Visioning Process Sparks Community Pride in One Town’s Youth

Many small towns throughout the United States are engaging young people in planning and community development projects in a variety of creative ways. By recognizing and valuing the tremendous energy and optimism students bring to local development efforts, these communities are building stronger and more lasting bonds between young people and their hometowns, which is particularly important in small places that are seeing their youth migrate away after high school.

Biddeford, Maine, provides a useful case study of how students can be genuinely involved in a wider community visioning process while also gaining a new appreciation for the history and potential of their hometown.

Biddeford’s 2011 Downtown Master Plan includes the words “youth” or “students” 157 times over its 217 pages. This was not an accident, but rather a demonstration of this New England mill town’s strong commitment to including young people and students in its visioning and community development efforts. Students were a driving force in the master plan development process, launched through a partnership of the City of Biddeford, its main street organization Heart of Biddeford, and the Orton Family Foundation, an organization that works with small towns and cities to support local community planning.

The result of this initiative has been not only the publication of the Downtown Master Plan, but also the blossoming of strong community relationships, an appreciation of the city’s shared history and values, and a boost to local economic development.

Biddeford, a city of 20,000 residents located 20 miles south of Portland on the Saco River, has a rich and vibrant history as a textile manufacturing center. However, decades of prosperity began to wind down in the years following World War II when many manufacturers sought cheaper labor and supplies in the Southern states. Population began to decrease and Biddeford’s downtown area, formerly a thriving gathering space for the community, began a steady decline as malls and shopping centers sprung up in the outer suburbs.

For years it looked as if Biddeford would go the way of many former industrial towns, into a state of permanent decline. Then, in the 1980s, efforts were begun to fund downtown infrastructure and streetscape improvements.  During this time, the Downtown Development Commission (DDC) was also established to support downtown revitalization and community development efforts.  In 2008 in conjunction with the Orton Family Foundation, the city began what was known as the Heart & Soul Community Planning process, which included community storytelling, neighborhood meetings, and the development and publication of the Downtown Master Plan.

In all three of these stages, Biddeford’s youth played an important role. Local high school students were active participants in community meetings, interviewed relatives and community members about their lives and recollections of Biddeford, and organized historical and cultural tours of the city’s mills.

The visioning and storytelling process has instilled a new sense of pride in local residents, particularly among Biddeford’s youth who for years saw no hope in the future of their town. “I’m ashamed to admit it now, but for many years I didn’t like my hometown,” says Tom Laverriere, a recent graduate of Biddeford High School. “Up until I was about 15 I thought it was boring, had no real opportunities, and was inferior to neighboring communities. It wasn’t until I got involved that I realized how great it is.”

“I have seen changes in the way the teenagers look at themselves and their town,” observes Carolyn Gosselin, a Biddeford High School English teacher.  Gosselin’s Senior English Perspectives in Literature course teaches students about the oral storytelling tradition by having them interview family members and local residents about their lives and experiences in Biddeford. Field trips were arranged for the students to visit the downtown area and the mill complexes, mapping their travels and adventures using GPS. For many students, this was their first time venturing into the downtown area, a place that many had been told to stay away from while growing up. These trips ignited new student interest in downtown, as many were attracted by the history, architecture, and possibility of reviving the area into a place they would want to visit more often.

Victoria Eon, a sophomore at McGill University and graduate of Biddeford High, notes how the storytelling process and student-led historic tours of the mills, including popular “ghost tours,” have created a new connection to her town and fellow students. “Engaging in these conversations has brought me closer to my peers. I’m excited that they are excited, and proud that they — at long last — feel proud of their humble roots without being asked why.”

The mills, which for so many years provided jobs, security, and a sense of identity, are once again a focal point in this new chapter in Biddeford’s story. Of particular pride is the Pepperell Mill campus, home to around 70 commercial tenants and 81 residential apartments.

“These buildings of brick are my history,” says Eon. The progress being made in Biddeford “speaks to the resilience of the people these buildings inspire,” she says. It is the resilience of this town — both in its built history and social fabric – that is moving Biddeford forward, led by young people who want to see a stronger future for their community.

Click here to read a longer version of this case study, which includes sections on lessons learned and student interviews.

