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Two years ago, our Foundation issued a Request for Projects seeking towns in the Northeast and Rocky Mountain regions to experiment with us in developing a Heart & Soul Community Planning approach to local planning and decision-making. One of the towns applying was Acton, Massachusetts, a community of about 20,000 people about 45 minutes west of Boston. They put together a great application, but for our metropolitan-edge community we chose Golden, Colorado.
Well, a few months ago I was contacted by Justin Hollander of Tufts University, who told me that Acton had been so inspired by the goals of our RFP that they decided to proceed even after not being selected to work with the Foundation (got to love that!). Acton, he continued, had decided to use Second Life as one of its tools to engage its residents and provide hands-on planning opportunities focusing on a key commercial area called Kelley’s Corner.
This I had to see and so down I went.
I spent much of a day with Acton’s selectboard chair, Lauren Rosenzweig, two planners, Roland Bartl and Kristin Alexander, Justin Hollander of Tufts, and Ann Sussman of openNeighborhood. In our conversations, it became clear that they considered this endeavor as much a PR and outreach campaign as a planning exercise, and thus made a remarkable effort in going out to Acton’s residents instead of making them come to City Hall to participate. They engaged their local schools, parents groups, involved the Discovery Museum, and provided high tech and low tech opportunities for people to individually or in face-to-face meetings re-envision Kelley’s Corner. Ten residents built models in Second Life and 50 used paper plans to create new futures for the area and for the town.
Through these surveys, outreach, high tech and low tech methods and earlier outreach efforts, the town engaged over 450 people in the discussion of this critical area...and then 100 people came to a public meeting on May 26th to review the emerging core values, discuss and vote on the options, and continue progress on charting the future of Kelley’s Corner and Acton as a whole.
For a more detailed discussion of the project, you can see the final project report produced by Justin and his undergraduate students. Their work is not done. But the Town’s recognition of the expertise and local knowledge its residents offer, its commitment to broad engagement, its emphasis on communication and transparency, its willingness to take risks in opening up the planning process, and its committment to working collaboratively with people from all parts of Acton is truly inspirational.
It all seems so simple and self-evident when one considers it from a distance, but the reality is that this is still leading-edge, messy work. And this is exactly how communities should be planning their growth. The time it takes up front to engage more residents undoubtedly results in a quicker, smoother adoption of change, whether it be to governing documents, to code or other non-regulatory actions.
So I congratulate Acton and look forward to following its progress. And for those of you who live in other towns undertaking work you believe provides a model for engagement and decision-making, please contact the Orton Family Foundation and tell us your story.