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Community Visioning Process: A Tool for Successful Planning

Leigh Askew Elkins, Danny Bivins, Langford Holbrook

(Edited and redacted for the Plains community.)



   Community visioning is based upon principles that maximize group participation in a creative problem-solving process. The process itself is structured to solicit and use the range of interests and expertise within a community to develop a plan that addresses the community's needs and fosters change with tangible benefits for residents. The plan and its associated strategies for change can be broadly embraced by the community because residents share its development.

   By taking control of its future through a visioning process, a community can ensure that myriad objectives are met. With careful consideration, growth and development can occur in a manner appropriate for the community's history, traditions, and architecture. The characteristics of the community that make it a unique place can be purposefully maintained.

   Visioning allows for a systematic, well-thought-out approach to service and infrastructure provisions in a cost-effective manner and meets the current and future needs of the residential and business communities. Finally, communities can plan for a properly balanced tax base, so homeowners do not bear the brunt of the tax burden. 


   While similar to other processes, the critical consideration that sets community visioning apart is that the vision and the plan to fulfill it are created by a broad coalition of community members. And, as a result of community involvement, these plans are more likely to have more significant community commitment, trust, and support than those plans created by planners from outside the community.

   Essentially, citizens take on the role of planner. In doing so, the community becomes proactive. It begins to anticipate what types of changes are coming to their community, determine what impacts will result from those changes, and develop strategies to address these impacts.

The myPlains 2030 Visioning Study 

   Among the questions considered in the community visioning process, the residents of Plains will reflect on the following:

• What type of growth and development is appropriate for the community?

• What will that growth and development look like?

• What types of land use are appropriate for the community,

   and where are they located?

• How will the needs of residents and businesses be met?

• How will service and infrastructure be paid for?

   While these questions are not earth-shattering, they are not often asked of community residents. They are often asked and answered by planners and a few local government officials with a wink and a nod given to public input and participation. But with the visioning process, these few questions form the basis for the community plan, with the answers being given by those most affected: the residents.

   The Plains visioning process is based on a three-part model, beginning first with information collection, followed by visioning, and finally, themes and strategies. These three parts come together to form the community's plan. The Plains process will create three visioning groups made up of 35 to 45 citizens from the community who represent broad interests and diverse backgrounds.

   Once the groups are formed, the first step, information gathering, will begin. Two methods are used for information gathering: individual interviews and visual preference surveys. Descriptions of both follow.


   For three days, one-on-one informational interviews will be held to fully understand The town's unique set of issues. One-on-one interviews provide valuable information because they allow community members to fully express themselves. While their responses are shared with the group at large, the individual's identity associated with each comment remains confidential.

   One-on-one interviews can be a time-consuming means to gather input. Still, the benefits of face-to-face conversations outweigh the time costs. Having an open and honest conversation with an individual reveals much more information than a large group setting allows. The open-ended questions that will be asked of each participant are:

1. What makes the town unique?

2. In 10 years, what do you want your community to look like?

3. Where and how should the town grow?

4. What is working well and why?

5. What is not working and why?

6. Do you have any thoughts or concerns about growth?

6b. If there are concerns, what can the town do?

7. What do people that don't live here like about the town?

8. What needs to be protected?

9. What has been done that doesn't need to be done again?

10. What is the town missing? Is that good or bad?

11. Are there any communities that you wish Plains could be like?

Visual Preference Survey

   Community members will take photographs of "things they like" and "things they don't like" throughout the Plains community. They become responsible for building their own visual preference survey. Using the cameras was effective in capturing how each member saw the Plains community. Many of the positive images were of the same places: downtown, historic homes, and other sources of community pride. Images of things members did not like were similar: run-down service stations, cluttered community gateways, or dilapidated homes. The identity of the person taking each photograph would remain confidential.

   The photographs will be categorized and mapped, along with the interviews' data, grouped together by common themes. This information was cross-referenced to help form a comprehensive view of Plains. The process is similar to completing a puzzle. Each piece does nothing, but all the pieces collectively come together to reveal the whole picture. 

Visioning Sessions

   Three visioning sessions will be held. The first session resulted in eight themes being identified:

1. Downtown

2. Economic development

    >> Jobs through industry growth and retention

    >> Shops, stores, and entertainment in Plains and Sanders County

3. Plains School District

    >> How to work with Plains to accomplish mutual goals

    >> How to work with Plains to ease growing pains

4. Planning and connectivity

    >> With growth and development pressure, how and where should the town grow?

5. Education

    >> How to make education a major community-wide initiative

6. Historic preservation

    >> Protect historic neighbourhoods

    >> Protect historic buildings

    >> Develop a method to encourage historic style/sense of place in new development

7. Small-town feel

8. Community services


   With the themes selected, the participants will focus on developing strategies for addressing each theme. Members will be divided into five groups and given a planning worksheet to complete. They will be reminded that each theme would require more than one strategy and that more specificity, in general, would yield a more precise and implementation plan.

   The participants will self-select the theme they most wanted to work on. The following information will be required for each strategy and included on the planning worksheet:

• Strategy title

• Strategy write-up = "The Reason"

• Who is the project lead?

• The time frame

• Funding sources

• Potential partners

• Possible challenges

• The following three steps

   At day's end, the worksheets will be gathered, processed, and incorporated into a final plan. While creating a plan and the necessary implementation steps in one day might be seen as rushed, it is often the most critical first impression to be realized. The group will spend time in interviews, creating a visual preference survey, and reviewing themes developed by the town. The intense one-day session avoided overthinking needed steps.

   Once all the information is developed by the community, the community group shapes the community's findings into a cohesive plan. Due to the thorough and inclusive visioning process, the community will have a thorough understanding of the issues after the data is reduced and analyzed. Strategies will create a plan that can bring about real change.


   The responsibility for the implementation of the recommended strategies rests with the entire community. The town staff and elected officials, and the Visioning Groups hold partial responsibility for its implementation. Still, even more, they carry a responsibility to engage others in its implementation. As noted at the outset, commitment from the community is the top priority in making change for the better happen. The responsibility for implementation of the recommended strategies rests with the entire community.



   Community visioning in Plains will put residents in charge of their future and provided a road map to guide them. The process will use home-grown talent and energy to build a plan responsive to the residents' concerns and create momentum for successful implementation. The ease with which this process can be replicated while tailoring it to specific needs makes an ideal tool for the Plains community to use when planning for their future.

About the Authors

   • Leigh Askew Elkins provides expertise in environmental policy, asset-based community development, stakeholder engagement, and service learning. She coordinates several projects with state agencies, including Communities of Opportunity and Quality Growth Resource Teams. Her background in environmental analysis and policy and landscape architecture and experiences in the corporate, nonprofit, and government sectors serve her well in the public service and outreach arena.

   • Danny Bivins provides expertise in a quality growth approach for community development to the Fanning Institute. Currently, he coordinates the Alliance for Quality Growth at the University of Georgia. Bivins also helps to develop the Forum for Medium Metropolitan Regions. Bivins serves as staff for the Southeast Regional Directors Institute (SERDI). He has experience in design, historic preservation, preservation planning, quality growth, service-learning, strategic planning, and regionalism.

   • Langford Holbrook brings eighteen years of experience and expertise in planning and local government administration to the Fanning Institute. He has previously served local government in Georgia in roles that include planning director and administrator/manager. He has an extensive background in land use planning, service and infrastructure planning, project management, meeting facilitation, personnel planning and management, administration, and community development.

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