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You're Not From Around Here, Are You? Thoughts on Identity, Place and Public Process


You're Not From Around Here, Are You? Thoughts on Identity, Place and Public Process

hoosier-car When I read the Sustainable Cities Collective blog post “Urban Development: The Great Gentrification” by Jim Russell, it resonated deeply on many things I have observed and experienced, both in my personal life as well as my professional life as a planner – especially when it comes to interacting with people.  I tucked away the URL and began taking notes, the assembly of which compose this reaction piece.

Where Are You From?

As someone who finds the hometown question not an easy one, I have composed a couple responses.  My short answer is “Bethesda, Maryland.”  A more in-depth response might go like this, “well, my parents worked for the State Department and we moved a lot growing up so I call many places home.”  Or something like that.  If they pry I will say I was born in the Philippines, lived eight years in India and three in Austria before returning to go to college in New York.  Despite an international upbringing, I identify as an American, but pinpointing where exactly in America is a bit harder.

How Long is Legit?

Russell’s article observed, “Hoosier, Okie, and carpetbagger. As much as Americans move, we hate newcomers.”  Americans are a nation of migrants.  Some may settle down for a few generations, but at some point someone or some group has moved from one place to another.  I have yet to work with a community that does not have some underlying dynamic at play between “come heres” and “been heres” tensions that are often revealed when discussing the future.  Consensus can prove elusive when faced with divergent opinions rooted in different perceptions of identity.  More often than not, divergent groups share more values in common than they might realize.  A well-designed public process should nudge the conversation towards positive shared values and goals.

2013-09-12 18.27.26Some Stories

In 2012 and 2013 we conducted a number of small town revitalization workshops. In nearly every town we worked there was an underlying tension between an old guard (the “been heres”) and more recent arrivals, aka “come heres.” The way we worked through this was to get both groups to the table early on and focus on shared values and outcomes that all could agree on. For example, the community workshops were successful because they focused on a number of simple concepts that all groups could agree on – creating great public spaces, building connections between old and new business owners, advertising the community as a great place to live and visit, and fostering a new group of community leaders that included both new and legacy residents.

I recently had the good fortune to assist the historic Town of Front Royal, VA with a visioning process.  In the simplest terms, the town has an industrial past, but has become in recent decades a bedroom community for people travelling to jobs elsewhere.  The industry that used to employ thousands is now gone and has left in its wake some properties that will be a challenge to reuse and repurpose.  The process identified the need to clarify and focus on defining a community identity for the future, recognizing they are transitioning.  Rather than focusing on differences, the process yielded a vision comprised of a number of well supported themes:  a lifelong community for all ages; a town with well-preserved assets; a popular and vibrant destination to live and visit.

Pet Peeves

Okay – I'm going to vent.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard at a public event something along the lines of, “my family has been here five generations and (insert position statement).”  What bothers me about these preambles are that they imply that a longer tenure is more worthy or legitimate.  To give a long-term resident more credence than a more recent arrival is a slippery slope – such statements undermine the spirit of moving forward together.

The inverse of the argument above can be found in people who move to an area and then discount or overlook those that have been there all along.  This NPR story on gentrification and Houston’s Third Ward speaks to this example, most notably in this quote by State Rep. Garnet Coleman: "Don't come into the community, renovate your house and then act like the people that have been living there forever have no standing…If somebody's going to move into the Third Ward — I don't care who you are — just become a part of it."  I like the last 12 words.


Questions of identity and place get to fundamentals of who are we, what do we want to be, what will be the same, what will be different, and how might it all happen.  Here are some of my own concluding observations or realizations (some are personal while others are more professional):

  •  This summary sentence of Jim Russell pretty much sums up my views: “instead of questioning the intent of people (outsider or resident), the claim to citizenship is the central concern.”
  • How many years you have lived is not as relevant as your intention to be part of something positive and productive going forward.
  • Communities are more likely to succeed when plans are made in a spirit of inclusion and tolerance.
  • Encourage people to practice thinking ‘we’ before ‘me.’
  • Don’t let the words, “we tried that, we did that and it did not work,” disrupt progress.  Conditions and opportunities change.
  • Though we strive for win-win solutions, realities are such that communities may not return to glory days of old, or may involve more austerity than prosperity.  The important question in the win-lose dynamic remains: have we provided equal access to opportunity?   Have we made decisions that benefit most and minimize harm or unintended consequences? Have we maximized the potential of our assets?
  • Finally, self-identity and perception are not permanent. Communities can adopt less than healthy perceptions of themselves and languish in despair, or they can work for change.  I am energized to work with people whose intent and energies are focused on positive change.

