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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever contemplated how to get young people more involved in your community? One way is to include youth on town boards and committees. Several towns that we have worked with did just that and are in agreement about the benefits of having fresh perspectives at the table.
In Manchester, Vermont, high school students joined local boards and commissions in 2007 as part of a youth engagement project with Orton. Students are appointed to the Planning Commission, Design Review Board, Development Review Board, Parks & Recreation Committee, Conservation Commission, Energy Committee and the Library Board. They serve as full voting members on all but two of the boards, which, for legal reasons, do not allow minors to vote.
Lee Krohn, who was city planner when students were first appointed, recalled how well received the new voices were, and that their input was valuable.
“On the Development Review Board, there were times when a student suggested a change in a site plan that made good sense, and was accepted by both the board and the applicants. In other cases, there were times when a student’s ideas and arguments changed other members’ minds about cases,” Krohn said.
The experience in Cortez, Colorado, has been similar, said Shane Hale, city manager. One result of the Heart & Soul process there was that students were given seats with full voting privileges on the Parks and Recreation Board, Golf Course Advisory Committee and the Library Advisory Board. Giving young people meaningful roles has been key to winning their involvement, Hale said.
“I believe that the work that we do in local government does matter, and that the best way to show our youth that we're worth their time is to give them the opportunity to see their local government at work and to engage in our decision-making at a meaningful level,” Hale said. “We do genuinely value the opinions of our youth members, and I believe that their involvement on our boards will be a legacy outcome of the Heart & Soul process.”
Shelburne, Vermont, took a chapter from Manchester and this summer opened the town’s boards and commissions to students. The seats are non-voting, but each board has two slots for students, a best practice borrowed from Manchester that’s designed to boost participation, said Joe Colangelo, Shelburne town manager.
“So far I’ve really only heard very positive feedback from the quote, unquote adults on the committees. They are very appreciative, and some have been blown away by the ability levels. There’s some good ideas coming and it’s been positive,” Colangelo said.
In addition to having fresh ideas and new perspectives on city issues, Hale sees the opportunity to plant the seed for future civic engagement.
“It’s my hope that some of our high school board members will one day come back to run for city council or will pursue careers in local government,” Hale said.
As synonymous with summer as ice cream and swimming holes, outdoor concerts are a sure sign of longer days and kinder temperatures in this part of the country. In Gardiner, Maine, they also signal revitalization in a town that, like many throughout the region, has struggled for decades to fuel its economy and keep its downtown vibrant.
The waterfront concerts aren’t the only thing rocking in this small town (pop. 5,700) on the Kennebec River, 45 minutes north of Portland. The new local food co-op just got a grant to fund educational programs, farm-to-table efforts continue to grow, and the arts are thriving as documented in a newly released film. Gardiner wrapped up a two-year Community Heart & Soul™ project in 2014.
"It's clearly momentum and it's palpable," said Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett. "I feel this is the most exciting time in the city of Gardiner since I moved here in 1992. What's great is we are seeing it throughout the city."
Here are a signs of Gardiner's new found momentum:
Putting food from local farm fields onto dinner tables in Polson, Montana, (pop. 5,000) is about healthy eating and a whole lot more.
The Polson Food Hub, part of the Montana Co-op, is a place where people not only pick up locally produced food, they might also stop by to take boxing lessons, make salsa, learn how to mix and record music or try traditional tribal dance.
The community-minded approach at the Co-op was guided by the Community Heart & Soul™ project that took place there from 2012 to 2014, said Jason Moore, president and founder of the Co-op.
“During my first few meetings as a Heart and Soul volunteer, I kept hearing the word ‘collaboration.’ This has a very similar meaning to cooperation, so I felt the importance of working on this project,” Moore recalled.
Moore headed up a Heart & Soul committee that held 19 neighborhood gatherings, and he observed lots of overlap between what the Co-op aspired to and what Polson residents envisioned for their community. Better access to locally grown food was just one the shared aspirations.
“When the Montana Co-op was looking for Food Hub locations in Polson, we were looking for a building that could not just support local food growth. We looked at the values people presented during the Heart & Soul program,” Moore said. “The number one item mentioned during Heart & Soul gatherings was that Polson needed a place for the kids to hang out; an activity and event center. Along the way, we met other community partners that had a passion for health, youth outreach, and community connectivity. These people have further developed the Montana Co-op’s mission to bring people together to create easy and affordable access to local food and Montana-made products. We’re now fulfilling many other needs of the community, with exercise, education classes, and getting our youth hooked on good things.”
Here is a summary of the areas in which the Co-op aligns with needs identified by Polson residents as part of their Heart & Soul project:
Heart & Soul Action: Offer a facility that brings people together. Build an event center for year-round activities and events. Host more community-wide educational events, including art/cultural events and activities.
Jason Moore: The Co-op includes an activity center for all ages with diverse events and education programming. We have created a place for the kids to hang out and get hooked on good things.
H&S Action: Bring tribal and non-tribal residents together in economic ventures and cultural cooperation.
JM: The tribal mural on the outside of the Co-op building is one example. The Co-op is also working with the tribe on projects targeting at-risk youth and developing cultural reconnections and classes to enhance Native American heritage.
H&S Action: Develop a plan for filling up the closed storefronts downtown.
JM: The Co-op is in the early stages of fulfilling a plan to contribute to reopening more closed storefronts. This plan includes an incubator that supports new and existing businesses with all types of start-up and development services including accounting, marketing, operations, technology, and administrative support.
H&S Action: Teach job skills that can provide a local skilled workforce after
high school graduation.
JM: The Kids Co-op offers classes including music, art, robotics, aerial gymnastics, career identification, nutrition, food preparation, and business classes.
Watch a video about the Food Hub.
Does it feel like every time you walk downtown one more storefront is vacant? Combating the downward momentum of vacancy and neglect is no easy feat. Here are eleven ideas for spurring investment in downtown businesses that can put your town on a path toward revitalization.
On May 15, Rick Hauser joined CommunityMatters® and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ for a 60-minute webinar. He offered new insights into a longstanding challenge for towns and small cities—getting the ball rolling to overcome vacancy and neglect in key downtown locations.
Watch the webinar recording:
Image credit: WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/53RyB1