Table of Contents | Chapter 3
Vision Community Capacity Building
What brings together the members of any community may be common locality, common problems, common interests or investment, or initiative - but at heart, a true community is one in which problems, hopes, and challenges are shared. In a community that sustains itself, people face issues and seek solutions together, accounting for each other's differences and commonalities. We all wish to breathe clean air and drink clean water; we all wish to have good work and real opportunity; and we wish to give these things to our children, whom we love. This is true everywhere.2
-Institute for Sustainable Communities
A simple definition of capacity is the ability to do something. As people and their communities are confronted with the complicated challenges of modern life, their ability to resolve problems and create better visions for the future can often be measured by the answers to a few simple questions:
- Is there a spirit of community that makes people believe that the future of their town or city is a shared responsibility and opportunity?
- Do people believe they can have an impact on the decisions that affect their lives and are they engaged in discussing community problems and subsequent solutions?
- Do people have access to information that translates into the knowledge necessary to understand problems and choose the solutions that will bear fruit in the long term?
- Is the community working cooperatively with others in their region or metropolitan area who are also affected by these problems?
Throughout the United States, communities that can answer these questions affirmatively are pioneering the efforts to implement sustainable development on the ground. By listening to the stories of community successes and failures, the task force learned much about the innovative policies and programs that are being implemented to address critical issues. But, perhaps most importantly, the task force learned that the fundamentals of sustainable communities are based in process - how people work together to build community, what information they can access, who is involved in making decisions, and how well communities work cooperatively to address shared problems that transcend their borders. The spirit of the four process-oriented recommendations in this chapter lay the foundation for the policy chapters that follow.
A diverse set of key actors is identified in the vast majority of the action items recommended in this report, because no single institution working in isolation can create the kind of broad-based momentum that will revitalize communities. Time and time again, community leaders told the task force that broad-based action is necessary to build the partnerships that can drive us forward. Lasting solutions are best identified when people from every part of a community - business, citizens, economic development and environmental groups, elected officials, civic organizations, religious institutions, and so forth - are brought together in a spirit of cooperation and respect to identify solutions to community problems.
Unfortunately, our ability to work together to find common ground appears to be diminishing, and many Americans feel a loss of the sense of community that once bound people together in neighborhoods and towns. The time and energy of many families is already drained by juggling the demands of work and family. Cynicism toward government is high, and participation in civic life is declining. Recent research shows that membership in community organizations is decreasing steadily.3 Polls show a decrease in voter participation and a lack of knowledge on even basic issues such as the identity of elected officials. In addition, the diversity that defines the character of our nation is sometimes viewed as a hindrance to community instead of a source of strength.
Despite these negative trends, communities across the country are using a variety of strategies to bring people together to identify, prioritize, and learn about key local issues. They are looking to the future and standing side by side with neighbors to develop a vision of what they want their community to be. They are setting goals and establishing indicators to measure their progress and inform policy decisions. They are prioritizing issues according to the best science and information, and to the cost-effectiveness of the solutions. They are working to identify resources, securing the funding from businesses, foundations, and other local institutions and individuals needed to reach their goals, and assessing non-monetary resources in their community that can be contributed to these efforts.
This rejuvenated style of community-based strategic planning is expanding the concept of planning. While still relying on the expertise of professional planners, it also recognizes the great value of involving everyday people. From the Northeast to the Pacific Northwest, and the floodplain of the Midwest to the Florida panhandle, communities are using this model of strategic planning to reinvigorate democracy and to create a renewed sense of community. By developing a strategic plan that involves the diverse sectors of the community and generates leadership that results in specific actions, communities have taken active steps to create a better future for themselves.
Communities are creating educational campaigns to increase voter registration and voting, inform residents about important issues, and influence policy decisions on those issues. The growth of civic journalism has been seen in cities as diverse as Charlotte, North Carolina and Wichita, Kansas and states like Wisconsin. Civic journalism projects across the country are using the power of the press to create multimedia campaigns that inform, educate, and engage people in public affairs. By creating forums for debate, discussion, and education, civic journalism is revitalizing democracy. Surveys show that these campaigns are working - spurring interest in elections, encouraging people to vote, and educating people on key community issues.
While every community may not be able to establish a full-blown strategic planning process that includes the entire community, a spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and partnership should permeate decisionmaking. In addition, all levels of government should encourage this cooperative model of planning to get different stakeholders to work together whenever possible. Not all community plans and policies will be fashioned in a consensus-based process, but the greater the cooperation at the front end, the less the need for confrontation and litigation at the back end.
In addition to spurring a new ethic of partnership, communities are recognizing the value of a decision making process that integrates economic, environmental, and social issues. Recognition of these connections is important because these problems are interconnected in daily life, and approaching them one at a time is not particularly effective. In fact, it is often counterproductive, leading to short-term fixes and long-term difficulties, a situation society can ill afford.