–Jason Espie, Cities That Work Blog


Is Your Vision a Source of Derision?

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Is Your Vision a Source of Derision?


design drawing It’s pretty common for a vision to face condescension. Visioning can seem like a feel-good exercise that paints a rosy scenario, and you’ll hear people lament that it accomplishes little if anything meaningful. But it doesn’t need to be that way. There are ways to avoid common missteps that prevent community visions, or their more expensive regional vision brethren, from becoming irrelevant and wasteful exercises in civic booster-ism.

I think there are five keys to a successful community vision. By successful, I mean the vision is endorsed or adopted by the relevant governing board or boards, and it is effectively integrated into the organization’s operating procedures. It will have measurable objectives and targets defined, milestones for achieving them, responsibilities assigned and resources allocated to appropriate individuals, departments or organizations, and a mechanism for regular reporting of progress toward achieving the vision. To get there, a vision needs broad-based community support and it must tell an effective story about the neighborhood, community or region and where it wants to go. Here’s how:


Threats, challenges and opportunities need to come into sharp focus in the minds of the broader public and key community stakeholders. Where are the community conflicts? Why is it conflicted? Who are the actors in the conflict and what are their real motivations? It is imperative to make sure there is an increased awareness of the issues and trade-offs of doing nothing and doing something (or things). Visioning efforts often address the questions of Where are we now and Where are we going as the basis for helping people see the implications of past and present decisions on the future. Most importantly, you simply must have a keen awareness of the shared values in the community and how they can serve as a foundation for a future vision.

People standing outside a building.


You have to be real to know values. The only way to build trust and establish credibility with a vision process is to go the extra mile to demonstrate a commitment to learning about the community and relating the work on the vision to the needs expressed by the community. In the East Gainesville, FL minority neighborhoods, I held front porch meetings over sweet tea with residents concerned that prior planning efforts focused on other parts of the city. In Sanford, a community raw with racial tension over the Trayvon Martin incident, I spent several hours talking with people in the Historic Goldsboro neighborhood about ways to better their neighborhood at a Saturday morning community event celebrating the work of Dr. Velma Williams, the onlyAfrican American ever elected in Seminole County.


Pretty pictures certainly intrigue and inspire, but a successful vision is based on relevant analysis exploring alternatives and trade-offs. To be relevant, the analysis needs to relate to values of the community and sources of conflict. Perhaps use performance measures that the community helps to select. What are the implications of doing nothing or taking a specific action? What kinds of information do the public, community leaders and elected officials need to get comfortable with a concept or to make a decision?


A vision has to be a dynamic process. Having a work plan or scope is important, but you can’t be bound by the plan when circumstances dictate a change in methods or direction. Adapting to issues and responding quickly to new ideas or different actors engaging at different times shows that you are listening effectively and have the pulse of the community. The challenge is avoiding losing focus on outcomes by constantly responding or adjusting methods. But the greater risk is to hold to a work plan or a preconceived set of recommendations and lose credibility by not being responsive.

people attending a workshopAccomplishment

Developing and carrying out a vision takes time, and people have the attention span of a...well...modern Internet consumer. The vision may be long range in nature, but it must include at least two specific, meaningful actions that can occur with the flip of a switch once adopted. In fact, if the vision has a branding name like "envision" or "imagine," change the name to "destination" or "forward [insert name here]." This is necessary to show a distrustful and perhaps jaded public that there is commitment to the vision and a sincere desire for change. But the accomplishments can’t stop there. On a regular basis, say every year or two, there needs to be a highly visible public accounting of progress, results achieved and adjustments made to fulfill the vision. Even incremental responses and partial solutions should get some love. Pat yourself on the back for minute, acknowledge the kudos, and then move on to the next task.

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