Aja Hazelhoff, the Outreach and Engagement Coordinator at Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development, believes in leading community engagement through the art of listening. This approach has defined her career, and she has woven it into the very fabric of her work in Seattle, starting with their comprehensive plan.

Seattle’s comprehensive plan, known as “One Seattle,” is a testament to the city’s commitment to listening to its residents. It’s a blueprint for the future of Seattle, outlining policies and goals across various sectors for the next 20 years, including housing, transportation, and growth and anti-displacement strategies. What sets Seattle apart is not just the content of the plan but the process behind its creation. Aja reveals an engagement strategy deeply rooted in equity, prioritizing historically underrepresented voices and using innovative methods to reach out and involve the community.

So, how have Aja and the City of Seattle placed equity at the core of their comprehensive planning process? Here are the five key actionable strategies they implemented.

1. Digital and equitable engagement to broaden accessibility

Seattle first recognized the power of digital tools to make the engagement process more inclusive. Aja noted, “Using virtual engagement really allowed us to provide all the information [for residents] to understand what it is that’s on the table, but also provide the opportunity to weigh in on those things, really anywhere that they want to, whether they’re on the bus and using a smartphone.” This approach effectively lowered barriers to participation, ensuring that a wider and more diverse array of voices could be heard, especially important during the pandemic.

Get a first-hand look at One Seattle’s online engagement platform to see how they have used digital engagement to inform, engage, and report on the comprehensive planning process every step of the way.

2. Strategic partnerships with community-based organizations (CBOs)

The city strategically partnered with CBOs, particularly those led by and serving BIPOC communities, to ensure the comprehensive plan reflected the diverse needs of its residents. Aja stated, “We wanted to make sure that we were hearing from and amplifying the voices of those communities that have not historically been at the center of our process. We devoted the majority of the resources that we had in our engagement budget to partnering with community-based organizations to have them answer the question, how do we engage with those communities?

We had a group of seven different community-based organizations that we worked with, each of whom submitted their own engagement work plan for how they wanted to engage with their communities. We resourced them to carry out those plans for engaging with their community. And then, they produced reports that contained recommendations actually for the policies that they saw that would be responsive to the needs of their communities.”

Partnering with community-based organizations leverages existing trust and networks and ensures that the equitable engagement process and results are community-driven.

Plus, by closing the feedback loop of engagement results through these organizations, they are continuing to “invest in relationships that are going to continue to inform the plan and really increase our accountability for the things that we are saying that we’re going to do”, ultimately fostering additional levels of trust between the community and the city.

3. Compensation for community participation

Recognizing the value of community members’ time and expertise, Seattle compensated participants for their contributions, a value that they also saw from all involved community-based organizations. Aja elaborated, “The compensation piece, which has been historically a challenge for cities to figure out how to properly compensate folks for their time and expertise that they’re giving freely to the city, is a way not only to honor the time and the effort and the energy but also the importance to us as planners and hearing from the community about what the problems and solutions are.”

This practice underscored the city’s commitment to equitable engagement by acknowledging and valuing the insights and experiences community members bring to the planning process.

4. Language accessibility and cultural inclusion

Addressing the needs of non-English speakers and ensuring cultural competence is another pillar of Seattle’s engagement strategy. To Seattle, equitable engagement required more than just showing up—it required creating conditions where everyone could contribute their perspectives without language acting as a barrier, something they were able to do very effectively. The city actively worked to make the planning process accessible and inclusive for non-English speakers.

Aja recommends preparing with someone who can address cultural and linguistic barriers to make engagement welcoming. “If you can’t communicate effectively, there will be frustration on both sides. It’s crucial to prioritize resources, whether that means having interpreters at meetings or translating materials. Both are vital for effective communication.”

Seattle also recognized that using “virtual engagement and translation was essential, especially for non-English speakers, immigrants, and refugees. These are some of the populations that we wanted to prioritize as part of our engagement.” which is what led them to build their community engagement platform, One Seattle Hub (check out their platform here). By offering high-quality translations on the CitizenLab engagement platform and interpretation services during in-person activities, Seattle ensured no one was excluded due to language barriers.

5. Humanizing data through storytelling

Finally, Seattle focused on transforming quantitative data into qualitative stories to better understand and address community needs. Aja speaks to the power of listening, of turning data into narratives that reveal the real challenges and aspirations of the community.

“All of those things [in engagement] tell a story, and it’s really about trying to find the truth in those stories and validating those truths and taking the stories themselves as the data that you’re collecting.” Validating your community’s narratives is an essential component of an equitable and inclusive planning process.

By prioritizing the human element in community engagement, Seattle’s planning initiatives have become more inclusive and have built trust within the community. This ensures that policies are reflective of and responsive to the lived experiences of all its residents.

Looking ahead: The path to equitable engagement

In transforming civic engagement, Seattle demonstrates that equity and innovation are not just ideals but achievable realities. By centering community voices and leveraging technology, the city is paving the way toward a more equitable future and community.

As we look to the future, Seattle’s journey offers valuable lessons for cities worldwide. The key lies in starting early, listening deeply, and embracing diverse and innovative strategies to ensure that every voice is heard. A comprehensive plan is a reflection of the community’s collective vision for their city—a vision that should be inclusive, equitable, and grounded in the rich tapestry of experiences that define each community.

Now, let’s ask you a question: How are you incorporating equity in your community planning processes?

To listen to the full conversation, and for more lessons on community engagement from cities around the world, check out the podcast here:

Also, read more about the specifics and results of Seattle’s comprehensive plan in our in-depth case study.