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For Successful Planning, It’s the More, the Merrier

From Texas to Tennessee, big citizen turnouts made dreams come true

December 11, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Envision Utah
  In Utah, thousands of people attended envisioning sessions, where they gathered around maps to discuss and plot their community’s future.

TRAVERSE CITY—In metropolitan Salt Lake City, citizens spread and stacked blue poker chip on enormous maps. In Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tenn., they stuck multicolored dots onto big banners labeled “clean up the riverfront,” “revitalize downtown,” and “improve our schools”. And in Austin, Tex., they gazed at multi-layered computer simulations.

And, in each town the people who did those things—at “visioning sessions” meant to decide how their region should grow—received a pleasant surprise: Their local governments took effective action on their plans, rather than simply filing and forgetting them.

With a similar visioning process, currently known as the Grand Traverse Land Use and Transportation Study (LUTS), slated to begin in this scenic corner of northern Michigan, its supporters wonder whether the decisions it will make can likewise become bricks-and-mortar reality.

LUTS, which begins in earnest early next year, was born in controversy—the direct result of a long-running dispute over a proposed highway bypass that Grand Traverse County wanted to build through a quiet river valley south of here. Two years ago, in the face of fierce opposition, the county suspended its proposal and appointed representatives from 34 civic, business, environmental, and municipal groups to find the best way—as defined by the people who live and work here—to handle the region’s severe traffic congestion and galloping growth.

Last month, the LUTS steering committee finally announced its preference for a consortium of firms to lead the visioning process, which will be a regional effort involving Grand Traverse County and the five counties surrounding it and Grand Traverse Bay: Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford. The committee expects to conclude contract negotiations with the consortium in the next few weeks and launch the visioning process early next year.

However, Great Lakes Bulletin News Service interviews with officials from Salt Lake City, Austin, Chattanooga, and Knoxville indicate that LUTS (the committee promises to choose a new name soon) will succeed only if the committee and its civic and governmental supporters involve as many citizens as possible, as deeply as possible, in the process.

“Don’t cut corners on the communications, outreach, and engagement piece,” warned Diane Miller, the Assistant Director of Envision Central Texas, the citizen-government group from the Austin area. “You have to work real hard to get a diverse range of people involved in workshops and surveys. It’s not cheap to do that, but it’s important that you have that public support to stand on.”

Meet Mr. Grow
If officials agree on a contract, Mead and Hunt, a national engineering and architectural firm, will lead the consortium of consultants. The firm will work closely with Fregonese and Calthorpe Associates, which specializes in long-range land use and transportation planning, and with Robert Grow, who launched Envision Utah in Salt Lake City, served as its CEO, and worked closely with Fregonese and Calthorpe in both Utah and in Austin. Mr. Grow visited Traverse City about 15 months ago to explain the envisioning process to a gathering sponsored by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Grow first got involved in community visioning when Salt Lake area residents realized that their region was expecting to balloon from 1.6 million to 5 million residents by 2050. The lawyer, engineer, industrialist, Utah native, and father of six ended up leading the planning effort.

He helped convene a broad group of environmentalists, developers, officials, and residents, who dubbed the effort Envision Utah, and hired Fregonese and Calthorpe. First, the firm surveyed 600,000 local residents about their hopes and fears for the future. The survey found that residents most loved their family time and the picture-perfect mountains surrounding them, and most feared that their children and grandchildren would not be able to afford to live near them.

Next, Envision Utah held more than 100 heavily attended public workshops across the region, where thousands of participants confirmed those findings. They also viewed computer modeling programs to see how different decisions about density, transportation, zoning, and land preservation would affect their community for decades to come. They then chose from four distinct growth scenarios, ranging from “business as usual”—with the kind of highway planning and suburban development that was already underway—to one with a very dense urban core, lots of public transportation, and entirely undeveloped mountainsides.

Citizens overwhelmingly favored the second-densest scenario, which minimized air pollution and commute times, preserved large amounts of open space, and established neighborly, walkable, affordable town and city neighborhoods around modern transit stations.

Spurred by their thousands of envisioning neighbors, Salt Lake residents support the elements that are making Envision Utah’s plan a reality. They voted for a modern light rail line, which is now under construction, and strongly supported new zoning ordinances that point the region toward more compact development.

