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What is “People First Community Development”?

What is “People First Community Development”?

Category ArtsCommon 118, Community Development, Community Engagement
Posted 03/12/18

The Edmonton CDC is committed to People First Community Development, which means we are committed to People First Community Engagement. It is so fundamental to our work that it is the tagline in our logo. Here is what that term means to us and our work in Edmonton neighbourhoods.

Development is always about people
Whether we construct or renovate housing, strip malls, greenhouses, food centres, or  engage in services that advance job development, community capacity building, and access to financing, at the core of such work are people. We believe putting the needs, aspirations, and concerns of people first is the responsible approach to community development.

Community conversations
While community conversations are an element of engagement, I mentioned them separately because small conversations lead to ideas, what-ifs, and the desire to expand those conversations to include others, if of course one is serious about delivering stellar community engagement. Every innovative success I have had in my long career began with a conversation and grew from there. To work in community, the Edmonton CDC needs to meet people, talk with them, listen to their aspirations and their pain. We need to understand community through many lenses before we can hope to achieve the degree of impact community members want and deserve.

Proactive engagement
It’s not enough to advertise an engagement session in the newspaper or blast out an email to our own network of people and groups. For engagement to qualify as optimal or comprehensive, we must reach out to specific groups and individuals as well as cohorts of individuals who live in the community and who have a stake in what is being put forward to develop. In the case of ArtsCommon 118, we had a party and engagement session on the land we intend to build on, had a booth at Kaleido, held focus groups with artists, faith leaders, and community league folks, and we have reached out to newcomer and Indigenous groups to seek their inclusion in the engagement. Once ArtsCommon 118 is a definite “go” we intend on creating a leadership group of community stakeholders to help us develop the programming of the project. See our reports on AC 118 engagement here.

Addressing the engagement continuum
A key to effective engagement is to ensure it is designed to address the continuum below. Typically, before collaboration can begin on a development, people need to be informed of the opportunity. If all we are doing is consulting, we need to be upfront about that. And if we are seeking to empower community resident to make decisions or be a co-owner, we must be prepared to do what the community has decided.

None of this is easy; not all community members agree with one another; but in the end, community development that claims to be People First has an obligation to be transparent about what the engagement is about.

Community capacity building 
Recently in a meeting with 20 community members in the Fraser community I heard people were interested in learning how to do engagement themselves, so that they could serve their neighbourhood more effectively. This has led us to rethink a contract we are negotiating with another firm around engagement to include “teaching” effective engagement in that community

Often, community members do not have all the data or information they need to make good decisions. They may not collectively understand demographic patterns and how to use them to anticipate the future; they may not be as knowledgeable as they want to be about crime stats, development permits in the area, properties with regular bylaw infractions, city plans and studies, and so on. We are doing research to help build that knowledge.

Co-creation of solutions
While there are good changes happening with respect to “conventional” engagement done by developers, historically development has been more about selling development intentions than engaging residents and stakeholders early on to partner in the identification of what communities want and need. The Edmonton CDC has 10 parcels of land in its portfolio. We believe up front engagement about what to do with our land can build trust and synergy, bring community folks together to co-identify possible projects/solutions and then to include them in the design of what is going to be built.

Co-creation has been evident in the ArtsCommon 118 project. Our design concepts were based in large part on consultations and design charrettes undertaken in Alberta Avenue some years back. We went back to community in August and September of this year to check in on how residents and stakeholders felt about what we came up with. The results? Overwhelming affirmation plus many good ideas to consider as we move forward toward detailed drawings. Again, click here to see the engagement reports.

High leverage partnerships
As a community developer, our approach to engagement includes connecting with other groups that may wish to partner with us, whether to design and build with optimal efficiency, procure outside funding and investment, create a project’s program, or manage or co-manage a project. Partnerships with community residents may be necessary to undertake certain kinds of development and the Edmonton CDC needs to be open to creating structures (e.g. cooperatives) that can work for such partnerships.

Honesty and transparency
Many community members we talk to don’t trust consultations. Some cite examples of being lied to or not getting “all” the info from developers. I can’t speak to the truthof such perceptions, but right or wrong, they are perceptions we wish to avoid, by telling the truth, saying we don’t know when we don’t know, sharing the challenges we face in financing a project, and reporting on engagement fully and transparently, regardless of the results. When there is a commitment to transparency, that commitment also motivates us to ensure we are doing the best we can to  design, create, and manage (or co-manage) projects that have including community members in the process.

Continuous communication
Keeping the community informed of what is happening, what the schedule is, the status of financing, the feedback gleaned, and also answering questions  posed by community members is not only the responsible thing to do, it creates trust, interest, and the inclusion of people along the way who perhaps had not been a part of engagement before. Such communication should employ various media, such as articles in mainstream and community newspapers, social media shares, features in magazines (like this one that is to appear in Avenue Magazine), features in our newsletter, and blasts to our email lists and to community leagues, business associations, and others.

Time, methods, and costs
Good community engagement includes relationship building with groups and influencers who can help mobilize engagement from others. That takes time. Not everyone participates in the same way, so numerous methods of engagement for a large scale project like ArtsCommon 118 are required: focus groups, one to one conversations, appearing before boards and association, townhalls, engagement parties, door to door engagement, surveys, design sessions, engagement focused websites and wikis, feedback loops, citizen juries, online communities, and more need to be considered  in order to ensure engagement is not confined to the usual suspects. All of this costs money, which is why community engagement is often given short shrift. But then again, does People First Community Engagement really add to the costs of development if it produces a project that the community not only does not resist, but supports? We intend on studying that and reporting on the ROI of People First Community Engagement. For more about methods, see Index of Community Engagement Techniques

I am interested in what you think. Please write me at


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