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Equitable Community Engagement in Comprehensive Plan Updates

Equitable Community Engagement in Comprehensive Plan Updates

In the coming years, numerous jurisdictions across the state will undergo a comprehensive plan update to redevelop the goals and strategies for housing, land use, rural development, infrastructure, and more. As a result of HB 1241, King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties will submit updated comprehensive plans by December 31, 2024. The second round of counties is due for an update by June 30, 2025. Per HB 1717, federally recognized tribes are now authorized to voluntarily participate in a county or regional planning process under the Growth Management Act (GMA).

Historically, planning processes throughout the United States have excluded certain communities (either unintentionally or intentionally) and perpetuated systemic racism. Often community engagement strategies to address these historic exclusions were not culturally relevant and did not adequately include the voices and perspectives of certain communities such as Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, non-native English speakers, and young people.

Since it is different than other types of public involvement efforts, comprehensive plan engagement must reach a broad and diverse audience in order to plan for the future equitably and collectively. There are varying degrees of public participation and community engagement— which will be discussed — but it is the task of local governments to develop intentional strategies to actively and meaningfully engage underrepresented communities to create inclusive comprehensive plans.

What is Inclusion in Public Engagement?

Public engagement can be defined as “activities that meaningfully involve community members, Indigenous rights-holders and/or stakeholders to inform decisions for planning, policies, programs, and services that will impact them.” Whereas inclusion in public engagement means involving people who reflect the demographic, attitudinal, and experiential diversity of the communities that may be impacted by a decision. (See Beyond Inclusion: Equity in Public Engagement for more information)

Spectrum of Public Participation

The GMA places a strong emphasis on the duty of a local government to engage community members when working on a comprehensive plan.

As a part of a comprehensive plan update process, RCW 36.70A.140 requires local jurisdictions to provide for “early and continuous public participation.” However, the degree to which the public participates depends on the outreach and engagement strategies implemented by the local jurisdiction. The International Association for Public Participation has developed a Spectrum of Public Participation which outlines the range of participation from inform to empower.

Why is Equitable Community Engagement Important?

Without targeted engagement strategies to reach communities of color, non-native English speakers, and young people, local governments risk spending time and resources on outreach and engagement that will not reach an intended audience. Local governments seeking to plan for a future that creates equitable access to opportunity for all residents and to develop comprehensive plans that are inclusive of the diverse voices of their community, equity and inclusion must be at the center of comprehensive plan update efforts.

Examples of Equitable Community Engagement

Many local jurisdictions and regional entities have begun to develop public participation programs with the intention of including diverse voices in their comprehensive plan updates. The types of community engagement strategies being offered include:

  • Online resources such as interactive maps, engagement platforms and surveys
  • TV, print, and social media coverage in relevant languages of community
  • Public forums and events in relevant languages and community-based locations
  • Paid community outreach roles for residents from underserved communities
  • Partnerships with existing community-based organizations and networks
  • Representative community advisory boards
  • Racial equity toolkits for department staff to develop more equitable operations

More communities across the state are engaging the community at the higher end of the spectrum in ways that are more collaborative and empowering. Below are some examples.

Bellevue has begun holding Community Deep Dive events to inform and connect with community members on a variety of topics included in its comprehensive plan update. The city offers interactive maps that allow community members to designate which geographic places they visit to determine the function and usability of neighborhoods. Finally, the Bellevue Diversity Advisory Network, made up of 21 community members, counsels the city on how to better reach and collaborate with Bellevue’s diverse communities.

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin issued a Community Engagement and Inclusion mayoral directive in 2018 that outlines initiatives to increase community engagement, particularly with underrepresented members of the community and young people, and to improve access to city government.

Through its Office of Equity and Social Justice, King County has prioritized community engagement and co-creation as a way to operationalize equity and facilitate meaningful community input.

Kirkland has issued an Equity Review & Engagement Program RFP which seeks an entity to help the city develop an equitable community engagement plan and conduct an equity review of the existing comprehensive plan.

Puget Sound Regional Council met with existing youth committees in municipalities across the region to identify the youths’ priorities and vision for the future.

Redmond has developed the Equity-Inclusion Toolkit as one part of the Redmond 2050 update. The resource is intended to assist with planning and policy updates for the Redmond Comprehensive Plan, functional plan, and regulatory updates.

Seattle has released the Phase One Engagement Report that details the various media coverage, engagement hub launch, and the many community-based organizations involved so far in its comprehensive plan update. The Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development has also contracted with the Department of Neighborhoods to work with 10 community liaisons who will conduct immigrant and refugee community engagement on behalf of the plan update.

Shoreline has an Equity & Social Justice program which focuses on increasing the capacity of city staff to promote service equity and inclusion and support diverse communities. Equity & Social Justice Community Consultants are local community member hired by the city to represent diverse communities, serve on the city’s Equity and Social Justice Workgroup, and advise city on equity and inclusion.

Other Resources

Puget Sound Regional Council offers a Passport to 2044 webinar series (in partnership with the Washington State Department of Commerce and MRSC) on topics relevant to comprehensive plan updates, and its Planning for Equity webpage, which offers resources and tools local governments can use to develop and implement policies and actions.

MRSC offers several webpages that might be helpful, including:

And finally, Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue offers Eight Principles for Equitable Public Engagement, which highlights strategies to help facilitate meaningful and equitable inclusion of diverse voices. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Rosie Cullen

About Rosie Cullen

Rosie worked as a Public Policy Intern with MRSC in the summer of 2022. Previously, she worked in social services and legislative advocacy in the Puget Sound supporting individuals who experienced foster care and/or homelessness to advocate for policy and systemic changes. She plans to work in local government with a community-led mindset, working to create space and opportunity for those who have experienced systemic oppression.

Rosie has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Portland and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Public Administration degree from the University of Washington where she concentrates on social policy, policy analysis, and organizational leadership.