According to Mr. Grow, a combination of heavy local news coverage and targeted direct communication, along with careful documentation of citizens’ desires, made it easier for elected leaders to make the necessary changes in zoning and tax policies.

“Implementation starts with involving the public at the very beginning,” said Mr. Grow.

Envision Central Texas
When leaders in Austin and surrounding communities realized that traffic congestion, environmental lawsuits, and air pollution were hampering their region, they, too, decided to get a handle on land use and transportation.

Impressed by Envision Utah—the project won a Congress for New Urbanism Charter Awards in 2001—metro Austin’s leaders named their effort Envision Central Texas and hired Fregonese and Calthorpe Associates.

Officials aggressively encouraged public participation, which built public support for a light rail line. Citizens voted to fund the line in 2004, followed by a package of proposals for sidewalks, bike lanes, road improvements, parks, water management, the arts, and the public library that passed in 2006. The citizens also persuaded the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a central Texas agency, to base its transportation planning on the citizen-endorsed models rather than its mainstream, sprawl-inducing approach.

Carol Barret, the director of planning and development in San Marcos, near Austin, said that strong public participation changed many outdated local perceptions.

“Envision Central Texas was a huge myth buster,” Ms. Burnett said. “Before, people would say everybody wants this or nobody wants that for the region. Envision Central Texas documented that there are multiple visions for the regions, and that there are a significant number of people who want to live in dense, compact, transit-oriented places.”

In fact, strong citizen support made it politically acceptable—in a strong “property rights” state with a long history of minimal planning, zoning, and government regulation—to invest public funds in sidewalks, bike paths, light rail, affordable housing, public libraries, and the arts.

Chattanooga, Vision 2000
If there is a pioneer in the visioning process, however, it may be Chattanooga. In 1983—facing a lackluster economy, a faded downtown, and deep racial tensions—civic, business, and community leaders decided to take action. In 1984, they formed Venture 2000, a nonprofit group, to oversee its revitalization process, and hired Gianni Longo, a nationally recognized community visioning expert, to bring citizens from all walks of life into the conversation.

“There really weren’t any other places that I was aware of that were doing it the way we wanted to, which was a completely open and inclusive process,” said Mr. Longo.

Thousands of people, ranging from ordinary citizens to the CEO of the largest company in town, hammered out a new community vision. They identified six topic areas and 40 goals; the Chamber of Commerce, nonprofit organizations, and foundations "adopted" individual goals and carried most of them out over the next nine years. Other new groups, including the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, also formed in response to citizens’ goals. The community built a new aquarium, which spurred more than $1 billion of private investment along the waterfront.

The community brought Mr. Longo back in the mid-1990s for ReVision 2000; the community made plans to clean up the river and establish a zero-emissions industrial zone.

“The first process was doing things the community really needed just to function,” Mr. Longo observed, “but the second really had an environmental function. I think the reason ReVision 2000 worked was it was so broad you could address issues that you don’t automatically connect, but are connected.”

Nine Counties, One Vision
Chattanooga’s success convinced leaders in nearby Knoxville to adopt the same approach, so they, too, hired Mr. Longo.

“In 1999, we had a lot of resources going in different directions—city government versus county government, a somewhat disorganized chamber of commerce,” explained Laurens Tullock, director of the Cornerstone Foundation, a local non-profit community betterment organization. “There was a lot of potential in Knoxville, but not a regional vision or a consensus on strategy. We wanted a community consensus-building process that got us all on the same page.”

The project, dubbed Nine Counties, One Vision, used an unusual approach to build citizen participation. Its approximately 20 original leaders each invited an additional 10 people, all informal community leaders with varied backgrounds and perspectives. An unusually broad stakeholder group emerged, ensuring that almost everyone in the community could trust at least one group member. That step, coupled with surveys and public workshops, built strong community support.

It also helped get local leaders and elected officials moving in the same direction: Both the city and county mayors, Bill Haslam and Mike Ragsdale, adopted and ran on platforms based on the visioning process’s recommendations.

Mr. Tullock said that the city and the county mayor now work together effectively—a welcome contrast to past mayoral pairs, who often fought over resources and priorities. Just as important as those brick and mortar results, however, is the shift in how the community does business.

“Now when we do a project,” said Mr. Tullock, “the first thing we do is ask people what they want.”

Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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