- Who We Are
- Projects & Places
When a community takes the time to get to know itself, it gains a sense of identity and purpose
that informs decisions and planning. Through Heart & Soul Community Planning,
the Orton Family Foundation helps towns plan for their most vibrant future.
—Lyman Orton, Founder
There’s something special about every town—the corner barbershop on Main Street, acres of wilderness, busy local shops, hard-working lands and people, or deep-rooted traditions. That character is why people love their towns. It’s why they live there. And it’s also in danger.
Towns everywhere struggle to cope with rapid demographic, economic and land use changes, and many are losing what makes them special. Traditional planning processes aren’t enough to respond to a dizzying array of challenges and keep our towns from becoming soulless shells of communities. And top-down, isolated decision-making isn’t enough to engage today’s diverse, active, information-hungry citizens, who have the power to strengthen their communities in the face of change.
The key to successful communities is their heart and soul—the unique cultures, landscapes, traditions and values that people cherish—and with people themselves taking action to sustain and enhance the places they love. Many communities are ready to protect their unique character, deeply engage their citizens, and meet the challenges of the 21st Century. For these communities, there is a new, better way forward.
We help small cities and towns describe, apply and uphold their heart and soul attributes so that they can adapt to change while maintaining or enhancing the things they value most.
We have coined the term “Heart & Soul Community Planning” to describe an approach that engages citizens in land use planning as a pathway to vibrant, enduring communities. Our approach helps diverse citizens identify and enhance a town’s most valued attributes: those special places, characteristics and customs that residents treasure and that connect them to one another. If lost, these attributes would be widely missed and alter the character of the town.
Heart & Soul Community Planning is an innovative, multi-disciplinary path to helping citizens from all walks of life discover and protect their towns’ heart and soul assets so that they can adapt to change while enhancing the attributes they value most. Our approach is built on an underlying set of principles described in our Declaration of Community Heart & Soul Beliefs.
Small cities and towns across America face many challenges. Towns that are close to significant natural resource amenities face increasing development pressures from urban professionals plying their trades via the Internet and enjoying the great outdoors, and from burgeoning retirement populations seeking the high quality, low stress way of life found in these picturesque and desirable places. Other communities suffer from youth exodus, crumbling infrastructure and antiquated economies, and they are tempted to embrace development at any cost. Stories of confrontation and alienation are commonplace in local newspapers, and many citizens simply opt out of their towns’ important discussions and decisions due to skepticism, fatigue, intimidation or a sense that their voices don’t count.
While innovation and success has occurred across the country, land use planning in America has yet to engage a broad base of local citizens to help them define and shape the future of their communities. Traditional quantitative approaches use important data about demographic and economic shifts, traffic counts and infrastructure needs, but frequently fail to account for the particular ways people relate to their physical surroundings and ignore or discount the intangibles—shared values, beliefs and quirky customs—that make a community.
Furthermore, a collection of quantifiable attributes without an understanding of shared values and a sense of purpose does not motivate citizens to show up and make tough, consistent decisions. It also fails to account for how citizens’ day-to-day lives and livelihoods—and those of future generations—will be affected by change.
A community is a special place full of stories of the people who live there. Collectively, these stories are a big part of the community’s character: its heart and soul. In a way, planning is like writing the next chapter in a community’s story.
As we embark on the 21st century, there are signs that citizens expect to have a greater role in community decisions. In The Next Form of American Democracy, Matt Leighninger wrote, “[C]itizens seem better at governing, and worse at being governed, than ever before…. We are leaving the era of expert rule, in which elected representatives and designated experts make decisions and attack problems with limited interference, and entering a period in which the responsibilities of governance are more widely shared.” The Foundation has witnessed many examples of “ordinary” citizens leading the way.
We believe that local citizens have the ingenuity and know-how to write the next chapter: to ensure the sustainable economic, environmental and social well-being of their communities. With the full participation of those who live, work and play in a community, a town can tap into its deep beliefs to direct the forces of growth and change, protecting and enhancing its heart and soul.
Heart & Soul Planning is an iterative process beginning with:
The Heart & Soul approach builds on innovative efforts in many disciplines across the country and around the world, including: values-based planning; consensus building; participatory democracy; citizen engagement; appreciative inquiry; community development; grassroots sustainability and buy-local movements; digital and other storytelling; the arts as a catalyst for citizen engagement and change; economic development; land conservation; “Smart Growth”; visualization; quality-of-life indicators; landscape design; historic preservation; applied GIS and other technologies. We acknowledge our many partners—known and unknown—for their groundbreaking work.