Our Future 35 – Downtown Austin Alliance

Location:

A four-mile stretch of Interstate 35 and the surrounding corridor in Austin, Texas

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Goal: 

Austinites have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform I-35 through the heart of the city — investing in the community, improving all forms of transportation, and creating community parks, bridges, and other amenities where the highway stands now. To take advantage of this opportunity, the Downtown Austin Alliance, in collaboration with a diverse group of Austin leaders, wants to create a community-driven vision for the future of the I-35 corridor in Central Austin.

Downtown Austin Alliance along with Public City approached their community engagement consultation with three main goals in mind:

Be Interactive

  • With an extremely sensitive topic to address, they wanted the user experience to be as interactive and participatory as possible.

Be Creative

  • Austin is a city full of creative people and this project was no different. They wanted to incorporate as many creative ways to get involved as possible. This included poetry, music, art, and animation as a way for the community to provide input.

Be Collective

  • They provided various ways for community members to participate including both low-fi (radio conversations, call-ins, text in phone line) and hi-fi (digital engagement platform, online episodes, community-hosted workshops, social media) engagement options in order to make it easy for people of all ages to get involved.

Background:

Along this 4-mile strip of I-35 in Austin, Texas, there is a concrete barrier that was initially put in place in 1928 to segregate communities of color in the eastern portion of town. As this community continues to heal from systemic racism, gathering input from all areas of the community was essential in creating an I-35 that will stand as the future of the community.

As the first step in this process, the Downtown Alliance engaged the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) national advisory services. ULI brought a panel of diverse experts to Austin in February 2020, where they talked and worked with the community, gathering input and ideas for the future of the I-35 corridor. The panel presented preliminary recommendations for the future of I-35 at Huston-Tillotson University on February 28.

To prepare the panel of experts, the Downtown Alliance prepared a briefing book that served as a reference guide and high-level overview of the relevant economic, social, and transportation opportunities and challenges facing the future of I-35. View the briefing book here.

Watch this video to learn more about their findings and the opportunity they have to develop a community-led vision to transform the heart of Austin.

Challenges:

The Downtown Alliance hired a consultant team in late 2019 to help the ULI panel understand the constraints with which we are working. The Consultant Team included; Overland Partners (a Texas-based architecture firm), Arup (an international engineering firm), Lionheart (a landscape architect based in East Austin), and Public City (a public engagement firm).

With the public engagement process starting right at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown measures, the Downtown Austin Alliance was forced to find a way to make the community feel involved and informed virtually.

To ensure the project was shaped around the current community, they implemented four initial steps to gain trust and engage residents before asking for their feedback on this specific project.

Step 1: Explore co-creating a community-centered decision-making process.

Step 2: Identify a set of shared community values.

Step 3: Build the foundation for the start of a new community coalition.

Step 4: Inform the community of the upcoming engagement process in which their action will be necessary.

After nurturing and creating trusted relationships with community members, they were then able to implement their engagement strategy which was based on the feedback gathered in this initial community workshop.

Implementing Social Pinpoint and other Engagement tools:

The Downtown Austin Alliance implemented various tools and workshops to ensure they provided engagement channels that all members of the community would feel comfortable with. Four interactive ‘episodes’ were conducted to give the residents background information on the purpose of the project before asking for any feedback. The episodes focused on the main reasons for change surrounding the project, healing from systemic racism as a community, establishing a set of community values, and creating new models of ownership to establish how community projects will be conducted moving forward to include residents from the very beginning.

They used Social Pinpoint as a central information and conversation hub that was constantly updated with the most recent information. With the Google Translate widget, they were able to make the page easily translatable into any language to ensure all community members were able to participate without any language barrier. By uploading the episode videos onto their Social Pinpoint project, they were able to keep that content on-demand to make it convenient for people to access that information after the event was held.

Social Media played a huge part in their outreach for the project as well. They held many Facebook Live events, posted many videos on YouTube and Vimeo, heavily promoted their projects through social media with Spanish translations included.

Knowing that they needed to reach people who don’t have internet access or the ability to participate online, they also partnered with two radio stations, one English speaking and one Spanish speaking, with centered programming to provide an opportunity to give feedback by calling in.

Key Findings & Closing the Loop:

Downtown Austin Alliance had a very successful engagement consultation thanks to the comprehensive and detailed outreach process that they followed.

They held a total of 14 outreach events including episodes and community-hosted workshops.

They engaged residents from a total of 22 zip codes.

They involved 45+ community mentors, content experts, artists, and national mentors who were included in community-hosted workshops and radio episodes.

They received 3,500 visitors to their Social Pinpoint site alone.

They reached 17,000+ Livestream viewers through their bilingual platforms.

Most importantly, they worked closely with the community to create a set of community values to use as a base in future projects.

At Social Pinpoint, we are passionate about giving communities a voice on projects around them. Here are a few of our key takeaways and what we learned from this well thought out community engagement project. We hope this will inspire you and help you achieve better outcomes on your next engagement project.

  • Be strategic – The team was deliberate, thoughtful, and strategic in their approach. They created a strong, comprehensive plan with steps before they even ask for feedback to ensure that they were thorough in their engagement process.

  • Be honest – They were direct and open about issues like systemic racism. This honesty helps to build trust.

  • Diversity in communication – To better engage diverse members of your community, communicate in diverse ways. Our Future 35 used diverse voices, faces, languages, and ages (young and old).

  • Meet people where they are – Use a variety of engagement techniques and tools. Our Future 35 used video, art, digital engagement (Social Pinpoint), radio, workshops, social media, phone, and more.

  • Humanity – Projects like Our Future 35 are about a lot more than concrete and highways. They are about human beings. Our Future 35 talked about healing, a quintessential human experience; developed values; and used art to reinforce the humanity of the project.

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