It’s inevitable in these days of ever decreasing resources that if you work in an urban green space, nature reserve, woodland etc. you will have joined the squabbling maelstrom for external funding. It’s also a regular prerequisite that any such funding is strewn with caveats about ‘increasing engagement’ and ‘reaching underrepresented audiences’.
Should you have signed up to such a funding agreement, at some point I would wager you have had to contemplate the diversity of visitors to your site. It should come as no surprise to you that engagement with green space amongst BME audiences is low (there’s a reason they are described as ‘underrepresented’). Are we creating a rod for our own back by pegging ourselves to addressing cultural issues that have a much wider reaching cause than we are perhaps able to address?
Well, in short, no. It’s a challenge, and one that we may certainly fail to meet if we allow ourselves to be hamstrung by quantitative targets. Areas with high BME populations are often located in areas that have the lowest levels of available green space – the need and potential benefits of engaging these audiences in the spaces that do exist, both for the site and the individual, does not need to be spelled out.
But it’s not just the nice, broad ‘BME’ box on our engagement checklist that we need to reach. Chances are, if you have gone through your obligatory consultation process prior to structuring your brand spanking new community engagement offer, that you’ve had some familiar results. The difficulty we all face is that when we ask, the people who primarily respond are the people who always respond. They are already heavily involved with the site, they are the noisiest and the most opinionated, and as such, chances are they’ve had their say many, many times previously. It is probably not a stretch for me to suggest that they generally do not belong to an ‘underrepresented’ section of society.
But what can you do? How do you juggle the highly vocal wants with the silent needs? Part of the problem may lie in our insistence on the whole ‘consultation process’. Funders will often require us to go through a number of steps to garner the opinions and thoughts of the local community. There are some set ways you can do this, but you may find yourself experiencing déjà vu:
You distribute a questionnaire – 50 people fill them out.
You host a stakeholder meeting – the same 50 people turn up
You set-up a forum – the same people sign-up
You consult with local community groups – but you discover that your 50 enthusiasts are all members of the most vocal and involved community groups, too.
How do we get round it? I’m trying not to make a hypocrite of myself after castigating the desire to ‘sell nature’ amongst our environmental charities, but how do we get the ‘offer’ right? We must reach out to as many audiences as possible – increased engagement leads to increased sense of community leads to increased long-term health and security of green spaces – but it can sometimes feel like you are repeatedly coming across the same opinions.
So think carefully about your consultation strategy, don’t get bogged down into thinking it’s all about completing online questionnaires and studying the reports – there’s some needs that wont be elucidated through a rigid consultation process and some audiences that can only be engaged face-to-face.