Malia Lazu

Make no mistake, how communities are developed is evolving. Even in Boston, where our history with development – especially in the West End or current neighborhoods like the Seaport – are examples for urban planning textbooks on what not to do, the city’s last three mayors have worked to make Boston’s development more equitable. And equity cannot happen without the involvement of the communities. Rather than seeing community as a barrier, developers need to understand their way to success lies through trusting and valuing the community they hope to develop.   

Getting to know and working within a community involves a lot of hard work, especially when a real estate developer is perceived as coming from the outsideeven if they’re coming from a different area within the same city. In Boston, for example, there can be a world of difference from one neighborhood to another – between the intentional diversity of Roxbury where I live and, say, Back Bay or the Financial District.  

This calls for participatory development that is far more likely to be met with success, not barriers. After all, it only makes sense to give businesses, organizations and residents a genuine voice in the development that’s meant to enhance their neighborhood and meet their needs. 

As, which brings together information and resources on community wealth strategies, polices, models and innovations, states: “Thoughtful decision making in regards to real estate acquisition and development can leverage … institutional power for the benefit of the community in a way that creates healthy places, stimulates economic revitalization, and supports the local housing market.”  

The key is to align real estate development with broader community goals, and that only happens with participation in the process. 

In our work with real estate clients, we use a three-part model for participatory development, shepherding the process from permitting to construction and then completion. At each phase, partnership, participation, and the public good are all priorities. 

Discover: Create a Circle of Influence 

When authentic relationships are established within a community, people will likely be more forthcoming about what they want, as well as what concerns them.  

This work is essential to the initial discover phase, from RFPs to permitting. The goal is to get community input and feedback on initial designs, community benefits, and the public realm. Key deliverables for the developer include community asset mapping, circle creation (community groups, nonprofits, businesses and cultural leaders) and holding monthly or quarterly meetings to provide updates and garner support during the project’s initial permitting phase.  

Communication is critical! I have seen people accept large checks from developers and then go on to say, “I don’t know what they are doing.” And rightly so – because if a relationship does not move beyond the transactional, how is it ever going to be perceived as adding value once the building is complete?  

Where authentic relationships have been built, it becomes far easier to assess and address the needs of the community within a circle of influence. 

Design: Get Buy-in 

This phase spans permitting through construction.  

During this time, maintaining a consistent feedback loop allows the voices of community stakeholders to be heard. Information flows in both directions, with trust on each side. The developer keeps people informed of such things as project status and progress, as well as any obstacles or changes along the way. In turn, the community gives its best and most candid feedback.  

Key deliverables for the design process include management and engagement of the community circle, programming and community-use case studies, community organizing strategies for the project’s public realm, workforce development, and affordable outreach goals. In addition, the communications plan for the project management team is centered on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) best practices.  

Deploy: Ensure Successful Implementation 

Construction is done, and it’s time to open the doors. The goal of the “deploy” phase is ensuring DEI and community benefit plans are ready for successful implementation. Community input that has been received over the past several months or longer has been tied directly to the project’s development. Thus, the development team is equipped with the strategic direction to ensure the success of the project’s DEI’s commitments.  

Key deliverables include partnerships for development, launch event(s) that deeply engage the community and execution of a community engagement strategy, including one year of programming agreements and events.  

This three-phase process helps ensure that development is more equitable and includes accountability. Even within trusting relationships conflicts are to be expected. But with participatory development that engages the community, conflicts are merely another invitation for honest dialogue and engagement toward a resolution.  

Relationships alone may not be able to solve all things. But trusted relationships established among stakeholders occupy a higher level of engagement. These alliances and partnership come much closer to finding the best and most workable solutions for all. 

Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.   

Get to Know the Community with Participatory Development

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min