Cornerstones Blog

How One Town Set Out to Write a Plan that People Would Read

image of town plans

Not unlike most town plans, the Essex, Vermont, Town Plan was 280 pages long, mostly text with an occasional chart or graph. Not exactly a page turner.  When it came time to revise the plan, city officials decided to give it a makeover, and they looked to Community Heart & Soul™ for inspiration. 

Heart & Soul of Essex was a two-year project that offically wrapped up in 2014, though the organization continues to work for positive change in the community.

The 2016 Town Plan has a whole new look.  It’s less than half the size at 124 pages and features color photos, sidebars and graphics. The online version features links out to further documents and policy, which helped trim the document.

Content was revamped, too. The Heart & Soul of Essex vision statement and six Heart & Soul value statements are included. The first chapter is devoted to an action plan with goals, time frames, and cost estimates spelled out. In the old plan this section was buried at the back, without as much detail on delivery.

The plan won the Vermont Planners Association 2016 Town Plan of the Year award.

“Hands down, everybody thought it was far and away the best,” said Shanna Saunders, president of the New Hampshire Planners Association, the group responsible for judging plans. “The extent of public outreach they did really wowed people.”

In rethinking what a town plan could be, planners turned to the precedent and the plan created by Heart & Soul of Essex. 

 “We wanted to make the town plan distinctive, to make people feel they were a part of it,” said Dana Hanley, director of community development. “We wanted to do something really different that would make people actually read it, because everyone always tells us they never read the town plan.” 

Heart & Soul set a precedent for community engagement that meant both planners and residents were receptive to a participatory process, said Liz Subin, coordinator of the Heart & Soul of Essex. Planners held a photo and art contest to collect images for the plan and held meetings in neighborhoods to gather input.

“They really saw the opportunity for the plan to be something other than one that historically sits on the shelf, that nobody interacts with,” Subin said. “If it was a vibrant, living thing it could help them do their jobs and help the community feel more connected, and this plan does that.”

Best of all, Hanley is now hearing from residents who are reading the plan.


Monticello, Iowa: Building on Assets for a Better Future

image of downtown Monticello

The best five days of summer happen in late July in a small Iowa town called Monticello. That’s when the Great Jones County Fair comes to town and the town’s population can swell from 3,500 to 35,000, particularly when one of the headline music acts takes the stage.

“Some businesses close down on Main Street because everybody’s going to the fair. Organizations won’t plan meetings during that week,” said Jean Sullivan, who is project coordinator for Monticello Heart & Soul and co-pastor of the United Church of Monticello.

While the fair is what puts Monticello on the map, day-to-day life here is much like anywhere. There’s great affection for small town life and, like many places, there’s a desire to see a future that honors Monticello’s unique character while making it an even better place to live.

Monticello’s Community Heart & Soul™ project started in the spring of 2015 in partnership with Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, and is envisioned as the first of several Heart & Soul projects in the region aimed at helping towns assess their assets and make decisions that enrich the community.

“We are looking to Monticello to be a model for Community Heart & Soul in other towns in our region,” said Nancy Van Milligen, president and chief executive of the community foundation. “Finding out what matters most through Community Heart and Soul will help increase the impact of philanthropy. This can help direct dollars toward the greatest needs, not only in Monticello but eventually throughout the region.”

Monticello has a diverse economic base of agriculture, manufacturing and small, locally owned businesses. The approximately 14 industries in town include injection molding, hydraulics, steel building manufacturing, and custom sewing and design.

Young people are moving back to start businesses and families. Monticello also offers the chance to live in a quiet rural area and commute to the larger towns of Dubuque and Cedar Rapids. There’s a strong tradition of volunteerism centered around Camp Courageous, which provides experiences for 6,000 disabled campers a year. Community members pitch in to raise money for the local nonprofit, including making fruitcakes for the holidays. New people have moved into the area, introducing more ethnic and racial diversity than before.

With all of this positive change happening residents also articulate challenges including, making the downtown more vibrant, repairing a school and finding ways for more bike paths and recreational use of the river that flows through town. In addition, use of the food pantry has increased, and residents want to understand the factors driving that demand.