True participation means giving people the opportunity to take part in the initial phases of planning, not just the ratifying decisions that have already been made, or commenting on plans that have been drafted. In some of the most impressive and effective examples of communities at work, the task force saw leaders working to ensure that people have greater power over and responsibility for the decisions that shape their communities. Fundamental to the long-term success of community-driven solutions is the opportunity for all residents of the community to participate, including people who have been historically under-represented in decisionmaking. While it is time-consuming and may not be possible in every situation, this model of decisionmaking should be encouraged. It will add legitimacy to the democratic process about which so many Americans are cynical, and it can lead to decisions that are more likely to be embraced by more people in the community.
While citizen participation is primarily a personal decision made by individuals, governments and the private sector can encourage people to be more involved by addressing the barriers to participation. Accessible locations, convenient times, and well-publicized public meetings should be the norm. In addition, some communities are creating innovative child-care arrangements so that parents can attend meetings, and businesses are allowing employees time off to participate in community activities. Some communities are creating public participation opportunities that go beyond holding meetings. They are setting up bulletin boards, email, and chat rooms on the Internet, and mailing surveys to solicit input on local issues.
As decisions are made, it is important to understand the risks and benefits of policies so that they do not create disproportionate impacts that put some people and communities at greater risk while benefiting others. In this vein, the links between sustainable development and environmental justice are clear. The vision of environmental justice is the development of a holistic, bottom-up, community-based, and cross-cutting paradigm for achieving healthy and sustainable communities - both urban and rural. Environmental justice seeks to integrate economic, environmental and social concerns as does sustainable development. An important component of environmental justice is the the right of local residents to participate as equal partners at every level of decisionmaking, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement, and evaluation.
Government policies are not the only important decisions that are made in a community. Businesses, and others in the private sector, make decisions every day that affect people's lives. Understanding their role in the community and as good corporate neighbors, some companies are working to increase their accountability and responsibility to the communities in which they operate. For example, some companies include community participation in reviews of plant managers. Others are working in partnership with community residents where their facilities are located by participating in joint audits, inspections, and asking for input - such as suggestions for toxics use reduction - on how to prevent potential problems.
People need accessible, understandable information to make decisions and educate themselves about community issues. In addition, all stakeholders in community decisionmaking processes need the skills and training to take advantage of newly emerging technologies and tools that make easy manipulation of information possible.
Accurate, accessible information is not only necessary for sound decisionmaking, it is also an extraordinary tool for spurring initiatives in other communities throughout the nation and the world. Communities need concrete, identifiable examples of innovative projects that work. This information is pivotal to driving the creation of more sustainable communities, particularly because these examples build a base on which to work and refine strategies for solving economic, environmental, and social problems. The constantly evolving nature of community programs and policies also informs decisions made at the regional, state, and federal levels of government, and eliminates the need to re-create the wheel each time.
Although a community policing project in Des Moines may not be directly replicable in Los Angeles, the lessons learned from one community can inform and educate those in another. The sharing of information among communities, businesses, and individuals is essential if we are to learn from one another's experiences and implement the most effective strategies for achieving safe, healthy, and prosperous communities tailored to the unique needs of a specific place.
A considerable number of articles and publications have been written, and numerous awards programs and databases created, to disseminate information on sustainable development. But this information proliferation can be overwhelming: If it is not well-coordinated and easily accessible, it does little to help potential practitioners develop the knowledge they need. Technical studies and data also need to be translated into layman's terms so that communities can effectively use this information. At the same time, many communities that are faced with multiple sources of pollution need access to information that accounts for the cumulative nature of their exposure and potential health risks.
Communications technologies, such as the Internet and the World Wide Web, are making it possible to provide a single point of entry to electronic information that is also connected to other related areas. New mapping software and technologies are also simplifying the manipulation of technical information to apply it to specific local circumstances. But because these technologies are not available to many of the people and communities that need them most, any broad-based efforts to use these emerging technologies should be tied to increasing access to the computers and technology that make them possible.
It is not possible to create a perfectly organized stream of sustainable development information. However, governments can leverage their resources by working with nonprofit organizations and associations of elected officials and professionals, for example, to pool information, success stories, case studies, and bibliographies. At a minimum, those who serve as hubs of sustainable communities information should communicate regularly and work cooperatively to identify information gaps and reduce unnecessary redundancies. In addition, these groups should work together with residents and activists to coordinate efforts to get that information into the hands of key decisionmakers who can implement policies to eliminate barriers to sustainable development.
Widespread participation by informed stakeholders in an open and inclusive decisionmaking process within communities can successfully address many problems. However, many issues - such as public safety, economic development, and air and water pollution - require cooperation among communities within a region. Whether the decision-making process of communities within a region is coordinated or disjointed has enormous effects on the nature of development. By working together, communities can tackle these issues that affect and can benefit an entire region. This collaborative approach is not only an opportunity, it is a necessity. Community leaders who met with the task force emphasized that without regional approaches, it will be nearly impossible to solve the most critical problems that affect communities. In particular, because many design issues - such as transportation, land use, and sprawl - transcend political boundaries, coordinated regional strategies are necessary to realize sustainable community design.
