Big Thinking on Small Towns
Claire Luning, Land Use and Transportation Planning Fellow, reflects on their first experience applying urban planning knowledge to the context of a small town, rather than a big city.
Before moving to Portland, I had already lived in some fantastic cities. I grew up in Chicago, IL, went to college in Poughkeepsie, NY, and studied abroad in Dublin, Ireland. When I told folks about my move to Portland, some were surprised I opted for a small city as my first foray into the planning profession. I’d respond that I wanted to experience a new type of city and felt that Portland-- a place I had never been, which has 2.5 million fewer people than where I grew up--could give me that.
I felt reasonably prepared to be a Regional Planning Fellow in greater Portland, having a degree in Urban Studies under my belt and countless case studies in my academic arsenal to apply to this work. What I didn’t expect, however, was to be applying what I knew to a small, rural town like Casco, where I was given a project. What I soon realized was that even though Casco was a town with less than 4,000 people, urban planning was urban planning; all places need things like safe streets, public spaces, and walkability. And with that, I began working on the Casco Comprehensive Plan.
A comprehensive plan is a document meant to guide the future of policy and planning in a city or town. One component of working on the plan has been answering a set of questions on varying topics, which is a State requirement for comprehensive plans. The questions range from simple--does the community have a street tree program? -- to more complex--if the town does not have a public sewer or water system, is this preventing the community from accommodating current and projected growth? There are over 300 of these very detailed questions, so going through them I felt as though I was really getting to know the place. I mean, I could tell you about any hiking trail or what the planning board has been chatting about or even where to get snowshoes (you can check them out of the library!).
One question that didn’t give me much pause while answering was: “If there is a traditional downtown or village center(s) in the community?” I looked at the places identified on the zoning map as commercial and residential and did some google maps sleuthing and found that there is not really a Main Street and there are very few businesses with store fronts in a centralized downtown area. I reported that there was not a traditional downtown.
It made me a little sad to think of a town that has no center. My academic background and my experiences in cities left me with the judgement that no downtown means a weak town—no room for community connection or economic vibrancy. I figured that a rural town is made of unrelated, disconnected properties around which a random boundary defines them as an entity. It didn’t fit my understanding of a town because it lacked what I knew as key urban pieces, leading me to mistake it as a place solely defined (or connected) by geographic proximity.
When I actually got to Casco, I realized what a one-dimensional understanding of the Town I had constructed. I saw that Casco’s villages, although somewhat spread out, are coherent neighborhoods. Casco Village, in particular, has a cohesive historic architecture and even some sidewalks. The Village is home to the library, community center, post office, residences, a church, and a public beach. These are resources heavily utilized by residents from all over the Town, making Casco Village a crucial center of community. By the standards of a big city or even a slightly bigger town, I could not see the connected community of Casco that, from the outside, looked unrelated and disconnected.
Although Casco doesn’t have a downtown, I learned that they have an incredible potential for growth. After a five-day public outreach extravaganza in the town (which you can read about in Lucy’s post), we heard that many residents do want a Main Street full of shops and public spaces. They want sidewalks and safe alternatives to car use. They want slower roads and better connections to community spaces. They want community events and places they can run into their neighbors. In addition to those excited for growth, we also heard expressions of fear that community members would be resistant to change, a mindset that seems to be prevalent in some of Maine’s rural communities. They hoped that we, people fresh to the community, would be able to push residents to consider some new design and policy concepts that they may remain resistant to.
I entered the Resilience Corps ready to expand my understanding of cities and to use my existing knowledge to improve community spaces. Here are some things I hope come out of my experience and work in Casco: I hope that my fresh perspective and lack of ties to the traditions of Casco can help introduce some new ideas into the community. I also hope that I can take some of the nuances of small towns into my new and improved arsenal of planning knowledge, which after being in Casco, already feels far more comprehensive. My goal is to continue to expand my understanding of planning to encompass all community spaces, large and small.
Claire grew up in Chicago, Illinois before moving to Poughkeepsie, New York to study at Vassar College. She graduated with an undergraduate degree in Urban Studies in 2021. While at Vassar, Claire worked with local organizations including a small coffee roaster, a carceral justice advocacy group, a large affordable housing non-profit, and a tutoring group. These experiences fueled Claire’s interest in how local networks of people and organizations create strong urban communities. In joining Resilience Corps, Claire is excited to learn what communities strengthen the Greater Portland Area and assist in nurturing livable, comfortable, and resilient cities. Outside of work, Claire enjoys reading on the waterfront, knitting, baking, and hanging out with cats. As an urban Midwesterner, Claire is looking forward to experiencing the beautiful Maine outdoors through hiking and cross country skiing and the city of Portland through long walks and trying new restaurants.