Citizens Use Imaginations To Plan Their Futures
By Jane Braxton Little
Imagine planning a city for the 21st century on visions.
If it sounds like all head-in-the-clouds and no reality, visit Limestone, Maine, where the rural residents used their imaginations to turn a potential economic wasteland into an education industry featuring the state's only magnet school.
Or visit Houston, Texas, where citizens of various ethnic groups are coming together, for the first time, to reclaim their neighborhoods from pollution, crime and neglect.
Scores of communities across the country are "visioning," as the enthusiasts say -- contemplating ways to transform their neighborhoods. Gathering in groups of 40, 500 or 1,000, they create a common vision of their future, then develop concrete plans to make it real. In the process, they are working together and assuming responsibilities they once gave over to government agencies and elected officials.
"It's not all perfect but this community has turned itself around by taking charge of change," said James C. Morse, the Limestone superintendent of schools.
A farming town of 2,000 people near the Canadian border, Limestone had long enjoyed economic stability because of the Loring Air Force Base. Built nearby in 1948, Loring drew jobs, businesses and an additional 8,000 residents to the area. When Loring closed in 1994 it took with it a $500 million annual payroll and 80 percent of the area's population.
Limestone residents knew they had to do something but after a year of meetings they still couldn't agree on a plan of action, said Fred Edgecomb, a fifth-generation Limestone farmer. Desperate, they turned to the Center for Consensual Democracy, an all-volunteer group that helps Maine communities solve problems. Meeting in a church basement and then in the high school cafeteria, 40 Limestone residents spent three days imagining how they wanted Limestone to look and feel in 30 years. Their vision was not any one person's dream but a shared vision for the entire community, said Larry Lemmel, chairman of the center that coordinated the meeting.
The diverse group, including farmers, store owners, teachers and high school students, arrived at a common goal -- to have their small town become a major educational center. Making new use of a well-equipped building left empty by the air base closing, they decided to make Limestone the home of something brand new in Maine: a statewide magnet school for science and mathematics. It was a bold move for a rural community with little political experience and no clout, said Lemmel. "You could hear the snickers around the state," he said.
But Limestone used Yankee persistence and an extraordinary solidarity to convince state legislators to fund the Maine School of Science and Agriculture.
"We still have a long way to go but I see a lot of hope in this community. I'm real encouraged," Edgecomb said.
The impetus for imagining change in Houston was not too little economic development but too much. The metropolis of around 1.7 million is one of few major cities in the country without comprehensive zoning. Unprecedented growth and a dramatic increase in ethnic diversity had transformed Houston.
The traditional patterns for making decisions no longer fit, said Peter M. Oxman, a Houston real estate attorney with Baker & Botts. "White guys on one side of town knew what white guys on the other side of town were thinking," he said, but that was all they knew.
Many neighborhoods, including the predominately Hispanic Second Ward, were neglected and had never been included in city planning, said Yolanda Black Navarro, a Houston business woman who owns Velia's Cafe.
A zoning law might have brought these and other citizens into the planning process through a system of appeals and community hearings. But a 1993 ballot measure expected to authorize a city wide zoning ordinance was defeated.
In the wake of the election -- controversial and divisive by all accounts -- Mayor Bob Lanier introduced Imagine Houston to envision what the city would look like in 30 years.
Along with the traditional business and civic leaders, Lanier sought input from the city's Asian, African-American and Hispanic groups, its youth, and its homeless and disabled residents. In September 1994, after months of "visioning" in small groups, 1,000 Houstonians from every corner of the city met together for a town hall meeting. It was televised to a prime-time audience of over 250,000 citizens.
For the first time in the city's history, all the neighborhoods were involved in planning, said Navarro.
"It was very basic. It got people in different communities talking to each other," Oxman said. "No one said, 'Hey, you're not listening.' And no ethnic groups gave up."
Since the electronic town hall meeting, Houston residents have taken their common vision and pushed it toward reality. In city schools, for example, middle and high school students have sponsored their own visioning sessions to help plan educational programs tailored to individual schools' needs. Medical centers are looking for ways to make health care more accessible by centralizing referral services.
Houston Planning and Development Department workers are going into the city's neighborhoods. Instead of telling them the rules, they areasking how government can help them meet their goals. Without zoning, it's a challenging process, said Patricia Rincon-Kallman, Houston's assistant director of long-range planning. Neighborhoods in the city's Second Ward came up with innovative ways to deal with nuisances associated with some cantinas -- small bars that can be noisy gathering places attracting debris and crime. Nothing on the city books can prohibit a cantina, but a united neighborhood can control it, said Rincon-Kallman. By filing complaints and opposing liquor license renewals, community members are forcing cantinas to comply with neighborhood standards or move out.
"We're giving neighborhoods the tools to regulate themselves," said Rincon-Kallman. The experience of visualizing change and then seeing it happen is powerful, said Navarro, a Second Ward native who coordinated the area's neighborhood planning efforts.
"The beauty is it actually gets residents to be a part of the planning. They have a vested interest in its success. Even if it's just a community clean up or removing graffiti, people get a sense of the power of their neighborhood," said Navarro.
But the process of rebuilding a community by imagining its future is time-consuming, said Oxman, the Houston attorney. Some people drop out from sheer exhaustion. Others get discouraged by the sometimes cavernous gap between current reality and the goal, said David Chrislip, a Colorado researcher who has coordinated many community visioning collaborations.
"The connection between what's happening now and what might happen has to be strong. This process often fails because reality is too distant from the vision," Chrislip said.
Even in Houston, the work done at scores of community coffee latches and neighborhood meetings might have stagnated in the back offices of city hall. The city council still has not yet formally accepted a final Imagine Houston report.
Houston, however, is not waiting around for official sanctioning. The city is hopping with changes generated by Imagine Houston, said Laurence Payne, director of the Institute for Urban Education at the University of Houston. The group helps people apply their academic learning to practical community needs. "Things are happening every day under the banner of Imagine Houston," Payne said. "Whether it's official or not doesn't matter. If it's happening in the community, that's what matters."
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