Connecting Communities Through Public Engagement
Updated: Jul 8, 2022
Lucy Sinclair, Transportation and GIS Fellow, explains why community engagement is a crucial part of creating a comprehensive plan.
The town of Casco is currently re-doing their comprehensive plan with the help of GPCOG. A comprehensive plan outlines visions and goals for many different areas that affect a town: transportation, housing, land use, conservation, environmental concerns, community life, etc. It doesn’t necessarily initiate any action by itself, instead it’s more of a community’s collective vision for its future and a suggestion for a path to get there. It provides guidance for other planning documents, a place to point to and say “this is what our residents want” when working on projects.
Because a comprehensive plan is based on the values and goals of town residents, public engagement is extremely important in its development. For Casco, our community engagement primarily took the form of a planning charrette: a 5-day period filled with presentations, workshops on specific topics, and a studio that was open to the public for 12 hours a day. We spoke with town selectboard members and local business owners, residents who had been living in Casco for their whole lives, and young families who had moved there in the past few years. We heard what community members love about their town: the library, thriving pickleball league, the beautiful lakes and nature all around them, the Casco Days fair, and much more. We heard their concerns: dangerous roads, unaffordable housing forcing longtime residents to move, fears of the town turning into a strip mall and losing their recreation spaces to development. Not everyone agreed, but when it came down to it, most residents, even those with different opinions, were able to find some common ground on what they want for their town.
Engaging the public allowed the planning team to understand the goals and values of the Casco community so we can synthesize them into the final planning document. However, the community engagement process also affected the community participants. The world of planning can often feel bureaucratic and confusing. It’s filled with jargon, there are many different processes whose purposes are not always clear. Before two months ago, I had never heard of a town comprehensive plan. Opening up the planning process allowed residents to gain a better understanding of how and why the plan is being developed. In addition, just having open space for people to gather and talk about their town facilitated connections between community members who might not have met otherwise. I got to observe as longtime residents educated new residents about Casco’s town hall style government, ensuring that more people are integrated into the community and have agency in their government. I heard people volunteer to sit on committees and lead hiking groups for their fellow community members. I watched as neighbors from different parts of town met for the first time and started planning a town block party together.
I think the experience of creating the Casco comprehensive plan can best be described in the words of one resident at one of our public engagement meetings: “when you say ‘the town’, that’s all of us together.” Ultimately, the comprehensive plan is not about GPCOG or the town selectboard deciding what the town is going to be like. It is the town residents who will vote on whether or not to adopt the plan that we help them make, and so the process is about the community coming together to intentionally envision their shared future. This coming together can do much more than create a document. The process itself connects community members, ignites passion, and initiates action.
Lucy is from Beverly, Massachusetts. She has a bachelor’s degree with a double major in applied mathematics and French from Vassar College. Throughout college, Lucy worked in conservation and environmental education with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and the Appalachian Mountain Club. She also interned with a transportation planning consulting firm in Brussels, Belgium and the Dutchess County Transportation Council – gaining insight into the process of transportation planning in the private and public sector. These experiences opened her eyes to the impact of transportation systems on the environment, residents’ quality of life, and their access to opportunities. Lucy is interested in how we communicate technical information to various audiences, and she is excited to learn more about how effective communication and community engagement can help improve transportation systems. As a Resilience Corps Fellow, Lucy is looking forward to learning about the structure of local government and how it fits into the larger Portland community and helping to ensure that residents have access to efficient, equitable, and reliable transit. In her free time, Lucy enjoys making music and food, crafting, hiking, swimming in the ocean, and playing rugby.