It's Time to Embrace the Virtual Meeting for the Long Haul
Nearly a year ago, in a matter of just a few weeks, government agencies and regional planning organizations had to sharply pivot their public participation processes into the digital realm. MAPC launched its first fully-virtual community forum at the beginning of April 2020, and we have not turned back. This has been a big leap from our go-to community forum checklist: we no longer need the cookie and cheese platter, welcome signs, or easels. Now that we are closing in on a year of digital work, we have to ask ourselves: What is the future of digital engagement for urban planning and how are community engagement practitioners positioned to be leaders in the future of virtual meetings?
Each year, MAPC hosts hundreds of meetings, convenings, and forums on topics ranging from arts and culture to public health to zoning and more. In 2020, we saw the benefits of digital events across meeting types and topics. We have witnessed stronger attendance from residents across the region and opportunities to connect with members of the public who never attended in-person evening events. Some may have considered becoming a part of civic life, but not have the chance to attend. Shifting our community engagement focus to digital events and surveys has made it easier and more accessible for community members to get involved with governance in their city or town, whether they’re parents balancing dinner time, people with disabilities, or evening-shift workers.
Virtual meetings are not error-proof, however: The digital divide is a gawking inequitable system that affects all corners of our region, and virtual meetings have been a key example of how the digital divide disproportionately affects communities. From broadband issues to equipment to computer literacy, the pandemic continues to unveil stark differences in internet access for many. We began providing IT support during virtual meetings when we noticed that some older participants needed extra help to effectively participate in public processes. These issues are ones that need to be solved to truly provide equitable opportunities for people to participate in city and town meetings.
So – how should public participation specialists move forward in our work when we can return to an in-person format? Should we prioritize in-person events as a way to heal, connect, and seek understanding from one another? Or should we create accessibility for more people by offering a versatile, flexible, and technology-forward virtual format? The two aren’t mutually exclusive. We need to act in both spaces to work toward a more equitable future. In-person meetings and community forums keep us connected. We are better able to read social cues and body language, and of course, we can chat with someone after a meeting and learn more about an issue. Virtual meetings, on the other hand, allow us to connect more frequently and to reach more people to make an impact on our communities.
The road ahead is still unknown, but it is undeniable that the technological culture shift will have lasting impressions in our society for years. It is our time now to embrace the virtual meeting for the long-haul.