Social Impact: Knowing Your Community
Social Impact Assessments are a critical tool for not only understanding a community, but also for understanding the impact that your major project has on the community and the management of those impacts. These impacts ARE a big deal, so how do we know what they are?
SOCIAL IMPACT ASSESSMENTS EXPLAINED
A Social Impact Assessment (SIA) is a planning tool – a comprehensive report – that identifies your community and who they are through key statistics as well as truly knowing the needs, fears, and aspirations of the community. The report identifies a project’s impacts on the community, both positive and negative, and is utilised to strategise a management plan for those impacts.
This assessment isn’t just about benefitting the community. An SIA not only identifies the negative impacts that needs mitigating, but also pinpoints important opportunities that help to ensure the success of the project within its community. It’s a sort of symbiotic relationship where the community and the project strengthen each other.
Social Impact Assessments can be utilised at any point of a major project, however are most commonly applied during initial planning phases of a project (before commencing) and in preparation for the closure of a project. So, an assessment of how a project will affect its community as it comes in and then how it will affect the community as it is withdrawn.
A common example of a project that utilises this is a long-term resource project, such as the coal mines in Central Queensland.
So, what’s the first step?
You always need a starting point; that anchor that is absolute cold, hard facts. This means census data and statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and Queensland Government Statistician’s Office (QGSO).
This statistical data is called the “baseline” – the facts that are indisputable such as population, culture, income, industries and so on that are the foundation for the community. This is the starting point where we find out exactly what the community is made up of.
This is about more than simply reporting straight data, though. We might see that, through age distribution percentages, the local population is comprised most heavily of youth and young to middle aged adults. This tells us that the population is primarily families. We might see that there is a high percentage of indigenous persons within the population, which on its own can indicate the importance of indigenous culture and issues within the community. We might note that there is a high unemployment rate within a community, indicating that there is a real need for local hiring.
This is where we begin to identify issues and opportunities, however it’s not the full picture. Delving deeper, and more personally, is also a critical phase in creating an effective SIA.
Community engagement is the optimal way to drill down further into truly knowing the community and the project’s place within it. You can, of course, utilise things like surveys, however better understanding is achieved through conversation and the open sharing of ideas. More often than not, a fear or idea can’t be fully communicated through a tick box or two-line comment section, which means you’re not getting the full community picture.
What is good for one community isn’t necessarily good for another. It can’t be assumed that Brisbane is the same as Sydney and with rural towns you certainly can’t assume that “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”. Every community is unique – they have their own quirks, the things that make them tick and become an intrinsic part of their identity and individuality.
Community engagement is a step that many projects want to avoid because of the connotations of inviting the unknown – opening the proverbial can of worms. However, this can of worms is the most fruitful part of the process.
Setting aside the issue of information gathering for a moment, community engagement is an opportunity in itself. These sessions are an opportunity for the project to truly BE a part of the community through the building of strong relationships. It’s also an opportunity to manage issues before they can truly become impacts. By answering questions and concerns, you build trust with the community and provide information that will put fears and false assumptions to rest early on.
Having a controlled open forum to discuss the project with the community gathers data a census can’t measure. Nobody knows a community better than the community itself and consultations can present a deeper understanding of the needs, fears and aspirations of a community and how the project might handle impacts and opportunities.
Ultimately, community engagement fills the data gaps so that the SIA can provide better insight into the impacts of a project and thus better manage the relationships, impacts and opportunities.
WALL PLANNING GROUP KNOW COMMUNITIES
Wall Planning Group is a community-focussed town planning firm that strives to build sustainable communities with vibrant spaces. To discuss your major project with us, contact us today for an initial consultation.