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The Values Behind a Vision

Let’s say that your community was recently hit by a hurricane, a drought, or a tornado. Your downtown is devastated and it’s time to plan for recovery. That’s the challenge ahead of Live Oak, Florida, a community hit last year by Hurricane Debby and recently selected to host a 2013 Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) Workshop. But what do you demolish and what do you rebuild? Where do you even begin?

Or say your historic town is in danger of losing local businesses and its sense of place in the face of generic strip development. Lima, New York – another 2013 CIRD host community – is struggling with exactly that issue. How do you take a stand and help your small town survive? How do you create a vibrant and economically resilient future?

These stories are compelling, but not unique. Communities of all sizes across the U.S. face similar challenges and are working to craft futures that build on their strengths and assets. Towns in these situations often start with a visioning process. You pull people together, brainstorm about what you would like your community to look like in 10, 20, or even 50 years, and wait for change to happen.

A community vision is an important starting point, but is seldom enough to begin the transformation process.  Broad goals like “building a strong future,” which is hard to argue with, can mean different things to different people. That becomes a problem when you are trying to use a vision to make specific planning or design choices. (How does a goal of building a “strong future” help you make a decision on where to put a park or how to design a block? )

Visions are strongest when they reflect what people care most about in their towns – specific and widely-shared community values. A values-based vision is the foundation for a thriving community. It spells out who your community is and what it wants to be. Values are often initially captured in broad themes – “small town feel,” “rural character,” or “strong local economy.” But it’s the definition of these broad themes that allows you to make tangible decisions about the future of your community – from park design to downtown revitalization to disaster resilience.

You have to ask: how does a particular community value show up in my town? Or how could it show up? Think about “small town feel.” Is that value driven by a certain type of architecture? By neighbors getting to know each other? By the ability to walk places, the placement of front porches, or the number of street trees? The answer varies in every community. But by drilling down into  the things that matter most to your community’s residents, it’s possible to clearly articulate values that are broadly understood and shared. They can then be used to drive clear policies and funding and design decisions that lead to collectively desired results.

Discovering values and vision isn’t just about decision-making. Knowing what your community is (and is not) is also critical to economic vibrancy. Towns across the U.S. are discovering that their prosperity rests in their distinctive character. This character can only be understood when a community takes the time to know itself.

No one said it’s easy, but David Hohenschau, a community designer and planner at the Orton Family Foundation, can give you a good roadmap to getting started. On this month’s CommunityMatters conference call, Dave will walk through the nuts and bolts of how to create a values-based vision. We’ll also hear from Peter Flinker, Principal of Dodson & Flinker Landscape Architects and Planning, who will share examples of how communities have successfully applied their visions to specific planning and design projects.

Join us for this month’s CommunityMatters conference call, hosted in partnership with CIRD, and learn more about how to develop or deepen a strong values-based approach and use it help your town pick up, move forward, and build a strong future.

Design for the Vision and Values of Your Community
Thursday, July 25, 2013, 3:00-4:00PM Eastern

This call is the second in a three-part series co-hosted by CommunityMatters and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD). The series is designed to help people in any community working on a design or planning project get the skills to succeed and the inspiration to get started.