Although the PLACE Program emphasizes reading the local landscape and telling the story of its transformation though time, a central goal of the program is to set the stage for a community visioning process in which community members come together to discuss current community-landscape issues and chart a course for a desirable and sustainable future.
The PLACE Program design reflects the belief that such an integrated and inclusive educational effort fosters both a sense of community and a sense of place – a potent combination that leads to a more informed and creative community visioning process. By providing a forum for exploring the cultural and ecological landscape values held in common by the community, the stage is set for engaging the community in visioning efforts that have the potential to transcend the divisive nature of many land-use debates and build toward a planning process that promotes consensus and informed decisions. It attempts to build a bridge that connects a place’s past and present to a sustainable future.
So what are the practical mechanisms that the PLACE Program can use to facilitate an effective community visioning process? In some towns, a “vision-to-action forum” is the culminating PLACE event after the primary cycle of research and information sharing has been concluded. A vision-to-action forum is a structured meeting, organized and facilitated by a local steering committee, that brings together people from all walks of town life to discuss future plans for community development and stewardship, and to develop a specific roadmap for reaching those goals.
Over the course of the 1½ days, community members begin with big picture visioning and gradually winnow their ideas down to a set of projects that are concrete and actionable. Projects range from starting a community newspaper, to developing a new trail system, to restoring historic structures and conserving ecological vital landscapes. The results of all the discussions that occur during the Forum are recorded and published in a final report. Ideally, the event steering committee and many of the event participants will be community members who have participated in earlier aspects of PLACE activities in the area and who have been energized to take their expanded vision of their landscape and apply it to the town planning process.
The three over-arching goals of the forum are
- strengthening community vitality
- building civic engagement and local leadership
- promoting sustainable development
It has been applied successfully in a range of communities throughout the world, and has had demonstrated success in rural, suburban, and municipal settings. Unlike Vermont town meeting day or a typical planning board hearing, there is no preset agenda of topics for a vision-to-action forum, and event facilitators are simply trained to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard and everyone’s ideas recorded accurately. At the same time, facilitators are required to guide participants through the dual processes of reaching consensus on community priorities and creating actionable plans to address the issues identified by the assembled group.
As a tool for community engagement and conflict resolution, the vision-to-action forum’s strength lies both in its initial organization system – it uses a planning/steering team of people that has been specifically chosen for its inclusiveness and selection of people with deep understanding of, but varied ties to, the community – and in its formal facilitation structure which does not allow the event to be “hijacked” by a single person or issue. Everyone is given ample space to express their ideas and opinions, and in the end, the decisions that are reached represent a sort of consensus, mutually agreed upon by everyone present.
The Vision-to-Action Forum is an excellent fit as a partner to the PLACE Program, in that it creates a framework for the visioning that – like the PLACE community educational events – focuses on common-ground rather than divisions, and successfully invites the participation of the broadest-possible representation of the community. One of the primary ways in which the Vision-to-Action model achieves the goals of the PLACE program is by allowing the community members themselves to shape the discussion based on the issues they collectively deem most important.
The forum provides PLACE participants with an outlet for contributing their time and energy to projects that they identify and feel are meaningful in their lives. When tied to a community education program like PLACE, the discussions and ideas that are brought forth within a Vision-to-Action forum may have a higher likelihood of being informed by a mutual understanding of the natural and cultural elements that actually make up the town. By already having a shared sense of “where the town is now and how it got there,” the question of “where can (or should) we go from here” may become slightly easier to answer.
Community Visioning in Williston, VT
In Williston, the vision-to-action forum (called “WING” – Williston Into The Next Generation) generated a lot of excitement and drew in many people who heard about the event from their neighbors. It was attended by approximately 125 community members, and out of the several hundred issues and ideas that were identified during early event sessions, the participants were able via the vision-to-action process to focus in on 5 actionable projects for the town to move forward with in order to address the most urgently pressing needs identified by a consensus of those present. In each case, an actual plan of first steps was created by participants, and subsequently, a long term steering committee has been set up to oversee project coordination. The five projects that emerged from the PLACE culminating vision-to-action forum in Williston are:
- Instigation of a monthly all-community potluck combined with a local music series and an annual event celebrating Williston’s rural heritage.
- Building of a community center to serve the social, recreational, and meeting space needs of a wide variety of Williston stakeholders (particular emphasis on connecting youth and elderly realms).
- Creation of a series of bike and walking paths that will serve not only to facilitate alternative transportation needs in the town and diminish reliance on fossil fuel powered vehicles, but also to create pedestrian connections between currently isolated suburban neighborhoods, the “old” village, and the commercial shopping/entertainment district.
- Creation of a “green initiatives” task force initially focused on completing an energy audit of all town and school buildings and calculating a carbon footprint for town activities as part of a public awareness raising campaign (to be followed by mitigation activities and perhaps a permanent energy committee).
- Initiation of systematic polling of town residents to determine self identified geographic/demographic divisions within the town in conjunction with serious exploration of possible representative town government models for Williston to adopt in the near future.
- By June of 2008, at least four of these projects identified in April had already begun to move forward and become a reality. The Williston final report may be found here. (WING final report)