By creating incentives to encourage communities to work together, state and federal governments can improve the decision-making process and promote long-term, holistic solutions to regional problems. Building stronger links among people, communities, and the decisions that affect them can revitalize grassroots democracy to strengthen communities, regions, and the nation.
Policy Recommendation 1
Action 1. Diverse community groups and citizens should work together to take the steps outlined above as part of broad community-based process. As part of local planning, issues should be evaluated using the best available information, science, long-term cost effectiveness, and public participation.
Action 2. Federal and state governments — in consultation with local government, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations —should support and further encourage local efforts to integrate economic development, environmental protection, and social equity concerns and should promote public participation in planning efforts.
For example, they should reaffirm the value of such planning through the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, and they should apply the requirements of such planning to federal and state funding and incentives for economic development, housing, transportation, and environmental programs.
Action 3. Community-based coalitions can create educational, media, and civic journalism campaigns to encourage participation in civil life and voting, disseminate high-quality information on community issues, and promote public discussions that will lead to the resolution of these issues. Coalitions should be as broad as possible, including industry and business, schools, newspapers, television and radio stations, community groups, labor, local government, religious institutions, and organizations working on social, economic, and environmental issues.
Action 4. As part of the dialogue and planning process, community-based coalitions can work to draft an economic development strategy that will fulfill basic human needs by taking advantage of local and regional opportunities and new economic trends, such as the opening up of global markets and the improvement of environmental and communications technologies. Coalitions should include businesses, employees, unions, chambers of commerce, local government, community groups, and residents.
Policy Recommendation 2
Action 1. All levels government should ensure substantial opportunity for public participation in all phases of planning and decisionmaking to allow those affected by decisions to have a voice in the outcome. Governments should create new methods and expand existing ones for getting the public involved in planning and development decisions, as well as in the legislative process, taking steps to ensure that historically under-represented groups are involved.
For example, regional planning organizations, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), zoning boards, and other government entities that are active in the design of communities should take responsibility for ensuring that local residents have a substantive opportunity to participate in crucial early planning and development decisions.
Action 2. All levels of government, but especially local government, should identify impediments to greater public involvement in decisionmaking - such as language barriers and lack of child care and transportation - and develop strategies to overcome them.
Action 3. Businesses can encourage their managers and employees to participate in community affairs and can establish advisory boards to recruit residents to provide input to the company on issues relevant to the community. In addition, businesses can give employees flexibility to increase the time that they and their families can devote to community activities.
Action 4. While working to minimize all unacceptable environmental risks, all levels of government should work with community groups and the private sector to ensure that environmental risks and benefits are more equitably distributed among and within communities.
Policy Recomendation 3
Action 1. Institutions and individuals with knowledge or expertise in sustainable community development should coordinate efforts to share and provide information to communities, decisionmakers, and other relevant constituencies. They should explore ways to link currently existing databases; coordinate technical assistance; co-sponsor conferences and other meetings; take advantage of emerging communications technologies, such as the Internet; and provide easily accessible points of entry for those interested in this information.
These institutions and individuals include government agencies, elected officials, nonprofit organizations, businesses, academic institutions, economic development and environmental organizations, community groups, and professional associations (from planners, architects, and engineers to ecologists and economists).
Action 2. All levels of government should improve the user-friendliness of government-collected information and technologies to help communities use them to solve problems and to educate the public. Potentially useful information includes census data, Toxics Release Inventory data, other right-to-know statistics, public investment and lending information, economic statistics, and data derived from remote sensing and satellite technologies. Potentially useful technologies for manipulating this data include mapping tools, geographic information systems (GIS), and customized GIS application databases (e.g., LandView II).
Action 3. Community-based coalitions should work with companies, federal and state regulatory agencies, and health risk assessors to develop profiles of neighborhoods that are environmentally high-risk as a tool for setting pollution abatement priorities.
Policy Recommendation 4
Action 1. Communities should collaborate to identify, prioritize, and learn about key problems in their region; develop a vision of what they want their region to be like; set goals for realizing that vision; establish benchmarks for measuring progress toward these goals; ascertain the resources needed to reach the goals; and determine the actions that will advance them.
Action 2. States, counties, and municipalities should collaborate to create a system of regional accounts that measures the costs and benefits of local land use, development, and economic trends, and show how these benefits and costs are distributed in the short and long run. The federal government should work with state and local governments to ensure that federal statistical resources are available and used appropriately to support the measurement of benefits and costs.
Action 3. Federal and state governments should provide incentives for communities to collaborate on issues that transcend local political jurisdictions, such as transportation, land use, economic development, and air and water quality. Federal and state agencies responsible for environmental protection, economic development, land use, and transportation policies should work with one or more selected geographic areas to develop integrated planning and development activities, and to require region-wide cooperation in these areas.