engagement activities to guide planning and public investments. In response, planners have worked to provide innovative alternatives to the traditional public meeting. Ritter and Hayes see online engagement as the key to that effort.
“After we get back in the office, we’ll continue to do in-person outreach, but we’ll be better at supplementing with a virtual component and understanding that you can get more people to participate when they can do it on their own terms,” says Hayes.
The increasing preference for online interaction among younger, tech-savvy generations will make online activities essential to conducting meaningful public engagement. Ritter expects online engagement tools to continue to proliferate and improve.
Phil Abramson, founder and CEO of Topology, a planning firm based in Newark, believes that the current shift to an online format is an opportunity for municipalities to break with traditional hearing formats and embrace technology, even after social distancing orders are lifted. Virtual formats would greatly increase the efficiency of the development review process, says Abramson, which can be costly for municipalities and applicants. Planners and other professionals representing applicants would be able to attend multiple meetings in one evening.
Currently however, Abramson sees many municipalities acting cautiously and taking steps to mitigate legal risk in the absence of clear guidance for online hearings, even as they move forward with reviews.
Abramson points out that a successful legal challenge to the online hearing format could upend efforts to keep development approvals moving forward amid the pandemic. In the event of judicial intervention, developers’ may lose their investment in advancing hearings, only to be faced with new legal costs and unpredictable, and likely significant, delays. If this were to occur, he says, development approvals would most probably come to a halt as long as social distancing orders stay in place.
Organizing and running an online meeting for the first time can seem complex and challenging. The planning professionals and public outreach specialists interviewed for this article provided guidance and tips for ensuring meetings go smoothly. Here are a few key points.
- Follow all procedural requirements, as per applicable statutes.
- Be thoroughly familiar with the web conference platform operations, tools, and capabilities.
- Prior to the meeting, modify the web conference platform settings to control what participants can and can’t do during the meeting.
- Prepare all information and materials before the meeting.
- Conduct a test run, using staff as stand-ins for participants.
- In addition to the presenter, designate staff members to deal with technical issues related to the platform, manage participation, moderate the conversation, and monitor chats.
- Depending on the subject matter and type of input sought, consider limiting the number of participants.
- Moderate speakers by using a platform with a “raise hand” function that allows participants to indicate they wish to speak. Call on participants to speak in the order they raise their hands.
- Keep all participants muted unless they are called on to speak. Let everyone know beforehand that they will be muted.
- Describe verbally any images or graphics being shown on the screen for people calling in by phone.
- Record live events and share the recording on your organization’s website or social media, as appropriate.
- Keep planning workshops under an hour.
An amendment to the State law governing the development process, the Municipal Land Use Law, is the only sure way to protect municipalities’ use of online hearings, during or after the pandemic, says Abramson. “There needs to be leadership at the state level to provide municipalities some level of protection.”
Abramson sees an opportunity for planners to align practices with the larger shift to virtual engagement. Amid social distancing, planners should experiment with new communication mediums, he says, especially for projects requiring informal community engagement. They should work with professionals from other disciplines, like marketing, public relations and media production, to learn how more advanced communication solutions can be deployed in the context of planning and local government.
However, planners also recognize the limitations of online engagement. Online development review hearings may hold promise, but Grygiel expects public outreach for planning efforts, such as municipal master plans or corridor studies, to be more challenging. “There’s something to be said for a Saturday morning workshop where you get people in the room together and you get them to look at maps. It will be hard to replicate that.”
Sanchez believes online engagement will always be in the mix, but can’t substitute for in-person activities.
“A lot of our public outreach is going to them. Now we’re making them come to us online,” she says. “You’re not getting that face-to-face personal interaction. You’re not getting people who drop by on the fly. You have to find them, go to them, and have a conversation with them in person.”
Populations with limited or no internet access, or who are uncomfortable interacting online, will be sidelined if internet-based activities are the only form of outreach. According to Pew Research Center, nine in ten American adults used the internet in 2019. There are large disparities among age and income groups, with only 73 percent of adults over 65, and 82 percent of people making less than $30,000, using the internet.
Geographic disparities in access to broadband could leave rural populations out of the conversation, creating a long-term challenge to inclusive online engagement.
In addition, providing translation for people with limited English proficiency during an online event is challenging, and privacy concerns may discourage some people from participating, especially older adults and immigrants.
Hayes and Ritter emphasize the need to determine the target audience before selecting appropriate online engagement approaches and tools. Online activities should provide multiple ways to participate to accommodate different needs and comfort levels. Participants should have the opportunity to call in by phone or computer and to send chat messages. Online meetings can be recorded and posted so people unable to attend the live event can view the video and provide additional input.
Ensuring online activities are mobile-phone compatible to the extent possible will help planners reach a larger portion of traditionally under-represented populations. One in five Americans are “smart-phone only” internet users, according to Pew Research Center, meaning they access the internet only through a phone rather than home-based broadband. This trend is especially common among younger adults, non-whites, and lower-income Americans.
In addition to web-based tools, there are other ways to provide remote opportunities for public input for people who cannot or choose not to use the internet; NJTPA provides a phone number (as well as an email address) for comments and mails out comment cards.
Even as they try to master new tools, planning professionals are trying to assess how, or if, to engage the public on planning issues at a time when hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, unemployment lines grow, and stress builds at home.
Hayes advises local officials and planning professionals to carefully promote online meetings and to be sensitive to the current pandemic and social distancing orders. Promotional materials should acknowledge the unfolding health and economic crisis, but also explain why members of the public should be interested in planning decisions, and why planners and decision-makers want to hear from them.
Grygiel believes people might become more involved in planning discussions while the stay-at-home orders remain in place. Many people have more time on their hands, and, for most, logging into an online meeting is more convenient that traveling to a public meeting hall.
Sanchez points out that people are also spending more time than usual on social media, creating opportunities for planners to provide information, solicit input, and promote outreach events.
Whether online or in-person, many difficult conversations lie ahead for New Jersey communities. Planners may not be frontline workers, but as the pandemic continues and after it ends, planning professionals will play a vital role in responding – from addressing housing needs and supporting local businesses to creating and expanding space for all to walk, bike and be in the company of others at safe distances, and ways to travel safely, both locally and regionally, via transit.
Local debates over increased density and mixed-use development are often contentious and could become more so as residents seek to shield themselves from any perceived threat to battered personal and municipal finances. Residents may also associate denser development patterns with increased risk of contracting novel coronavirus or other infectious diseases. But Grygiel is optimistic that the impacts of COVID-19 will lead people to realize the importance of planning and pay more attention to the interactions among land use, the economy, and taxes.
How effectively we keep conversations going under social distancing orders may very well impact our ability to work together to recover from the pandemic and its economic and social fallout.
New Jersey Public Meeting Guidance Resources
Online public meetings, such as zoning and planning board hearings, must adhere to the same requirements as in-person meetings, including providing public notice. The resources below provide guidance to holding public meetings.
- Department of Community Affairs Local Operational Guidance - Covid-19: Guidance for Remote Public Meetings in New Jersey
- Recommendations for Land Use Public Meetings in New Jersey, GovConnect
Planning Public Engagement Guidance Resources
- Extending our Reach Video Series and Webinars, Federal Highway Administration
- Guide to Conducting Virtual Public Engagement, North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority
- Meeting People Where They Are, ICMA
- Online Public Engagement, American Planning Association (membership required)
- Public Engagement Toolkit, North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority
- Virtual Public Engagement Fact Sheet, Federal Highway Administration