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Planning with People First: A Built Environment Workshop

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

On Friday, October 25, 2019, Denver CALC and the Larimer County Public Health Department partnered to host “Planning with People First,” a built environment and health equity learning workshop. The event brought together city and nonprofit leaders from Denver and Larimer Counties together to discuss the challenges and importance of working together with community residents on health and environmental issues.

What is people-first planning?

In her opening remarks, Liz Young Winne of Larimer County Department of Health and Environment noted that, “Many of our partners are interested in community engagement, but some struggle to know the first steps to take.” Public health and other community-facing organizations have long known the importance of engaging and elevating the voices of the communities they serve. However, the processes and systems we use to “engage the community” need updating. Many of the residents we serve cannot engage with traditional public processes that occur during working hours, or do not include options for child care or interpretation. Even when these basic needs are met, people may not feel welcome or empowered to share their perspectives. As Kayla Gilbert stated in her introduction, traditional models of engagement cater most to residents with the time and resources to show up. Meanwhile, entire communities— their voices, their experiences, and their needs and strengths— can be left out completely. Our aim in hosting this workshop was to learn from regional efforts to improve outreach and participation in plans and policies, starting with people and their lived experiences.

In the first session, we heard from Paul Aldretti of Denver Public Health and Environment’s Office of Health Equity and Healthy Larimer. Paul discussed how DPHE was revising its approach to community outreach in Globeville-Elyria Swansea, an area which has long faced health and access challenges compared to the rest of Denver, and is currently the neighborhood most affected by the I-70 expansion. After a public hearing on a noise variance for the expansion revealed a number of community concerns beyond the project, DPHE has evolved its approach to community outreach, and is hosting a series of meetings in the neighborhood to hear and begin to address these concerns. By shifting their approach, DPHE hopes to begin to build more effective and trusted channels of communication for this neighborhood, both in light of the project and for continuing concerns or issues. As Paul stated, communities experience health and environmental issues in real time, in their daily lives, not as they are organized by city agencies. As public agencies, we can acknowledge this by building more flexibility and access points for concerns into our public engagement processes.

Next, two of the members of Healthy Larimer, Mary Maldonado and Darlene Kilpatrick, and Kelsey Lyon, Health Planning and Partnership Supervisor, spoke to the group about their resident-led committee that helps guide the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) process for Larimer County Department of Health and Environment. A goal to “mobilize and share power” was identified through the CHIP process, putting the ball in the Health Department’s court on how to start. After several internal discussions to better understand health equity, the Department worked with the community to form a committee of residents to lead the CHIP process. They discussed the importance of recognizing and valuing different types of expertise, and the committee brought empathy and dimension to the plan. One of the committee members discussed how her lived experience helped her relate to and advocate for various groups mentioned in the CHIP, such as people living with substance use, homelessness, and family caretaking. The committee emphasized that local expertise, paying committee members, and providing child care were important strategies to help members stay engaged and contribute.

Community Engagement Panel

In a panel session, we heard from seven people working in community engagement in Denver and Fort Collins. Despite the vastly different areas and communities represented on the panel, several common themes emerged from the discussion. Many panelists spoke about the creative ways they engaged folks, from going to neighborhood events, working with artists in the community, and just talking to people walking or biking in an area. A central conflict in community engagement work is that authentic community engagement begins slowly and depends on building trust through personal relationships, yet many projects face funding and time constraints, making this process difficult to sustain over time. This is especially challenging for built environment projects, which can take years to finalize and build; sustaining community engagement through a long process is very difficult and must rely both on small wins and continued relationship building. In a powerful moment, Norma Brambila, a community organizer in Denver, called on the audience to stand up and find another seat to illustrate the challenge of gentrification. “This is the biggest challenge we face. You get comfortable, you’re settled in, you know your neighbors, you’re ready to work on something. And then you have to leave. It hurts, and it’s ongoing.”

Unconferencing Workshop

In the last hour of the workshop, participants organized themselves into small discussion groups to take a deeper dive into topics of their choice. We heard mostly positive feedback about this “unconferencing” approach, in which the group topics and discussion questions are created and facilitated by attendees. The conference topics ranged from cultivating and sustaining local leadership to building internal capacity for community involvement. Across these different groups, participants asked questions and learned from fellow attendees about how different agencies were thinking through programs and solutions. From one session on engaging local leaders, Araceli Newman, a community organizer with La Familia in Fort Collins, suggested developing leaders where and when they present themselves. “We honestly stopped using the word ‘leader’ to find people,” she remarked, saying it was much more effective to find what people were interested in working on and letting them choose how to get involved, a shift in thinking that got more buy-in. For more on the unconferencing approach, see the resources section.

Other resources for this workshop:

View resources at

Google Drive Folder with Resources:

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