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Community Engagement

In 2010, the then Tulane University President Scott Cowen announced the University was planning to build a new 30,000-seat football stadium, bringing football back to the Uptown campus after 35 years in the Superdome. As a source of pride for the University and show of continued commitment to student athletes, Cowen understood the importance of the move to the Tulane community. He could not, however, have anticipated the wave of backlash that he and the University would face from the Uptown community opposing the move.

Ironically, the neighborhoods of Uptown had formerly hosted the Sugar Bowl from 1935 to 1975 in the original 55,000-seat Tulane Stadium before relocating the Bowl and regular season play to the Superdome. Now just 35 years later, some of the same community members along with more recent newcomers to the area, feared the impact large crowds of tailgaters, limited parking, rowdy students, tons of garbage, and commercialization of the games would have on their quiet streets. Within weeks the deep divides of mistrust burnt bridges of open communication, sides coalesce supports and began to wage war via yard signs and on-line opinion blogs.



The Tulane University Architect requested assistance from peer and practicing Architects - members of the Society of College and University Planners (SCUP) for experience in facilitation of a community engagement campaign. The goal was to bring all parties back to the table and find common ground for the stadium design and ongoing management of the game-day experience. Professionals that led the transformation of the University of Cincinnati responded to the call with a plan based on inclusion and transparency. The experience of Tulane, in addition to many other across the country, have shaped this collection of principles and best-practices for effective community engagement.


What is Community Engagement?

Community engagement is a facilitated interaction between stakeholders of varying viewpoints about the future of the common environment that supports their lives. Community simply refers to a cohort of people that share a common identity, place, and interest in the decisions that will affect the future thereof. Engagement is the range of interactions those people agree to undertake, designed to align understanding of a current state, and bring about a vision for a common future state toward which to embark. Well run community engagement can encourage investment and focus of limited human, financial, and physical resources to enact the changes necessary to achieve a common vision. The benefits include:

Community engagement can be time intensive, and emotions can be frayed, but when well facilitated the investment can pay-off abundantly for a community.



Where To Start?

From the beginning, the two essential ingredients of any successful engagement event are first attitude, then intention. A positive, goal-oriented attitude of the facilitator can set the tenor of the room. The facilitator’s attitude can also temper any preconceived expectations that participants may have brought to the event. With a positive attitude, the facilitator then employs the participants in a narrowly defined intention, a co-created vision for the future.

Any recommendation regarding best-practices for community engagement must address a common fear of many event sponsors – how to manage participants that wish to be disruptive to the process or simply can’t imagine a common path forward outside of their own beliefs system – How to manage risk in the process. From the start, we see all attitudes as an agent for change.

Other than in rare occasions, communities are diverse in preconceived expectation, yet segmented in three general categories: those that are all in, those that are all out, and those in the middle looking for more information from which to make an informed decision. Generally, those all in or out represent only ten to fifteen percent of the community, respectively, leaving the middle seventy to eighty percent at least willing to hear more.

An optimistic attitude and a clearly defined call to action will capture the imagination of the majority of the participants, and simultaneously welcome a constituent more resistant to change. Regardless of whatever our preconceived notions, if we’ve shown up at an engagement event, either our curiosity has been tweaked or our conviction must be heard, or both. Both are useful.


Creating an Effective Invitation

Effective community engagement begins with an invitation to the broadest representation of stakeholders possible. It is natural to invite those that are already engaged and supportive, whatever the outcome. Enacting a plan will take representation from all sectors of the community, all working together. Therefore, engagement is designed to build new relationships, forging new collaborations between often uncommon partners. Sponsors and facilitators must work hard to remove barriers to those that are not often heard.

The needs of the participants must be considered in the planning of engagement events. People have very busy, and very different lives. Consideration must be given to the number of and type of interactions, days and times for the event(s), duration, venue, accommodations, sustenance, child-care, scheduling against competing events, etc. Here are a few of our suggestions:



Selecting the Right Community Interaction

Interaction types are divided into direct and indirect engagements. Direct engagements are interactions between individuals that are face-to-face, emails, phone conversations, or letters, characterized by a two-way, person giving and person receiving communication loop. Indirect interactions are one-way communications, such as brochures, websites, news articles, radio spots, surveys, etc. where there is no specific sender/receiver interaction.

The influence of indirect communication is difficult to quantify, and is best employed to provide general information, updates, or marketing a position. There are members of every community that are not comfortable with direct personal interactions, especially in large group settings. That is not to say, however, that they should be excluded from the process. Solicitation of feedback via surveys or website posting can be a viable means of capturing important viewpoints.

Each community has a unique communication profile based on socio-economic conditions, degree of homogeneous demographics, quality and extent of communication infrastructure, cultural and social styles, traditions, etc. Both direct and indirect means of interaction can be effective in reaching a sponsors desired outcome when properly aligned with a communities’ unique communication profile. It is not unusual that multiple interaction types are used during and engagement exercise.


Direct Interactions

  • Public Forums: Public Forums are open to the entire community and are usually run as a series of planned sessions and to solicit the broadest input possible. The sponsor identifies a Project Team that represents the broadest constituencies within the community, are asked to support the Forum process, assist the facilitator during the event(s), and collaborate in publishing the final recommendations. The agenda for the event(s) are fluid, but generally follow a similar pattern of: Introduction, Discussion, Presentation & Feedback, Consensus Building, and Final Recommendations.



Indirect Interactions

  • Newsletters/Brochures: Pre-printed material can be an inexpensive way to generally inform the community of the engagement process, logistics, relevant facts, and sources of additional information. Newsletters can contain both written and pictorial information, such as community members enjoining their interaction with one another. Printed material should not be considered an engagement, but a supportive tool to make the engagement as fruitful as possible.
  • Surveys: Surveys are the most efficient method for gathering large quantities of data from a broad constituency. A combination of open-ended questions and numeric scales and can gain engagement sponsors both specific information and trending data about a current condition or planning proposal. Additionally, survey can track changes in public opinion over time. For a survey campaign to be successful, the quality and quantity of questions need careful consideration.
  • Websites/Social Media: Lastly, websites can provide a virtual forum to mimic the entire engagement experience except the social benefits of human interaction. Webpages can contain information similar to a newsletter, and as easily be a portal to articles, surveys, video content, live feed to events.

“Enacting a plan will take representation from all sectors of the community, all working together.”

The success of any community engagement is measured by the tangible impact the results have on the community over time. Communities can benefit in many human and physical ways: from the champions born out of the engagement that lead a recommendation to fruition, improved communication between neighbors, formation of implementation teams, and the many process, operational, policy, and environmental improvements that can come from them. It is important to keep participant informed of progress and share in the celebrations of achievements that follow.

Yulman Stadium opened on the Tulane campus in time for the 2014 fall campaign to a standing room only crowd of 30,000 Green Wave fans. The previous home game closed the 1974 season with 80,000 fans attending. While the Yulman is a more intimate building than the former Tulane Stadium, the opening game was electric with potential. Well planned game-day event operations kept the fans mostly on campus as a result of recommendations generated during community engagement sessions 2-years earlier.

Neighbors had some difficulty finding on-street parking that day, but was hardly a mention during the revived front-yard pre-game parties. Partnering with the City of New Orleans, pre-printed signs reminded the gathering crowds of safe and ample routes to campus, street closures, ample parking areas and refuse containers also kept the local residents from experiencing their worst fears. As one neighbor shared who attended the engagement sessions, “Just having a stadium back in the Uptown, it’s a big deal for the city and for Tulane, I’m not even a Tulane grad. I’m just enjoying the spirit of it all.”