This month the city of Laconia, New Hampshire (pop. 17,060) launched a Community Heart & Soul™ project. In the coming 18 months, Laconia plans to engage residents in a community-wide conversation about what matters most—empowering all residents to shape the future of their towns—before the city updates its master plan.
Laconia is the 10th town to deploy our Community Heart & Soul approach, and our first in the Granite State. We are in good company there, with strong support from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which awarded $20,000 for the project, and NH Listens, which will assist with training and outreach.
Backed by years of work with small towns and more recently by our nine Community Heart & Soul towns where we field tested the approach, we look to Laconia as a harbinger, bringing our proven, resident-driven method to places beyond New England and the Rocky Mountains, where the Foundation has concentrated its efforts. To do this we envision partnerships with like-minded organizations, as are onboard in Laconia, that align with our mission to build stronger communities. I’ll look forward to sharing more on this in coming months.
So, I extend a warm welcome to Laconia and very much look forward to an experience that I have no doubt will be transformative as Laconians from all over—Lakeport, Weirs Beach, Downtown, young, old and in between—roll up their sleeves and get down to what matters most and what they value most about the unique place they call home.
– David Leckey, executive director
Orton Family Foundation
In Cortez, Colorado, plans for a 4,800-square-foot convenience store and gas station across the street from a high school raised concerns among neighbors and school officials. Traffic, noise and crime were among the issues on neighbors' minds.
"We were a little uncomfortable just because it's right across the street. Our primary concern was the increase in traffic," Jennifer Carter, director of Southwest Open School said.
The property was appropriately zoned and plans met city requirements. The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval but asked that the company, Utah-based Maverik, meet with neighbors and the school.
The city organized a meeting at the high school with Maverik, neighbors and school and city officials. Building and Planning Director Kirsten Sackett presided at the meeting, logging the issues raised on large sheets of paper stuck to the wall. Next the group prioritized concerns and worked on resolutions.
There was back and forth, said Todd Meyers, Maverik permit manager and former city planner who attended the meeting. For example:
When it came time for the public hearing and city council vote a few weeks later, neither neighbors nor school officials spoke in opposition. The neighborhood meeting proved to be good business even before the store opened, Meyers said.
"We have a positive image going in to it as we open our doors. We haven't stepped on anybody's toes as we could have if we hadn't had that process," Meyers said.
Sackett hopes requiring developers to meet with neighbors becomes a standard part of the approval process.
"I envision that as the way weíll do business from now on, where we change our Land Use Code to require these neighborhood meetings instead of just posting a little notice in the paper that nobody reads," she said.
Our Community Heart & Soul approach to planning asks folks to ask each other, “What matters most?” because we believe in the power of shared values to shape better futures. When enough people agree on the qualities of their town they care most about, everyone is better connected with each other and the community. Those strengthened ties inspire people to work together to protect and enhance what they care about. We know, because we have seen it happen.
We’ve been along for the ride as places like Polson, Montana discovered their shared commitment to a natural environment and a healthy, active lifestyle. In Colorado’s North Fork Valley, residents identified freedom, independence and personal responsibility as a key community value. Essex, Vermont’s six core values include thoughtful growth and community connections. The content may differ from place to place, but we know first hand that the positive impact on social cohesion of defining and describing shared values is universal.
Agreed-upon shared values help bind people together, and there are many, many ways that communities can uphold them to build stronger and more vibrant places. But all communities face the same challenge: They only have so much money, so much time, so many people offering their skills. With increasingly limited resources, how can communities make choices about what actions are most important?
Here are five tips for using community values to help make decisions based on what matters most:
One of the greatest barriers to change in small cities and towns is that we’re stuck. Town staff don’t always have the time or resources to implement plans or take on new ideas. Community members are invited to offer feedback on plans and policies at public hearings, but they’re rarely invited to less intimidating, formal gatherings to share ideas, much less encouraged to initiate action on those plans and policies. People are stuck in old roles, old mindsets and old habits. And the press of what needs to get done—often on a shoestring, doesn’t help make room to pick our heads up and think differently.
Being stuck plays out in many ways —the plan sitting on a shelf collecting dust; the same ten people showing up to every meeting; the vote going against a proposal after many opportunities for input.
Heart & Soul offers a path for communities to get unstuck, and also unlock the potential of residents to take action and responsibility. To counter the untouched plan, Heart & Soul ties a community vision to early and achievable actions. To involve more people, Heart & Soul insists on building trust and relationships first. And, as local officials and staff meet residents on their own turf, conversations become more genuine and concerns are aired more freely before a decision is made or a bond vote appears on the ballot.More
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.More
Despite its small-town feel, affiliations with local industries sharply divide social life in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. Coal miners feel their jobs are under attack by national and local shifts in energy policy. “Hippies” (environmentalists, artists, and newcomers, in the vernacular) and miners sometimes disagree when it comes to local mines. Artists are rarely recognized as contributors to the local economy. People have a hard time just getting along, and they aren’t afraid to say it.
Given the underlying tensions, it’s no surprise that residents of the three valley towns, Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia, rarely see eye-to-eye when it comes to decisions about the future of their region. Times of economic instability make consensus more difficult to achieve, as the need to protect livelihoods eclipses other issues. In fact, many people in the North Fork Valley abstain from formal civic engagement altogether. Perhaps they doubt their voice will be heard. Maybe they’re skeptical of how decisions are made, or how community power is distributed. No matter the reasons, they are hard to reach.
To build community across such divides and engage hard-to-reach folks in community engagement and visioning, the Heart & Soul team initiated three storytelling projects. Keep reading to learn more about the projects, along with five lessons we’ve distilled from their efforts to help you engage the hard to reach in your own city or town.More
So, why is inclusive engagement so important to our Heart & Soul Community process?
Broad—and deep—engagement with community members is a fundament building block of a successful Heart & Soul Community Planning project. We’ve worked hard to advance authentic engagement because it makes all the difference to building stronger communities; it is a means to an end in our work, and it is also an end in itself for the trust it builds, the ideas it sparks, and the new connections it creates.More