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Will Nearby Towns Work with Us or Will They Decide to Eat Our Lunch?


Our theme this August is town planning and community engagement using collaborative whole system approaches.  The first post explored a successful regional approach to health care planning.  The second post told the story of a whole-system town meeting process that ended years of inaction by broadening participation to achieve a thoughtful decision.  In the third post, a group of parents discover a common concern and then successfully bring about positive action in a school system.

[Edit note: the paragraph starting “The political process…” added a reference link for “systemic operations”]

My post today reflects lessons learned from a 2008 project by CAS members aimed at a small city in eastern Massachusetts, where a friend of mine was a mid-level planner.  The post looks at what can be done to encourage towns to see a regional picture where town decisions might also benefit other towns.  The regional picture shows up especially in urban areas where each small or mid-sized town is affected by adjacent towns, and where all the local towns together are affected by the area’s largest city.

There’s something very interesting about the phrase “to see a regional picture where town decisions might also benefit other towns.”  Seeing a regional picture is exactly what does not happen, and likely never will as a direct intention, unless forethought is given to avoid diluting each town’s responsibility to itself.  But there’s a useful mid-point between towns being hogs on ice, and being immobilized by external enmeshment.

In a state of nature, no town has a direct regional view.  Only Regional Councils, also called Regional Planning Commissions or Councils of Governments, some of which are Metropolitan Planning Organizations, all which include towns as key members on their boards, actually possess expert staff hired directly to consider the regional impact of RPC-COG-MPO decisions.

Today’s post describes a process to help a town consider a multi-town picture while responsibly assessing its own plans and choices.  The post provides a working model in which towns can consider bordering impacts while caring for their own back yards.  The analytic notion is to offer tools for a town to see self-benefit by internalizing abutting externalities stemming from its internal decisions.  An expanded view of self-benefit will have the functional effect of benefitting the region, if towns in context with their neighbors decide to view each other as more than abutting competitors outside the four walls of the RPC, COG, or MPO to which they may belong.

Notice that “boundaries” and “boundary problems” (as in today’s post on towns) are proxies for addressing the wicked problem of living together.  See the daily world news to get the scope of the topic—but that’s a big issue.  It’ll help to focus.

Let’s return to looking at eastern Massachusetts, where immigrant localities have been in place since early in the 17th Century.  Although Boston is the largest city in New England, the nearby towns have their own histories and pride.  Each town also is a place where people live and work, and where companies and local businesses seek to prosper, thereby adding value to the region.  How to avoid town battling town?

The overall requirement is the need to apply four distinct engagement processes that run in parallel to support each other.  The four processes are as follows…

  • Community engagement,
  • Political engagement,
  • Economic engagement, and
  • Information engagement.

All four engagement processes need to run concurrently in towns that interact with each other as direct neighbors or due to regional relationships.  Running the four processes concurrently helps ensure that no one town feels any other town is taking advantage by jumping ahead of an agreed pace.  Let’s look at each engagement process in turn.

Community Engagement

Identify stakeholders from each town, and then hold several working meetings of the stakeholders to rough out a common vision for plans or developments that run across the borders of the participants.  The meetings need to follow the ideas outlined in the earlier post on town decision making involving the whole system.

It is especially important that the process either have, or collaboratively develop going forward, three pillars – a full base of information for economic activity – existing land use – and existing town desires.  The information base needs to reflect authentic local experience, aims, and trends, not only expert outside analyses and reports.  The meetings need to focus on areas of agreement – explore hot-button topics in sub-groups that let the overall process continue moving forward – and apply consistent transparency and reporting.  The meetings encourage trust and enable the political process to support the vision that emerges from the community engagement process.  The participants need to work the lessons learned in the initial experience so ongoing multi-town community and political processes can continue to help people seek and align on desired outcomes.

Political Engagement

The goal is to develop situational awareness, assessment, leverage, and learning.  Engage decision makers in deliberately looking at topics from detailed and big-picture perspectives to strengthen a sense of trust and proportionality.  The engagement helps defuse issues as communities, agencies, and business interests become familiar with seeing issues from several viewpoints.  It’s essential that decision makers break topics into component parts so that energy is not wasted on head-to-head, win-lose standoffs.  Also, for political engagement to support community engagement, political participants need to learn and share the details of laws and rules that apply to land use ideas.

