Land Use

Seeing Green: The Intersection of the Economy, Ecology and Character

Vermont has just exploded into summer. The weekly farmer’s markets are in full swing and summertime concerts, fairs, parades and art walks are just starting. It’s an exciting time and one that brings with it the opportunity to grow and reap the harvest together.

It’s a great time of year to be in Vermont: summer has arrived and it’s taken its sweet time to get here so we appreciate it all the more. In a mostly rural state, many communities have pinned their abilities to grow and thrive on the constancy of the cycle of seasons. A successful harvest or a big snowfall is not only beautiful to behold—they’re economic indicators as well, and the collective identity of the people who live here depend on that.

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Compromise and Community

This post was co-written by John Elder and Kris Perlee, two residents of Bristol, Vermont, who were tasked with finding a compromise to a ten-year-old land use debate. Here is the story of how they found common ground.

For the better part of a decade our town of Bristol, VT was up to its axles in controversy about a proposed new gravel pit. One casualty of this situation was the Planning Commission’s ability to come up with a Town Plan that the voters would support.

Some of our fellow residents strongly supported the rights of the landowner to develop the property as he wished, especially given the increasing scarcity of gravel in our region. Opponents of the new pit were equally adamant, fearing that noise and traffic from this site near the Town Hall and Main Street would seriously disrupt both the commerce and the neighborhoods of our village.

The full range of opinion in Bristol was appropriately represented on our Planning Commission, but this in turn made it challenging for us to advance toward a clear consensus.

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Imagining North Adams

Every year, 120,000 people make a pilgrimage to the Northwestern corner of the Berkshires in Massachusetts and head for MASS MoCA.

They park next to the concrete channels of the Hoosic River and walk into a complex of historic brick mill buildings, repurposed as a world-class museum.

They spend a few hours, or a few days, exploring the cavernous galleries, and they collectively spend millions of dollars on tickets, souvenirs and gourmet food in the museum cafés.

What they usually don’t do is spend much of that time or money a block or two away—on Main Street. And it shows. While North Adams has made many efforts, and admirable progress, to reinvent itself as a vibrant arts community, its Main Street still struggles to fill up storefronts, local businesses struggle to stay afloat, and many residents struggle to find jobs and rise above the poverty line. (Check out this 2012 piece from NPR for the full story.)

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The Place Where We Live

farmers-market_flickrcc_BevSykes300x200.jpgIf I have learned anything from my career in community planning, it is this: change is inevitable, but the destruction of community character and identity is not. Progress does not demand degraded surroundings.

A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics—visual, cultural, social, and environmental—that provide meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one city or town different from another, but sense of place is also what makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.

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Community Character 201: A Lesson from Italy

roman-bakery_ropepost_300x400.jpgWhen I go traveling to another country, I always take a book that helps me get in the right mindset. Oftentimes I choose fiction that takes place in that particular country. But this time as I packed for Italy, I made room in my suitcase for a fabulous collection of Paul Bowles collected writings entitled Travels.

While none of this book takes place in Italy, focusing more on Tangiers, where he lived for most of his life, and Morocco, in which he traveled extensively, it’s a book about exploring foreign lands. Bowles regales the reader with hilarious tales of near disasters, describes wonderful characters he meets along the way, and reflects on what it means to be traveling in a country other than one’s own.

In a re-published piece entitled “Windows on the Past” written in 1957 about his travels in Europe, Bowles argues that Americans travel to Europe to regain their connections to the past. We get lost, he claims, in the vast American melting pot, in a society always transforming and remaking itself, focused more on techniques and gadgets than something deeper and more meaningful. So we go to Europe seeking something else, something he labels “culture”.

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When Saying No Is the Way to Go

Golden arch_300x201.jpgI nominate Golden, Colorado “Poster Child of the Month” for Heart & Soul Community Planning—and for every stripe of values-first visioning and planning across the country.

Congratulations Golden! You know what you’ve got and you want to keep it. And that makes you confident enough to keep saying NO to the Denver Beltway, 201-mile darling of the transportation/development establishment, and underway in fits and starts since the late 50s.

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Making Do

iceharvest2_300x168.jpgOn the last weekend in January, a small crowd of onlookers gathers at the edge of Brookfield Pond in central Vermont for what is – these days – a most unusual spectacle. An odd contraption of wooden beams and iron hardware stands on a patch of ice surrounded by rusted old saws and oversized tongs. A local historian narrates as two men move to the center of the ice and begin sawing. After a few minutes they use a strange fork to pry loose a block more than a foot thick. An ingenious lever system easily lifts this 300-pound block of ice off the water and lands it safely on the surface, frozen before it hits the ground.

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The Good of Getting on the Ground

Photo: Workshop participants take advantage of Belfast’s public art chairs while doing fieldwork.
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Heart & Soul Community Planning
is rooted in the idea that people share common values when it comes to what makes their cities and towns unique. Although the language people use may be similar across communities, the specifics of what people mean by that language can be quite different from place to place.

So how do you get beyond nebulous conversations about “sense of community” to a shared understanding of the specifics of your town? You get on the ground and figure it out.

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