Stakeholder engagement can be challenging at any time but initiating open, constructive dialogue with socially deprived neighbourhoods has its own set of obstacles. Urban Designer Mikaela Åberg has a decade of experience in creating such collaboration and has share with CityChangers.org some top tips for bringing both the residents and city administrations on board.
As recent as 2011, Drottninghög was Helsingborg’s most disadvantaged districts: a sprawling yet homogenous post-war construction populated by ‘cheap’ family apartments and blighted by social isolation and a terrible reputation. It was the municipally owned housing company Helsingborgshem that was tasked with changing this picture.
Leading the charge is Mikaela Åberg, an Urban Developer with a gift for engagement that has led to drastic transformation right where it’s most needed. Skim her CityChanger profile to get up to speed on Drottninghög.
Colleagues and Collaboration
As Mikaela’s insights attest, success rides not only on working with residents; internal cooperation is equally as important. Getting these steps under your belt will set you in good stead before reaching out to residents.
Don’t overlook the importance of ‘dialogue investment’. And do it early.
Mikaela expands: “It’s something that people or companies, in general, consider a great cost; that it’s something you’d rather just skip and move on to the information and communication process.”
Missing the value in talk leads to more sticky challenges later, or potentially lead to investments wasted on unrequired, unwelcome, and unsuccessful measures. That’s why this is an important step among internal departments and with the neighbourhood’s inhabitants.
Political fluctuation can be a stubborn obstacle to a long-term vision. Mikaela has seen priorities change with each newly elected official. Strategy is needed to lock in a sustained commitment across the political spectrum.
Make full use of political networks. An astute CityChanger has their ear to the ground. What are the governing minds and city leaders talking about? What’s ‘the next big thing’?
Interpret their movements as early as possible: “It’s like insurance,” Mikaela adds, “Learn where the winds are blowing and how you can incorporate it or prepare for it in your day-to-day work.” If they believe you’re working towards the same goal, you’ll probably make an ally.
Connect the Dots
Cities authorities are notorious for working in silos. Interdepartmental synchronicity is a must-have!
Finding common ground can set the roots for broad collaboration among municipal teams. This requires you to listen well, but also to understand that their concerns are altogether different: budgets, staffing shortages, relevant expertise, deadlines, political pressure, workloads… Be prepared for some give and take.
Engagement on the ground may be tougher yet. Socially deprived neighbourhoods like Drottninghög are commonly sceptical towards authorities. Mikaela has some experiential advice for breaking down this mistrust, setting you on the path for creating a change that both includes and benefits them.
As an authority, organisation, or advocate, do not try to spoon feed residents the solutions that most take your fancy. “You can’t start just by suggesting something like, ‘this is what we have, this is what we’d like to do, do you like it?’,” Mikaela knows.
Accept you don’t know what’s best for the residents – they do! It’s your job to help them identify what that is.
Listen to them. Use this skill and “take the time to create a foundation of trust”. Only then, our CityChanger advises, should you “start talking about neighbourhood development and how they can become a part of it”.
Humans famously dislike change. Expect resistance.
Interestingly, Mikaela notes that having a lingering presence in the area ringfenced for change breed a familiarity that breaks down barriers between the authorities and residents. However, you can become a day-to-day part of the neighbourhood. Be seen. Engage regularly. Get to know them.
Having established this connection, begin your consultation as early as possible.
Ask the Right Questions…
In terms of the neighbourhood, our expert suggests that you “really get to know it before you start suggesting change”.
Rather than asking what residents expect from the physical structures they live in, or even the spaces between them, find out about the people that inhabit them. Use open questions about the neighbourhood. Find out how people relate to the space.
“We started by having conversations with the tenants about their dreams and hopes and fears for the future, starting to get to know the real Drottninghög,” Mikaela informs us. You may be surprised how people open up.
… And Ask the Right Way
Don’t proceed with a one-style-fits-all approach! “What you have to develop as an urban developer is forms of dialogue and involvement that are really designed for the purpose”.
A message we hear time and again is this: public meetings favour those who shout the loudest. Intimidation keeps more vulnerable or excluded citizens away.
There’s a place for large public meetings, Mikaela affirms. Although they are relied on far too often.
Tailor the form of dialogue to suit the people, situation, environment, and context.
Choose the Setting Wisely
In Drottninghög, “sitting down, having a cup-of-coffee-meeting, either in the outdoors during summertime and spring, or at home” is what really engaged the locals. More than 300 of them. A big investment of time and energy, but an investment that paid off.
But don’t turn up unannounced. The Helsingborgshem team called the households in advance and asked to come by. It was talk on their terms. Approaching people in a suitable manner can work wonders: “I think all of us who were a part of that process gained a few pounds, because we were offered so many cookies and coffee and food. It was great hospitality.”
Fear of failure is toxic; it holds us back. So, Mikaela has one last bit of advice: be a pioneer.
“Dare to test and dare to trust that things can actually work if you just have the courage to try them.”
The fact of the matter is, unless we do something, nothing will happen. “If you have a problem with getting everybody on board, just try on a small scale.” Baby steps, Mikaela has learnt, grow into strides.