“The Heart and Soul process is being used to revitalize efforts around planning and to engage an even broader audience in the planning process,” Sullivan said. “We are looking for input on priorities for whatever is next in Monticello’s future.”

Monticello Heart & Soul is expected to wrap up later this year. The Heart & Soul Team will lead the effort to engage residents in prioritizing next steps for a bright future and set a course for action based on what matters most.

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A Fresh Start in a Town that Maytag Left Behind

image of student speaking

Community leaders and residents of Galesburg, Illinois, have launched a Community Heart & Soul project, taking the first steps in creating a roadmap to renewal for the former manufacturing city in the northwest central part of the state.

Community Heart & Soul got underway with a gathering of 200 community members who turned out to hear the results of more than a dozen focus groups representing the city’s rich diversity.  The project is a collaboration between the Galesburg Community Foundation and the city of Galesburg.

“We are excited to see Galesburg Heart & Soul hit the ground running,” Orton Family Foundation Executive Director David Leckey said. “In Galesburg, we see a strong community infrastructure to build on that includes the Galesburg Community Foundation, the city of Galesburg and community leaders and residents, all ready to roll up their sleeves and focus on a future built on Galesburg’s strengths and what matters most to everyone.”

Galesburg (pop. 32,000) is 50 miles south of the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa and is home to nationally ranked Knox College and a major rail hub for BNSF Railway Co. Galesburg was the site of a Maytag refrigerator manufacturing plant that closed in 2004, a loss of 5,000 jobs.  

Heart & Soul Galesburg got started last fall hosting 17 focus groups for residents to share their hopes, concerns and dreams for the city. The conversations, which were recorded by Galesburg High School students, set the stage for community engagement that includes everyone by drawing on a diverse array of residents including: farmers, African Americans, railroad workers, medical professionals, Hispanics and Latinos, faith groups, low income people, students, artists, and young professionals.  

“Our community is ready to take on the Heart & Soul process, which is very exciting and encouraging,” Joshua Gibb, executive director of the Galesburg Community Foundation said. “Galesburg residents are ready to take an active role in creating positive change that transforms our community for the better and for our future. We have a lot to be proud of here, and by participating in the Heart & Soul process we will have even more to be proud of.”

Community Heart & Soul is a community development approach that has helped transform small towns across the country by bringing residents together to determine what they value most about their town and getting people to see strengths and possibilities where they may have seen obstacles. Heart & Soul lays out a roadmap that leads to concrete actions that make positive change. Heart & Soul is organized by and carried out by local residents working toward achievable actions, some of which can be undertaken right away and others initiated for the long term. 

Humanities with Heart & Soul: Four PA Towns Selected for Humanities-focused Community Development Grants


The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) has awarded civic engagement grants to four communities in the Keystone state for Community Heart & Soul™ projects focused on humanities-based approaches to community planning and development.

In total PHC awarded $150,000 for Community Heart & Soul projects in Carlisle, Meadville, Williamsport, and the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

“We believe the humanities can inspire people to come together and make a difference in their communities,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director. “With storytelling at the heart of planning and development, local values and voices become the foundation for building communities that are connected, innovative, competitive, and strong.”

The Orton Family Foundation will support the projects by providing guidance and training to PHC. The projects are viewed as pilots for additional towns in Pennsylvania and potential partnerships with other humanities organizations.

The Greater Carlisle Project and the Revitalization Authority of the City of Meadville will each receive $50,000. Germantown United Community Development Corporation and Susquehanna Greenway Partnership will receive $25,000. All four communities will incorporate elements of the humanities, including storytelling, into their planning processes.

“By helping residents identify what matters most, we have seen Community Heart & Soul transform towns across the country into better versions of themselves. We are excited to be partnering with PHC to plant the seed for positive change in communities across Pennsylvania, as well,” said David Leckey, executive director, Orton Family Foundation.

For more information about PHC’s civic engagement grants and four current grant communities, click here.

At the Holidays the Importance of Place Comes Home


image of holiday tree


At this time of year, when we gather with loved ones, often returning to, or remembering, the places we hold dear, the reflections of Orton Family Foundation Trustee Ed McMahon on the importance of place seem especially apropos. Ed is senior resident fellow at Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.

