Ensuring Effective Community Involvement in Urban Forestry Programs

by Michael Kuhns, Extension Forestry Specialist

Community involvement in urban forestry often is viewed as simply enlisting volunteers to supply labor for planting or restoration projects. Such activity is a narrow interpretation of what community involvement should be. Community involvement must include residents who will be impacted by a project, involve them early and throughout the process, and ensure some citizen control over the process. Educational efforts should be considered as two way; urban natural resource professionals may have as much to learn and as great a need to change perspectives as the community impacted by a project.

Effective Community Involvement Strategies

Involve the Community Throughout the Process

The community (residents, businesses, agencies or other organizations) should be engaged early in the "idea" stage of the planning process, and provided opportunities to share its interests, needs, and concerns. For example, a task force that is representative of community interests could be established to generate ideas and explore opportunities and concerns. This approach helps to ensure that communication channels are open with individuals not directly involved, builds momentum for community interest and commitment, and allows for diverse perspectives to be considered.

Understand Your Audience

To effectively involve the community and respond to their needs and interests, you should consider the community's cultural background and perspectives; its socio economic, education and age composition; existing neighborhood resources (such as its trees, parks and other open spaces); and community context, including recent developments and activities (such as siting of a facility that is adverse to community health that has resulted in community distrust of imposed activities).

Build Broad-based Support

Bringing together representatives of diverse community interests (including civic, business, and social service organizations) to identify goals and resources and collaborate on program efforts, helps to broaden support and minimize obstacles. Understanding the community's goals provides the opportunity to link program efforts to local goals and developments, making them more relevant to the target audience.

Provide Resources and Tools

Provide neighborhood residents and organizations opportunities to acquire the necessary skills and resources that will help build their capacity to sustain efforts over time. Residents are the most vital of resources communities have to draw upon. Mechanisms for bringing people together for planning and implementation, as well as training to enhance participants' skills, may be what is needed most.