The political process builds bridges across strategy and tactics so that participants including mayors, directors, and planners can agree on systemic operations that allow community desires to take shape.  Taking shape means that political participants work to connect transparent community engagement with agencies and businesses.  The connection step allows aligned key decision makers and their staff to create and build workable plans – transfer the plans into action – and maintain and sustain the lessons learned.  The alignment process in turn allows the community and political processes to handle new multi-town challenges and goals.  A multi-town capability is the intentional result as community and political processes develop the institutional working experience that is needed to serve better the diverse multi-town public with greater reliability and resilience.

It’s useful to expand on the assertion about intentional multi-town capability.  The political process is the mechanism that observes and encourages the community, economic, and information methods and activities that worked well, and especially looks at why they went well for the particular towns at hand.  This allows political experiences to be leveraged as lessons learned.  Experiences in political lessons learned are the core institutional resources and inputs to the ongoing community engagement that supports continuing cross-border success stories for multi-town regions.

Economic Engagement

The economic contribution to intentional multi-town success helps engage decision makers by using economic information and analytic tools to assess how each town can gain more than it loses by joining in developing and acting on consensus aspects of issues that engage across town borders.  The multi-town economic contribution starts by discovering locations and resources for affected customers, populations, suppliers, and work forces, and by learning about the sources and locations of the funding and work force training which may be needed for consensus projects.

A key value in economic engagement is learning to assess, and thus becoming able to trust, that the overall benefit across towns is sufficiently large to let each community decide that their own real benefit merits supporting a multi-town project, even if benefits are not distributed entirely equally on the ground.  By learning to assess and to trust – town by town and project by project – the towns in the overall region can learn to be comfortable with expanding their vision of a reasonable consensus position.  The decision to expand their vision is hugely valuable to moving ahead.

The community and political processes support the growth of this expanded consensus position by looking for connections that link multi-town actions with direct benefits to each town.  Benefits across bordering towns include new friendships and work relationships – expanded levels of interest and access to town decisions – more places for family activities – and easier access to work, schools, food, and health care.

Economic engagement also can enable the political and community processes to look for a living urban vision within multi-town actions.   A living urban vision can take the form of deploying some of the gains from economic growth back into enhanced public infrastructure across border areas such as schools, libraries, parks, community health centers, local and regional transit, local police foot patrols in abutting neighborhoods, and so forth.  Even more powerful is the ability of shared economic success across town borders to cause people to see that they possess expanded political efficacy—people come to see themselves as being able to contribute directly to their own area’s vitality by initiating and continuing to work with their bordering neighbors.

Information Engagement

Information engagement can help engage decision makers by giving them opportunities to get credit for doing a better job for more citizens.  A technology component can apply replicable transparency tools to connect a multi-town framework with information and analytics so people are always on the same page, and they can see how they got there.  If the public information tools are widely applicable, transparent, and effective for border scenarios, they help the community and political engagement processes build active public support for further developing livable public spaces in bordering areas.

To help build consensus on multi-town action plans, information engagement builds on shared meaning grounded in widely understood operational activities.  For meaning to be shared, it needs to reflect facts that are presented and vetted in a public process.   The sharing of meaning does not imply all will agree.  However, the sharing of meaning is more likely to lead to discovering areas of consensus if an explicit effort is made to identify what is shared across proposals by new and existing stakeholders.  Efforts at shared recognition include furnishing news and information to participants – enabling unmediated access by the public to information surrounding the community, political, and economic processes going into decisions – and helping responsible officials keep the public engagement processes moving.

In particular, it’s especially valuable to community and political processes to help decision participants pay attention to the direct value in new understandings across towns.  Information engagement helps participants identify what is familiar and what is new by making it possible for participants to assess ideas for likely requirements and results across towns.  Information engagement, in context with community and political engagement, encourages constructive multi-town collaboration as a core outcome.  Intentional information engagement pinpoints shared experience and expands economic consensus across planning participants, stakeholders, and the public.

Next Up. The next post in the town planning and community engagement theme for August will look at how examples and ideas in the first four posts illustrate successful practices of persuasion and influence used in sales.

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