Making Public Participation Legal

This was originally published by Sandy Heierbacher, Director of NCDD. The Foundation is proud to re-post Sandy’s recent announcement of a national initiative to make more meaningful, broad citizen engagement the law, rather than the exception. NCDD and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), two members of CommunityMatters Partners, are part of the working group that conceived and developed the initiative. 

Most laws that govern public participation in the U.S. are over thirty years old. They do not match the expectations and capacities of citizens today, they pre-date the Internet, and they do not reflect the lessons learned in the last two decades about how citizens and governments can work together. Increasingly, public administrators and public engagement practitioners are hindered by the fact that it’s unclear if many of the best practices in participation are even allowed by the law.


Engage everyone…even in the big city?

Boston, MA aerialBoston is changing rapidly, by-and-large for the better. There are cranes everywhere. Our population is growing. We’re revitalizing old neighborhoods and building new ones. But, as even expert planners acknowledge, artists and young adults recently out of college can’t afford to live and work here. My neighborhood has lost its middle class.

There are public housing units, high-end condos and expensive single-family residences, but very little in between. Elsewhere, preservationists struggle to save historically important neighborhood buildings while others bemoan the lack of cutting-edge architecture.

I enjoy thinking about how cities grow and change. I keep up to date on the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) latest decisions, have weighed in on development proposals in neighborhood forums, and served on a “citizen advisory committee” when the BRA rezoned a broad swath of my neighborhood.


The Road to Resilience

Irene Damage - August 28, 2011, US Route 100 leading into the mountain town of Rochester, Vermont simply ended. And so did every other road leading in and out of town. That was the day Tropical Storm Irene washed away roads and bridges and homes throughout the region, leaving 13 towns cut off from the outside world. It was hours before anyone managed to get in or out of Rochester, and even then only by ATV and on foot. It was days before most people could communicate with anyone outside of town. It was weeks before power was restored and roads were passable to anyone other than emergency crews.


Community as Classroom: Learning Through Service in Victor, Idaho

Guest blogger Hannah Orcutt is a former Orton intern now based in the Teton Valley. She recently got in touch to let us know that the impacts of the Heart & Soul approach are still making a difference in Victor.

Victor, Idaho (pop. 1,500), one of the Foundation’s early Heart & Soul project towns, is home to the Teton Valley Community School (TVCS), where I currently work.  A central tenet of the school’s philosophy is that community involvement is important.

The Victor community serves as a dynamic classroom for our Pre-K through 6th-grade students. TVCS’s unique project-based curriculum lets teachers harness regional expertise and events as learning tools. The community benefits from our projects, and students learn to be engaged citizens.

It’s a win-win that has resulted in a young generation of active movers and shakers in the Teton Valley.


Slow Democracy: Citizen-Powered Communities for the 21st Century

This is the first of a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

The “slow food” movement began in the mid-1980s with protests against the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, but it has since inspired untold thousands of supporters across the globe.

Slow food argues that fast food symbolizes much of what’s wrong with the world today. We’ve taken the goal of “efficiency” too far, advocates argue. We need to slow down and understand where our food comes from, and recognize our connection to agriculture, to communities, and to our natural systems. We have a responsibility to do so, for human, economic, and ecological health.

I was thinking about slow food while thinning carrots in my garden one weekend, listening to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma on my ear buds. That’s when it hit me: the work I had been doing in community development was perfectly aligned with the efforts of the slow food movement. Local, human-scale, interconnected…the metaphor was inspiring, and it brought a wave of fresh, exciting ideas to mind. Slow Democracy!

I ran inside to test the idea out on my husband Mark. He seemed impressed, saying enthusiastically, “Slow Democracy? Great idea! Hey, I bet you could even get the domain name—!”


Reimagining America’s Streets

Americans’ expectations of our streets are changing. While we once saw streets exclusively as a means to move cars from one place to another as quickly as possible, we are increasingly recognizing them for what they are—our largest public space—and for what they can become—an opportunity to promote economic development, build community and even improve public health.

The Open Streets Project is leading this revolution in how we view and use streets. Also known as Ciclovias, Sunday Streets, Viva Streets (to name a few), Open Streets temporarily closes busy streets to automobiles so that people may use them for any activity but driving—walking, jogging, bicycling, dancing…name your physical activity—bringing thousands of people together to experience their city in a way that is normally forbidden.


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.)