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A successful construction project has many phases, from the planning and permits early on to the eventual bricklaying and, finally, the ribbon cutting.

But one phase that is just as important as all the others doesn’t always get the attention it deserves: community research. That is, learning about the community in which the project exists, and tailoring the project to support that environment. Community research exists to minimize any social, cultural and logistical barriers for a new project, and to ensure that new developments strengthen the fabric of a neighborhood.

Too often, construction leaders will head into a project without taking the time to learn about the people and neighborhoods around them. As a result, builders can miss out on valuable information and relationships, and risk creating a project that conflicts with the community, rather than one that supports it. The consequences of skipping the research phase can be challenging, from frustrated residents and policymakers to a new business or residence that’s out of place in its new home. Alternatively, the benefits of solid community research are many, from more economic opportunity and better public services to safer, cleaner and greener neighborhoods.

Below, find strategies and tactics for community research that every construction executive should know before breaking ground.

1. Know your audience

The first stage of any community research? Identify who you should be talking with. Contractors and their team should be speaking with everyone in the vicinity of the project, from residents and business owners to policymakers and local community leaders. The audience also includes potential users of the space that haven’t arrived yet, like future residents or business owners. Throughout this process, make sure to assemble an audience who is diverse—contractors want to cross generational and cultural lines.

2. Know what data to collect

Once contractors have identifies who they’re talking with, identify what to talk about. In other words, figure out the most valuable information to collect. One important type of data is quality-of-life data. This data sums up potential economic gains for residents and businesses, like what sort of job opportunities the community would be most excited about. Quality-of-life data also includes information about green spaces and public health. Contractors can ask impacted individuals where they would want to see a park, or what sort of healthcare institutions and expertise are most needed in their neighborhood. Another type of data is sustainability data: It’s crucial to know about local ecosystems and energy to comply with local environmental policies.

3. Determine how to collect that data

Once contractors have identified the audience and their needs, it’s time to start collecting all the relevant data. Use a mix of canvassing, public polling, and conversations with formal and informal community leaders. Throughout this process, make sure to use public data best practices. All data collection should be consistent and well defined to build a robust data set and cut down on noise. Also, make sure that data is collected in real time: Relying on surveys from years or decades ago won’t accurately represent the community of the present. Lastly, make sure the data collected is open. Anyone and everyone in the community should be able to see it to build trust and to allow others to benefit from the data, too.

There are real-world examples of good data collection practices that you can draw on. For example, in New York City the Vision Zero Crash and Interventions Map shows detailed monthly information on traffic crashes and highlights how the city is responding every day to make our streets safer. The City of Santa Monica has established a Wellbeing Index, which assesses the city’s wellbeing and community health to help officials prioritize policies and programs.

4. Set a realistic timeline

Working with research data isn’t a simple task. As explained above, there are multiple phases. And once the data has been collected, it still needs to be double checked, analyzed and shared publicly. For that reason, construction leaders should build appropriate timelines for their community research efforts. Indeed, some community research projects span three to five years from start to finish. As a result, well-designed research programs and policies should have clear milestones and outcomes that can help determine if the project is heading the right direction.

Undertaking community research is a big task, but also essential to a successful construction project. As contractors conduct this work, maintain a commitment to prioritize mutual respect and trust with the community.

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