SWA’s Jana Wehby on Innovative Public Engagement

Jana pw

We asked SWA Associate Principal
Jana Wehby
for the back-story:

Since Fall 2021, SWA has been working with the City of Redondo Beach, CA to develop a public amenities plan for King Harbor, a major local waterfront destination for beachgoers, boaters, paddleboarders, and sportsfishers. Previously proposed projects for the harbor have met with resistance from the community, who have expressed doubts that new development would not reflect Redondo Beach’s unique character or appropriately benefit active local users.

To assuage these concerns, the City engaged SWA to collect feedback that will inform a comprehensive framework for the harbor and its individual activity nodes. With a creative and multi-layered approach, the firm leveraged in-person, on-site interaction in concert with online participation that allowed residents to express their views organically and in their own time. The result was a nearly 400 percent increase in expected participation, the feedback from which will inform the park’s public amenity framework.

We spoke with the project’s community engagement lead, Jana Wehby (an SWA Associate Principal and landscape architect based in the firm’s Los Angeles office), to learn about the implementation (and results) of this creative approach.

Tell us a bit about the King Harbor Public Amenities Plan effort.
The Redondo Beach Pier and King Harbor represent the primary waterfront experience for locals and visitors alike, with more than 150 acres of land and water area frequented by boaters, sports fishers, and paddleboarders, among other users. The first area of focus is the existing Moonstone Park, at the northern end of the project area, which serves as an outrigger canoe launch and beachhead. King Harbor is also home to a sheltered, human-made seaside lagoon, where water has historically been drawn in and treated, although not always in the most efficient ways. The area also encompasses a small boat launch for paddleboards and small canoes, as well as a sportfishing pier and an international boardwalk. The plan will also address the addition of a new dinghy dock and public boat launch.

What were some of the local community’s concerns?
Previous development proposals weren’t perceived to be in keeping with Redondo Beach’s character, and the needs of the pubic were not adequately addressed. So during this first round of outreach, we wanted to solicit feedback about specific needs from the people who actually use the site, and inquire about amenity improvements that would provide direct benefits for them.

How did you build community interest in the project?
We knew that in order to engage users, we needed to reach out in a variety of ways. During the COVID pandemic, many people have become more comfortable with Zoom and online meetings in general. But we needed a presence on the ground to generate that initial interest, and develop a dialogue with the people who are using the area regularly. So the first step was going to where people actually were, and grabbing their attention. We wanted something bright, colorful, and interactive, so we began with the idea of a pyramid-type installation. However, in thinking about the character of the site, those pyramids evolved into more of a kayak shape, with the “kayaks’” cockpit filled by graphics, and made of pegboard onto which people could place flags on areas of particular interest and provide feedback. We asked the public to flag the areas that they thought were most used, least used, and most in need of improvement. We provided pens so that people could note specific ideas directly on the flags.

We also knew that pop-up events would likely generate more interest in the online meetings and surveys. The City hosts popular weekend events, including a holiday concert on the pier in December, that bring in a lot of visitors. The area also has a well-known farmers market that is a destination for both locals and visitors. We focused on timing the “kayak” installations – accompanied by SWA staff on-site for 4-5 hours during each event – during those times and at those locations.

What were the goals? How did the project team follow up?
One of the goals of the pop-ups was to get the word out about the project and an upcoming online community meeting. And we also wanted the “kayak” kiosks to offer a low-pressure way to generate feedback; not everyone feels comfortable speaking out in a large community meeting. We had two or three SWA staff working in shifts to answer questions on the ground. The kind of casual interaction between our team on the ground and the users generated genuine, real-time responses. We also paired the installation with flyers and a QR code for a survey, which expanded our response group beyond those who were able or inclined to attend the online community meeting. In-person conversations also informed our synthesis and interpretation of feedback overall.

What kind of feedback did you receive?
In part, we learned about the needs of people who took the survey. We learned about how often they visit the Harbor, and the activities they engage in once they’re at the waterfront. We also learned about how they get there – car, bike, or public transit – which will help to inform decisions about improvements to circulation and connecting the amenities.

We are still collating feedback for 7 proposed public amenities. We’re noting what the community is using, what they like about the current configurations, and what they would like to see improved. A major part of this undertaking is identifying common threads: local character and charm of the harbor, access and connectivity, maintenance, lighting and safety, and desired upgrades to the site. We did our best to include open questions in the survey, in order to collect feedback we may not have thought to offer as a multiple choice response. Our next steps will be based on what “rises to the top” so that the improvements we propose are relevant to a broad range of users.

How does this multi-pronged approach compare in actual numbers to traditional, in-person-only community engagement efforts, in your experience?
This is the highest level of engagement I’ve ever encountered! It’s fairly standard to attract about 100 people to a public meeting for this kind of proposed intervention – and that would be considered very successful in its own right. In this effort we had more than 500 respondents. I attribute that to the installations and accompanying in-person interactions, along with the QR code for the survey, which could be shared. Both of these outreach efforts allowed people to engage on their own time.

We do have ongoing dialogue with stakeholder groups, like the outrigger canoe club and yacht club, and waterfront businesses, all of which have people dedicated to improving King Harbor. But with the ability to share the survey link via a QR code, and with the website our subconsultant has set up, we can disseminate our ideas out to a wider group of current users.

Any lessons for other practitioners about this approach?
The two-fold approach with in-person support for the kiosks and virtual opportunities is key to widening your base of engagement. Also, piggy-backing onto scheduled events opens the opportunity for the public to engage on their own time. I see it as our mission to go to where people are, and then allow people can come to us if they’re interested in contributing further. Also, the online component remains key. Having project information available on a website, as well as an online survey, provides flexibility for busy people who might not otherwise express their opinions. Especially with COVID safety concerns still an issue, the combination of in-person and online means to communicate was really successful in making the public more comfortable in contributing.