November 10, 2000 - From the November, 2000 issue

Brownfields Redevelopment Meeting the Challenges of Community Participation

Community involvement in brownfields redevelopment unfortunately often comes late in the game, creating conflict and frustration for everyone involved. However, as the Pacific Institute's latest report, "Brownfields Redevelopment: Meeting the Challenges of Community Participation" suggests, if engaged throughout the process, local participation can actually benefit both the developer and the community. TPR is pleased to present the following recommendations for outreach.

Summary of Recommendations

Community participation is often viewed as an undertaking that will slow down a process. For many developers, the greatest motivating factor for undertaking community outreach and promoting participation is fear that community opposition will further delay or possibly prevent a project. However, while the "negative" motivation of community opposition is a real one, a greater motivation for meaningful community involvement can be the improvements that community participation can bring to a project, both for the developer and the community. Unfortunately, the formal participation mechanisms used by state and local actors involved in brownfields redevelopment often come quite late in the decision-making process. As a result, public participation too often follows the more traditional, and often adversarial, model of "decide-announce-defend," in which public meetings and comment periods are held to announce decisions that have already been made. Clearly, there are gaps between the formal mechanisms for participation and meaningful participation. Here, we summarize our recommendations for improving community involvement.

1.Know the community (and be known).

Community engagement will best take place when stakeholders, agencies, developers, regulators, and community members, are familiar with each other. Effective participation is often predicated on a stakeholder's understanding or anticipation of another's concerns, the ability to evaluate those concerns, and the ability to identify community members engaged on those issues.

Policies that promote more community interaction and engagement with agencies in all activities will improve an agency's community knowledge and credibility in future actions. Likewise, communities need to ensure that they are tied into both the development process as well as other community networks. Many of the formal triggers for public participation are public notifications of meetings or comment periods, and unless community organizations or residents are on the mailing lists for public meeting announcements (i.e., planning commission meetings, city council meetings, etc.), they are likely to miss the opportunity to participate in critical decision-making forums.

2. Seek a diversity of opinions

Brownfields stakeholders will have diverse interests during different stages of the redevelopment process, and efforts should be made to ensure all interests are included in relevant decisions. Outreach must go beyond identifying a single organization or interest. One can not assume to know what people think without asking, nor should one assume that any single organization or individual represents the entire community. Make use of existing networks and mechanisms that reach out to broad constituencies. Diversity of opinion shouldn't be ignored or used to create divisions, but must be acknowledged and respected. Stakeholders must also recognize the need to take extra measures to solicit and ensure participation from segments of the community that are not traditionally included. These measures include the provision of translation and daycare services, and efforts to hold meetings in convenient locations accessible by public transportation, and at convenient times.

3. Provide effective and regular communications to keep community actors informed throughout the process.

Community interest may ebb and flow, but a community cannot act on its interests if it is not informed. Thus, it is important to create mechanisms for keeping community actors informed about activities throughout the brownfields redevelopment process. The customary "public notification" about activities is not sufficient to reach community members who do not know to look for such notices or who are not on mailing lists, nor does it necessarily convey the information necessary to alert community members to the issues at hand. Regular communications about project activities should go beyond required public notification to promote transparency and enhance the accountability of actors throughout the process.

4. Recognize and address credibility and trust issues.

If there is a history of distrust among stakeholders, then stakeholders must make extra efforts to design a process to overcome credibility and trust issues. A participation process must promote honesty in communication and integrity in actions and break from past patterns of engagement that failed. Real and perceived balance of power will also be important. If the process is structured in such a way that community participation is severely limited, unequal, or not well-connected to actual decision-making, community members will have little incentive to participate. The credibility of the process will also be influenced by the community's perceptions of its ability to produce results in terms of realistic goals and resources to achieve those goals. Stakeholders are not likely to engage or remain engaged in a process unlikely to achieve its stated desired outcomes. Engaging trusted community actors, and soliciting and responding to a diversity of opinions should improve credibility.

5. Integrate brownfields redevelopment with other community priorities. Flexibility in framing the issues will allow for a broader & more integrated response.


Brownfields programs need to create the capacity and flexibility to integrate and coordinate various efforts. Often, brownfield programs are coordinated with other revitalization initiatives such as enterprise zones, business attraction, or redevelopment zones. Yet, many of the formal participation processes are limited to a narrow range of decisions (i.e., remediation plans, zoning decisions, or permitting), and community organizations and residents are not necessarily aware of, or plugged into, the brownfields decision-making structure.

Coordinating the many aspects of redevelopment and related issues often requires finding a more fluid forum for addressing issues and soliciting participation throughout the entire process rather than during a single stage of the project or for a narrowly defined issue. Brownfields efforts that are elevated and coordinated with a higher level of policy planning can expand both coordination and participation. All stakeholders benefit from framing brownfields issues broadly and coordinating programs to address a wide range of issues.

6. Continue to create policy and financial incentives for projects with public benefits and community involvement.

Incentives for community-based planning and engagement are needed to spur outreach efforts earlier in the process, particularly for less organized communities or projects with low profiles. At the federal, state, and local levels, assistance to promote brownfields redevelopment (for assessment, remediation, or development) should require that such publicly-assisted efforts engage with community members to provide projects with true community benefits (i.e., affordable housing, job training and employment, and community services).

7. Improve community capacity to participate.

We note that substantial portions of public financial and technical support for brownfields redevelopment is directed towards developers or government agencies, not community organizations. For example, some federal grants and loans provide incentives and support for local agencies to take action to involve communities in brownfields activities, but they rely on local agencies to carryout engagement with communities rather than empowering communities directly. It is often difficult for communities to share in these resources unless they are direct recipients of service programs, such as job training. Otherwise, community engagement in redevelopment activities such as planning, reuse, and review of cleanup plans, will largely rely on the community's capacity to commit time and resources to the opportunities for participation that local agencies, regulators, or developers choose to provide.

Greater effort needs to be made to ensure that resources are shared more directly with communities to improve their capacity to participate in decision-making and redevelopment projects. It is not enough to simply invite community members to the table for discussions. Technical and financial support from public or private sources can provide community organizations with key expertise to move a project forward.

8. Use facilitators wisely.

Done correctly, facilitated processes have been very effective in providing a more neutral and credible forum for discussion, in "equalizing" participation and eliciting opinions, and in providing professional assistance in communicating information. Many of the case studies involve the use of facilitators to conduct planning meetings and design workshops. Facilitators could certainly be used at other points in the redevelopment process as well. Participants in case studies spoke highly of the value of an outside facilitator. However, facilitated meetings in and of themselves will not contribute to meaningful participation if results are not integrated into the decision-making processes. A facilitator can also be compromised if he or she lacks authority to act independently or if the community feels the facilitator is merely a mouthpiece for the local agency.

Arlene K. Wong is a Senior Research Associate, and Lisa Owens-Viani a freelance science writer. May 2000/Working Paper 2000-03. Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment & Security.


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