Cornerstones Blog

Participation by Design: Using Story in Community Planning

This post is the fourteenth in a month-long series hosted by PlaceMatters on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. The series covers the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. Along with PlaceMatters, we welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

biddo_storybooth_300x200.jpgEveryone has a story to tell about his or her community. It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, native or newcomer; we all have personal experiences that connect us to our city or town. Stories tell us a lot about what we value most—the customs, characteristics and special places that make our community unique.

There are many examples of how stories have been used to understand community, such as Why Here Why Now or Saving the Sierra, and there is also great potential to apply personal story in community planning efforts.

The Orton Family Foundation’s Heart & Soul Community Planning approach uses personal stories to identify what people value in their community. We rely on personal stories for three key reasons:

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The Language of Heart & Soul

language_300x137.jpgI was recently chatting with Lyman Orton, founder of the Orton Family Foundation, about the difficulties of describing Heart & Soul community planning.

The Foundation’s Heart & Soul Principles describe the process as tapping local wisdom through broad engagement, articulating shared values, and taking action to enhance those values.

But how do we delve into what that means specifically in a community? We live in such a charged ideological and political environment that it can be difficult to find words to describe a community process that doesn’t feed into political divides.

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The Good and the Bad of Boston Sports Fans

celtics_fans_350x219.jpgThere’s no doubt that Boston sports fans are a community. For every season and every sport complete strangers come together to support their beloved teams. Stadiums and arenas undulate with greens, blacks and golds, navys, and the iconic reds. All Boston sports fans revere the names Bird, Orr, and Williams just as much as today’s Brady, Garnett, and Pedroia.

And like any community, this one has its own legends rituals, heroes, and adversaries celebreated in numberous museums, books and movies. While sports communities have obvious benefits like creating camaraderie that crosses formidable social lines, there is something amiss. The fervent and vocal expression of animosity towards a shared enemy struck a chord, especially in light of my recent experience with Orton’s community work.

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Lessons from the Ground

Demonstration Towns Begin their Heart & Soul Journey

 

traininggroup_350x210.jpgThe Orton Family Foundation recently held a training for its new Heart & Soul towns focused on helping people get their projects off the ground. Each community sent members of their Community Advisory Team (CAT) to the training where participants learned some basics on project design, facilitation and communications. Equally as important, they got to know each other and develop a sense of connectedness to a larger group—gaining an understanding that while each town is unique, sharing challenges can lead to quicker, better solutions.

During the training, participants shared some of their early successes and challenges. These lessons are relevant for all of us as we initiate new projects in our own communities.

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A Brief Note of Thanks

My father recently died after a long and full life. Over the course of the last few weeks, I was regaled with many a story of his contributions to his community. And as these stories piled in, I learned of others’ tireless efforts alongside his.

TeamworkHands_350x223.jpgAs I heard of the selfless contributions by these varied and numerous individuals, I couldn’t help but think of the communities the Orton Family Foundation has had the privilege to work with over the years. Time and again, I’ve been amazed by people’s unwavering commitment to assist the larger community in addressing issues of need and improving the collective quality of life.

Since 2005, Tammie Delaney has worked in Hayden, Colorado to help her town articulate a vision based on local values. Her (and others’) efforts resulted in a comprehensive plan and zoning regulations that embody thoughtful growth from the core out - successfully maintained despite a proposal to demolish a corner of Hayden’s historic district for new development - and an economic development plan encouraging growth consistent with the community’s values.

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What the “Bean” Can Teach Us About Community Planning

Portal to another dimension?  Nope, just standing  underneath Cloud Gate. Have you seen the “Bean”? It’s incredible. Cloud Gate, as it’s officially named, is a public work of art that resides in Chicago’s Millenium Park. This giant, metallic, smooth sided sculpture draws you in at first glance. On the chilly winter Saturday that I happened upon the Bean (nicknamed for its shape), throngs of people were standing all around and underneath the sculpture taking it in from every angle.

As I walked away from the crowd I began to think about what lessons the Bean could teach about community engagement. Public artists and practitioners can give you a long list about the power of art in community work as can the upcoming CommunityMatters Call on the topic, but I was thinking about the question on a more fundamental level. Here is what I came to:

1. Try something new:

The power of art rests, in part, in its novelty. It’s different than what people have seen before and they are curious. We can capture that interest by designing projects that offer a fresh look at the questions and challenges facing our communities today. This is one of the reasons Orton uses storytelling to lay the foundation for planning.

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Cheezborgers, Blues Tunes and a Billy Goat

billygoat_AO&Montanafriends_300x400.jpgThe things you learn when you go out with new friends – about local places and discovered history - open your eyes. After heading out, dizzy, from an intense day of Heart & Soul Community Planning training, a group of us found ourselves at Buddy Guy’s Legends Blues bar in Chicago. The local crowd was mixed, with some people in suits and others in denim jackets and long beards.

Our group was geographically diverse and included friends from Montana, Vermont, Colorado, and Maine. Some of us danced, but not me. I felt like I could blend in more with the locals if I just sat there among them, watching my out-of-town group single-handedly dominate the dance floor. As I considered the interactions between visitors and locals, I was reminded of the words of a professor I had in college: “Man is man’s favorite subject to watch.” Indeed, I even took a quick video on my phone for posterity.

We stayed for an hour or so, and then, as if the energy of Buddy Guy and devoted Blue’s fans wasn’t enough, a few of us ventured into the rainy night to find the Billy Goat Tavern of Saturday Night Live fame, and so much more as we later realized.

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Clear Skies and Dry Trails

nosnow_300x238.jpgNow that it’s almost March, and officially “late winter,” it’s becoming nearly impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. Despite the storm this weekend that dumped more than two feet in the mountains, this winter has skiers and snow-sport enthusiasts of all sorts scratching their heads. January 2012 was the 3rd least snowy in the NOAA’s national 117-year record, and the 4th warmest.

Taking advantage of this weekend’s storm, I headed to the mountains. After a long ski through the first powder of the year, I ended at a small Inn and cross-country ski center where I had a chance to see first hand how the lack of snow is affecting the state’s winter economy.

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