Community outreach: Construction's human side

January 2014 » Features » BUSINESS STRATEGIES
Public involvement and outreach can be key to project success.
Hugh Smith

Construction is a large and complex undertaking, especially in a dense, urban area like New York City. Whether erecting a building such as One World Trade Center, tunneling the Second Avenue Subway, or rehabilitating the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, it's easy to lose sight of the negative effects that construction may have on the surrounding community. Community outreach addresses residents' concerns and provides a conduit for communication for the good of the project and the community.

There is no doubt that modern construction techniques are absolutely amazing. They allow us to build bigger and better structures with greater speed and efficiency than at any point in history. However, impressive as the final result can be, more often than not construction comes at a cost – not only the financial costs that can be calculated and quantified, but also the costs to the quality of life for surrounding communities.

We've all been there, caught in traffic and fuming as we run later and later for that meeting because of roadwork up ahead, or sitting in an office or conference room trying hard to hear a presentation as the new building across the street rises foot by noisy foot. Some may dismiss these as minor annoyances or attribute them to the cost of working in a major city. That may be so, if you only have to put up with it temporarily as you drive past or if you leave the area at the end of your workday.

However, to the people living in and around these sites, the noise, pollution, and inconvenience of construction are anything but minor, and nowadays residents are not shy about expressing their displeasure. With the combination of social media and increased media scrutiny, an incensed community has any number of ways to make its displeasure known. Any community member with a smartphone may now take a picture or video, or write and post an article critical of the project while standing only feet away from the work site. It is not unheard of for bad publicity to severely hamper the progress of a project.

Community outreach in action
On any given weeknight in all of New York's five boroughs, community members gather at their respective community boards. Some come for information. Some are excited with the prospect of speaking their minds and addressing a need in their community. Sometimes they are just plain angry. On the night of one of my first community board meetings, the community was very angry. It was obvious from their body language, in the way they huddled and whispered together in small groups, and especially evident in the way they glared at the project team as we entered the packed community board meeting room.

As we began setting up our laptops and projectors, the conversation fell to a hush and dozens of pairs of eyes narrowed to slits. The refreshments, coffee, soft drinks, and pastries that usually would have been happily consumed by the time the meeting started sat mostly untouched. One gentleman held an uneaten cruller wrapped in a pink napkin, using it to gesticulate angrily toward the maps and drawings that we had painstakingly set up throughout the room.

Trying our best to ignore the hostility, the project team circulated among the attendees, greeting familiar faces and introducing ourselves to those we didn't know. We handed out business cards and spent time discussing the various display boards, pointing out various milestones of the project and discussing the work yet to come. But the impressive graphics and the well-reasoned text we had spent weeks perfecting clearly made little impact on our grim and stone-faced audience.

Soon, the meeting began and the chairperson gave an overview of the project, its challenges, and its effects on the community. It wasn't long before the patience of the attendees came to an end and they began to shout their questions, demanding answers. The project manager calmly rose and introduced the project team, which included me as the new community liaison. Together we patiently fielded their questions and outlined how the communication between the project and the community would work going forward. Two exhausting hours later, we emerged from the meeting, battered and bruised, but instead of enduring whispers and harsh stares from the community, we walked out together, smiling and shaking hands.

Doing away with decide-announce-defend
There was a time when the complaints of an angry citizenry would not have been given much weight. Fortunately, those days are largely past, and increasingly, enlightened agencies now know that they ignore the concerns of the public at their own peril. They realize that actual communities filled with families, schools, churches, and businesses are served by their creations, and have abandoned the old decide-announce-defend ways of the past.

Instead, they are incorporating the concerns, needs, and values of the public into the decision-making processes. Public involvement and community outreach in agency decision making are quickly becoming standard practice since they realize that there can be no doubt that effective community outreach can be key in helping projects succeed.

Community outreach benefits
Builds relationships – If performed correctly, community outreach creates a relationship between the public, the project team, and decision makers. It also ensures that decision makers hear from and incorporate the thoughts, values, and opinions of the public into the decisions that ultimately affect whole communities. It lessens the public perception that a nameless, faceless, bureaucracy that cares little for their opinions is pulling the strings that ultimately affects their quality of life.

Reduces project delays – There are still some who believe that the process of community outreach is wasted time – time that would be better spent getting on with the project and accomplishing its goals and objectives. That opinion is shortsighted and severely outdated. The better the relationship with the community, the better position the project will be in to avoid a worst-case scenario.

I have witnessed many times the good relationship between the project and community coming into play and helping ward off potential delays. If a situation is combative and adversarial, the issue will be exponentially harder to resolve. Community outreach provides the platform by which parties may have an open dialogue in an atmosphere of trust, thereby helping to ensure that the project will not face harmful delays brought about by bad publicity from a resentful public.

Anticipates potential problems – As the old adage goes, forewarned is forearmed. This rings especially true when performing effective community outreach. The planning process takes many, many contingencies into account. Then, during construction, project managers are ever vigilant, looking for the little conditions that may affect the project and trying to solve them before they grow. Still, as mindful as the project team may be, without community outreach, things can slip past their watchful gaze and without warning morph into significant issues.

The effective community liaison is attuned and sensitive to the pulse of the community and so may know about the "little" issues that may escape the notice of the project manager, bring them to his or her attention, and help provide a resolution. This not only staves off a potential problem for the project, but also builds the community's trust in the project and adds to its credibility and good reputation, which often spills over into future projects.

Educates the public – Once the public is educated regarding construction techniques and why certain things are done the way they are, they are less likely to be adversarial when faced with them. I have experienced many public meetings where community members, educated by effective community outreach, are able to explain to their less knowledgeable neighbors why certain things have to be done the way they are. In the end, the public may not be happy about what is happening, but when they are educated and have a say in when the condition occurs – for example, the times when a certain construction activity takes place – they are much less likely to regard the project, the project team, and the agency as the enemy.

As for the angry community I mentioned earlier? I would be lying if I said that things were perfect after that. They weren't, but the relationship between the community and the project became far less adversarial. After the meeting, the project no longer consisted of the nameless and faceless "they." The project now had a face (me), a real person who would be onsite regularly and had a phone number and an email address.

In addition, the community now knew that the project team was sincerely listening and cared about its concerns. The project continued, and although the community did not get everything it wanted, its concerns were listened to and taken into account, and where possible, concessions were made. In the end, we turned an angry community into project partners, willing to sit and talk with us without rancor about what was going on in their neighborhood.

Hugh Smith is an associate/director of community outreach for Sam Schwartz Engineering D.P.C. (www.samschwartz.com) in New York City. He can be reached at hsmith@samschwartz.com.

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