We live in a world of rapid change: immigration, new technologies, global trade, instantaneous communication, changing consumer tastes, rapid movement of people, ideas, and goods, etc. However, if I have learned anything over 25 years in the community planning arena, it is this: change is inevitable, but the destruction of community character and identity is not. Progress does not demand degraded surroundings. Communities can grow without destroying the things people love.

Place is more than just a location or a spot on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics—visual, cultural, social and environmental—that provides meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one location (e.g. your hometown) different from another location (e.g. my hometown), but sense of place is also that which makes our physical surroundings valuable and worth caring about.

Land use planners spend too much time focusing on numbers—the number of units per acre, the number of cars per hour, the number of floors per building—and not enough time on the values, customs, characteristics, and quirks that make a place worth caring about. Unfortunately, many American communities are suffering the social, economic,  and environmental consequences of being places that simply aren’t worth caring about. The more one place (one location) comes to be just like every other place, the less reason there is to visit or invest. Just take tourism, for example: the more a community comes to look like every other community, the less reason there is to visit. On the other hand, the more a community does to enhance its distinctive identity, whether that is natural, cultural, or architectural, the more reasons there are to visit. Why? Because tourism is about visiting places that are different, unusual, or unique; if one place was just like everyplace else, there would be no reason to go anyplace.

Similarly, when it comes to 21st century economic development, a key concept is “community differentiation.” If you can’t differentiate your community from any other community, you have no competitive advantage. Capital is footloose in a global economy. Natural resources, highway access, locations along a river or rail line have all become less important. Richard Florida, a leading economic development authority and author of The Creative Class, has said, “How people think of a place is less tangible, but more important than just about anything else.”

Today, however, the subtle differences between places are fading and larger regional differences hardly exist. Now, if you were dropped along a road outside of most American cities or towns, you would not have the slightest idea where you were, because it all looks exactly the same: the building materials, the architectural styles, the chain stores, the outdoor advertising. Now building materials can be imported from anywhere. Hills can be flattened and streams put in culverts. We can transform the landscape with great speed and build anything that fits out budget or strikes our fancy. Technological innovation and a global economy make it easy for building plans drawn up at a corporate headquarters in New Jersey to be applied over and over again in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Portland or a thousand other communities. Over the past 40 years America’s commercial landscape has progressed from unique to uniform, from the stylized to the standardized.

Author Wallace Stegner once said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who  you are.” We all need points of reference and orientation. A community’s unique identity provides that orientation, while also adding economic and social value to a place. To foster a sense of place, communities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are uplifting and memorable and that create a special feeling of belonging and stewardship by residents. A community also nurtures sense of place by understanding and respecting its natural context, such as rivers and streams, hills and forests, native flora and fauna, but also its community landmarks whether historic or unique.

This is what Community Heart & Soul™ is all about. It is about helping communities adapt to change while maintaining or enhancing the things they value most. It is both a process and a philosophy. The process seeks to engage as many citizens as possible in community decision making. The philosophy recognizes that special places, characteristics and customs have value. As Orton Family Foundation Founder Lyman Orton likes to say, “When a community takes the time to get to know itself, it gains a sense of identity and purpose that informs decisions about the future.”

Similarly, for me, heart and soul planning is about helping communities ask the question: “Do you want the character of your community to shape the new development or do you want the new development to shape the character of your community?”

Given the opportunity, I think I know how most communities will answer this question.


New! Storytelling Resource Now Online


Our new, free resource, Using Storytelling in Community Heart & Soul, offers a step-by-step approach to incorporating storytelling into your town’s Heart & Soul in a way that gets the information needed for meaningful results.

 Storytelling within Community Heart & Soul™:

1. Raises awareness and interest in Heart & Soul and brings community action to life;

2. Draws in new, underrepresented or difficult-to-reach voices;

3. Reveals what matters most to residents about the community;

4. Builds greater understanding, trust and relationships;

5. Heals divisions, bridges differences;

6. Brings meaning to local data, numbers, and community trends.

Using Storytelling in Community Heart & Soul is a companion resource to the Community Heart & Soul Field Guide

Download the resource »

Initiating a Positive Disruptive Force in Your Town

image of Lyman Orton and sons

A message from Lyman Orton, founder and chairman, Orton Family Foundation, excerpted from the Community Heart & Soul™ Field Guide.

