Facilitating a Community’s Vision: The Borderlands Village Innovation Pilot

CBI facilitates a stakeholder engagement visioning process for the Borderlands Project's Village Innovation Pilot, helping two towns along the rural Connecticut - Rhode Island border collaboratively create a plan for future development.

Background and Challenges

A uniquely undeveloped corridor within the dense eastern seaboard, the rural border region between Connecticut and Rhode Island is home to about three million people living in twenty towns and villages. Each village maintains a distinctive character, but the communities share concerns about how to preserve their lands and lifestyles while pursuing economic development and accommodating new residents, many of whom are city-dwellers seeking a rural escape.

In 2003, the Nature Conservancy and the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council launched the Borderlands Project — with the mission of building greater awareness of the unique assets of the region, exploring its shared threats and opportunities, and fostering a culture of learning and collaboration amongst its stakeholders. They initiated the “Village Innovation Pilot”, a strategic planning process to conserve critical lands by focusing development into existing or planned village centers. The process would be guided by a bi-state Advisory Group and staffed by a Pilot Coordinator. Two Borderlands towns, Exeter, Rhode Island and Killingly, Connecticut, were selected for the Pilot, which was to be carried out in three phases: Visioning; Research and Planning Recommendations; and Implementation.

The Orton Foundation asked CBI to initiate the visioning phase of the Village Innovation Pilot, which focused on public participation. They sought to help each town’s residents identify and discuss their thoughts and feelings about their communities, in order to develop recommendations for future development.

The CBI Approach

CBI helps the Village Innovation Pilot towns engage stakeholders to identify and discuss the essential elements of their communities, through focus groups, interviews, web surveys, and facilitated public visioning workshops.

CBI started the process by helping town leaders identify the key stakeholders to be engaged from diverse groups within the community, including large landowners, business owners, parents of school-aged children, and emergency service providers.

CBI then interviewed 40-60 stakeholders in each town, carried out focus groups, and designed an online survey to provide an opportunity for residents to respond to questions about their towns’ defining characteristics and future development. The survey, which received widespread participation, was administered in a variety of settings, including high school classrooms, local fairs, and assisted living facilities. This engaged residents who might not have participated in planning or focus group meetings.

In addition, CBI recorded brief, one-on-one interviews with residents in which they shared their stories and feelings about their community. Speaking privately with stakeholders in their homes or at local events allowed the teams to hear perspectives that might not have been shared in a public setting. These interviews were incorporated into an award-winning podcast [link] which was broadcast on local radio stations, played during community workshops, and made available to residents online.

CBI compiled the responses from the interviews, surveys, and focus groups, and presented them to town members in two facilitated public visioning workshops. At the workshops, CBI and the pilot consulting team used keypad polling and visual preference surveys to gather reactions to various existing town sites, potential land uses, and other town issues. These workshops also allowed each town to:

  • Build a shared understanding of their “heart and soul resources” and “sacred places”
  • Use visual simulations to experiment with different ways to site future development
  • Brainstorm key challenges
  • Identify ideas and issues for further discussion

Results

CBI helps both towns produce Phase I final reports that describe their communities’ vision for future development and successfully positions them for the next phase of research and planning.

Following this stakeholder engagement process, CBI and its planning partners prepared final reports for both towns based on the Phase I Visioning process, describing the Pilot project’s process and conclusions. The reports also listed recommendations for how to use the findings to plan an inclusive, effective research process for Phase II.

In Killingly, the pilot team and consultants used the report results to create a conceptual plan for redevelopment of a highway corridor. In Exeter, Phase I concluded with a vision statement, a digitized map of potential town centers, and several development alternatives to explore in greater detail during Phase II.