Written by Amber Cicotte, CHMM, Senior Scientist, who leads BBJ Group's EHS Compliance Practice
Why Community Engagement Matters
Recently in my neighborhood, a shiny new facility was built in a mostly defunct industrial park on the far end of the community. It’s been built with all the necessary permits, best available technology for emis-sions controls, and has the potential to boost commerce in our area. These are all positive improvements that every citizen wants for their community: economic development, jobs creation, reduction of blight, environmental responsibility.
Yet, many of my neighbors are enraged and distressed about this development. It surprised them. The property was already zoned for industrial purposes, so no re-zoning was required, thus no public meeting for comment. The local alderman had been informed, and environmental groups were notified when permits were requested. But, somehow, this information was never disseminated at the community level. This big, “scary” new factory is now the target of neighborhood resistance.
Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability
For companies with an eye to the future, planning for sustainable and responsible operations for gen-erations to come, community engagement should be considered a critical element. On the surface, this project may have seemed to not need any support from the business’s corporate social responsibility group. The area was appropriately zoned, the community needs the materials being manufactured, contracts with buyers were secured, and the economy will benefit. But obviously, based on the reaction of the community, this aspect of the project was completely misunderstood by the developers, creating more obstacles for themselves by trying to avoid unnecessary public interaction.
Whether it seems like the community where you’re operating will be positively or negatively affected, it can always be beneficial to engage with the citizens at an early stage to gauge the needs and interests of this vital stakeholder in your operation. Does your planned development meet the perceived needs of the community? How does the community where you’re building identify itself and will this development interfere with that identity? Does the community understand what you’ll be making and how?
Whatever the circumstances, being an active, engaged and responsive partner in the community where your factory sits will ensure that your operation will be successful for generations into the future. Working with local populations at early stages helps you and your team understand the social challenges of your project before breaking ground and can develop loyalty of the community to your operation, keeping it profitable and sustainable.
With all the positive aspects of the project in my own neighborhood, it’s a shame that they’re being overshadowed by the response of a community that feels betrayed by their public representatives and the business community. Engaging the residents directly in the early stages of development would have given the manufacturer an opportunity to educate the community about the product that would be made in our neighborhood, inform them on the actual risks to the environment and human health and how those would be controlled, and it would have given the community time to consider this development logically, rather than reacting emotionally.