Hearing the ‘silent voices’ - better practice in community engagement

Written by: Nick Boud
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Community engagement is the process of working collaboratively with community groups to address issues that impact the well-being of those groups. From politics to infrastructure, health to education, community engagement can take many forms, and partners can include organised groups, agencies, institutions, or individuals. Organisations that do this well empower community members to contribute and to create a place that they feel a part of. The benefits include improved communications and relationships; useful insights and ideas; improved reputation; increased levels of trust; more accountability and improved decision-making.

A common challenge faced by all community engagement initiatives is in getting a truly broad spectrum of community members to engage sufficiently to be able to contribute meaningfully to the process. The risk is that some community voices are rendered inaudible against a backdrop of louder—and arguably more powerful—voices. These 'silent voices' present a key challenge in ensuring the legitimacy of the community engagement process.

An airport perspective

There is increasing demand worldwide for domestic and international air travel, and airports are under pressure to accommodate it. Whether demand is met by extending an existing airport, incentivising traffic to use other airports or building new airports, there will always be difficult decisions into which community views and guidance should be fed. For whilst airports provide economic benefits both locally and nationally, there is no denying that some communities are impacted negatively, whether from increased road traffic, aviation noise, or vehicle and aircraft emissions. It is therefore important that a balanced and broad set of community opinions are considered as part of the planning and decision-making process.

This means that airports need to engage not just with self-selected participants but also with the silent / non-engaged members of the community. Recent work in Toronto presents one methodology for how a diversity of voices can be heard, adding vital robustness to the outputs of engagement activities. Robyn Connelly of GTAA (Greater Toronto Airports Authority) Canada shared the platform with me at this year's Passenger Terminal Expo conference, where we talked about working together to balance growth and mitigate community impacts. Here is an excerpt from our presentation:

In Canada, Toronto Pearson airport is expecting to see passenger numbers grow from 50m to 85m in the next 20 years, and similar growth for cargo operations too. The GTAA undertook a community engagement activity, supported by Helios and MASS LBP, with the aim of building credibility, bringing new voices to the table, and co-creating with the community a set of values and guiding principles to incorporate into GTAA decision making.

The engagement model had three stages:

1. Residents' Reference Panel

2. Questionnaire

3. Public workshops

The GTAA organised a random mailing of 20,000 packages across the region. Recipients were asked to express interest in joining a residents' panel on airport growth and noise fairness. From those who responded positively the Panel membership were then selected at random, but in such a way that they broadly represented the demographics of the Greater Toronto Area. Selection also ensured strong representation of neighbourhoods currently impacted by aircraft noise.

The Reference Panel was tasked with advising the GTAA on the measures, standards and commitments it should adopt to meet the needs of local residents and support regional growth. Participants learnt about aviation trends, airport operations and impacts, international best practices and the wider regulatory environment the airport operates within. They heard from different community groups, elected officials and aviation stakeholders to consider contrasting perspectives. They sought to address the concerns of those most impacted by aircraft operations and recommended actions that can support responsible growth of the airport and the region.

On top of the Residents' Reference Panel, surveys were sent out to two different sample groups, resulting in 2,593 unique responses. Additionally, five public workshops took place to talk about the airport growth and seek feedback on growing responsibly. More than 600 residents attended the workshops to engage and provide their feedback.

This engagement process brought about real change. New noise management fora are being set up, providing more seats at more tables; ensuring that there are opportunities for all stakeholders to engage and be heard. A new five-year Noise Management Action Plan integrates the learning from the feedback from all three Community Engagement activities, taking account of many of their recommendations. Both the airport and the communities around it have a renewed sense of optimism that problems can be solved, and they have better mutual understanding.

Better practice in community engagement

Community noise groups and self-selected participants have a valuable role in holding airports, airlines and air navigation service providers to account. Nevertheless, to develop robust guiding principles we need to engage with all of society. We need to provide a place and space where all community parties and stakeholders can be listened to and where they can receive information from the airport / aviation industry. The experience of Toronto and others shows that it can be done. It is a significant undertaking, but one that benefits communities and airports alike.

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