Community Heart & Soul recognizes that residents hold deep emotional connections to their town. Current formal planning processes do not take this into account. They leave most residents in the dust of mind-numbing formulas and endless boring meetings where lawyers quibble over language that no one understands. Sure, formulas such as dwelling units per acre, floor-to-area ratios, setbacks, and green space are necessary, but they frequently lack the WHY element other than “that’s how professional plans are done.” What towns need is some logic behind the WHY and that’s where Community Heart & Soul comes in.

Why did you come to this town? Why do you stay? What might make you leave? These are great starter questions. What do you treasure in town? Do you and your kids feel safe anywhere in town? What places do you go to that nurture your need for nature? What gathering places and events are fulfilling and easy to get to? What natural feature do you love? What public buildings are you proud of? Is your neighborhood supporting and connected? Do you feel good about your elected officials? Do they listen to you? These examples get at those emotional connections that are important to the everyday lives of all residents. This process results in community-wide agreement on a document that lays out those things that really matter most to the everyday lives of residents.

Here is how our evaluator described it:

“The Heart & Soul process is a positive disruptive force in most communities. It causes residents to turn out for meetings and conversations (in small or large groups) in ways that are outside traditional norms. It also leads to intentional reflection by community members on the community’s character and critical features.”

If initiating a “positive disruptive force” in your town sounds exciting, and if your town is up for it, then Community Heart & Soul could be for you. It’s a deep dive into what matters most to residents—and therefore what should matter most to your government—and will serve your town well for years to come. 

Download the newly revised Community Heart & Soul™ Field Guide today!

How Heart & Soul and Hard Cider Preserved a Church


image of cider house

For the residents of Gardiner, Maine, preserving and reusing older buildings, such as former schools, churches and a nursing home, emerged as a priority in their Community Heart & Soul™ project. One building in particular stood out—a stately Congregational church built in 1843 on Church Street at the edge of downtown. Vacant for a half dozen years, a blue tarp on the roof signaled distress.

Over recent years, the Gardiner Planning Board had several times proposed zoning regulations that would allow buildings like the church to be rezoned and repurposed for commercial use, but each time the Gardiner City Council, which had the final say, said no. Heart & Soul changed that, said Debby Willis, planning board chairwoman. 

“This time we had heard enough from the constituents that the city council felt confident that, in voting for such a change, they were meeting the needs and wants of citizens. They wouldn’t have heard from the citizens without Heart and Soul,” Willis said.

The city adopted a special zoning designation, called Adaptive Reuse Overlay District that allowed, on a case-by-case basis, buildings built before 1964 to be repurposed. The buildings had to be in the town’s high-density residential neighborhoods but could not be residential. 

Restaurateur and brewer David Boucher was first in line with an application. He bought the Congregational church for $100,250, and planned a hard cider brewery and tasting room.  

“It had gorgeous stained glass. It still has the pipe organ. It has a lot of unique features you just don’t get in a new building,” Boucher said “I actually started restructuring the overall scope and vision of this company around this church.” 

That meant leasing additional space in Gardiner for the bulk of his brewing operation when he learned that the church’s floors would not support massive brewing tanks. Boucher, who is quick to point out he was raised Catholic and attended parochial school, also formulated his brand playing on a church theme. He changed his brand from Crabby Apple Cider to Crooked Halo Cider. His flagship cider will be named Genesis with plans for other ciders to be named Absolution, Penance and Blasphemy.

Crooked Halo Cider House is scheduled to open on October 10 during Gardiner’s Swine and Stein Oktoberfest event. 

Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett sees a win-win in the reuse of the church. An historic building will be kept in good condition, and a new business will help the local economy. The business anticipates creating eight jobs in the next year. He also credits Heart & Soul for placing historic buildings high on the city’s list of priorities.

“We hope it becomes something that lures people in and gives people who don’t know Gardiner a reason to come here and gives people who know Gardiner a reason to spend more time here. When you spend time, hopefully you spend money,” Harnett said.