Sustainability Plans. They come in many shapes, sizes, and formats, and range from magazine length to dictionary weight. They are filled with captivating infographics or horrible charts. There are plans that you have to be a scientist to understand, and plans that a 12-year-old could comprehend. Budgets vary widely, and a $50,000 plan looks and feels differently than a $300,000 plan. While each community has to grapple with what works best for them, there’s one feature no plan should be without: meaningful community engagement.  

Several years ago, a speaker at a conference on emergency planning for citizens with disabilities reminded the audience to include the populations we serve in the conversations that decide their fate. As she put it, “nothing about us without us.” This holds as true for disabilities planning as it does for sustainability planning – or it should.

Inviting residents to not just participate in the development of your municipality’s sustainability plan, but to actually create the content of the plan might be painful. You might have to include things you would not have otherwise included. You might also hear insightful, creative solutions. So why risk it?

  • It provides legitimacy to the process and empowers residents. Local government is limited in what it can do. Community support, time, and effort has to be part of the equation to make real changes.
  • People put energy in to the things they care about. It’s the initiatives that staff and the community determine are most worthy of their time and attention that will actually get accomplished. It’s helpful to know what those are.
  • Not mentioning a controversial item or excluding it from your plan is not going to make it go away. If the community is talking about it, it will come up one way or another. Have your “Come to Jesus” moment when you’re ready for it.

In the City where I work, our engagement strategy included community leader interviews, a bilingual online survey, one large event, fourteen small group meetings held on specific topics, and one Spanish-only event. Meetings were held different times of day, in accessible locations, and translators were available when needed. We formatted our plan in such a way that there are two distinct sections – a City Government Operations Plan and a Community Plan. This allowed City staff to develop a plan that makes sense for them, and the community to create a plan that reflects their interests.

Like any large project, there are things we would like to have done differently or better if only we had the time/money/ability/hindsight, but at the end of the day, we have a Sustainability Plan that tried its darndest to capture the best opportunities as determined by staff and the community.  Most importantly, staff and the community are already moving forward implementing initiatives – which is exactly how it should work if a plan is truly representative. They are, after all, the movers and shakers that take the plan off the shelf and give it legs.


…if you have 18 minutes to spare, you might check out this TED talk with Dr. Elizabeth Coleman, President of Bennington College, who makes this point more eloquently than I…(it takes a bit for it to come home, stick with it).


A couple resources I found to be particularly useful:

City of Menlo Park Community Engagement Model Overview

Institute for Local Government – A Local Official’s Guide to Immigrant Civic Engagement

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