Engaging with Community in the time of COVID-19

Engaging with Community in the time of COVID-19

At PLACE Laboratory we love to work with communities to help them develop a vision for public spaces. Despite the challenges of 2020 we have been excited to work on two such projects with the Shire of Murray, alongside Jenelle Provost and Associates, and PRACSYS. The Edenvale Heritage Precinct and the Pinjarra Heritage Railway Precinct have complex layers of social, cultural, and economic meaning to their community.  The revitalisation of both Precincts has potential to be transformative for the town, enhancing meaningful community assets which support the long-term projected population growth of the region and deliver tourism and economic returns for the Shire.

When we commenced the project in February 2020, we had planned to conduct facilitated workshops with each community group to understand their unique connection to the Precinct. However, by March the rapidly changing circumstances surrounding COVID-19 meant that an alternate engagement methodology was required. The methodology needed to respond to social isolation regulations and address concerns for the welfare of key stakeholders, mainly retirees.

The Shire considered postponing the project, fearing an online workshop would not reach their stakeholder audience. We believed there was an opportunity to adopt a ‘low-fi’ approach which still allowed all participants to feed into the process. We needed to find an alternative to a collaborative workshop environment which still allowed for varied points of view to come together to create a shared vision.

We developed a multilayered approach with qualitative and quantitative feedback mechanisms. We developed a consultation booklet for each project informed by our research and analysis of the two Precincts, which were sent to stakeholder group members. The booklets provided information and asked a series of questions framed as a two-way exchange of knowledge. We coordinated two one-on-one conversations with each reference group members, a week apart, to talk about their values, and aspirations for the Precinct. The Shire of Murray also posted aspects of the booklet on their online forum for the broader community to feed into the process.

Between our calls, we asked the stakeholders to ring two community members, preferably not from their own stakeholder group, to open a dialogue about their vision for the Precinct. In our second call, participants identified speaking to others in the community had given them ideas they had not considered before.

This process gave us a comprehensive understanding of the community’s relationship to each Precinct. Both processes were incredibly successful, identifying many opportunities which were distilled into a vision for each Precinct. Of note, the community identified over 160 different mechanisms to activate the Edenvale Heritage Precinct and more than 80 opportunities to revitalise the Pinjarra Heritage Railway Precinct.

Additionally, the process supported personal connections in the community during the height of physical distancing. This includes the level of connectedness our team felt with the Pinjarra community, having had multiple one-on-one conversations, and sharing the unique experience of the last six months. The Shire of Murray have expressed their satisfaction with the process stating,

“Feedback from stakeholders and the community has been incredible, with many highlighting how much they enjoyed being part of the process.  Working with consultants can be challenging at times, but we have found the whole experience to be really, really great.  We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the team to any [Local Government] looking for consultants who do more than just tick the boxes.“

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