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Getting the Planning Commission to Know the Community (and its issues) Better

Illustration of a jigsaw puzzle with the word Community in the middle

From PCJ Editor Wayne Senville:

Does the title of this post sound like an oxymoron to you? Aren't planning commissioners appointed in large part because they are individuals who have been active in the community and know it well?

From my own experience, I’d say “yes,” most planning commissioners know their community fairly well.
But that’s a far cry from saying they’re familiar with all the issues and with all the perspectives that other members of the community may have.

What’s more, commissioners bring their our own perspectives and  areas of expertise. Someone may be very well informed about affordable housing issues, but not so much about historic preservation. Another may know a lot about the north end of the city, but not so much about the south end. Another may be well-versed on environmental issues, but not as much about issues facing local retailers.

Others may not be all that familiar with what young people are thinking about local issues -- or with issues facing seniors, low-income residents … you name it. Our communities are like giant puzzles we need to piece together.

One of the things I most enjoyed during my eleven years serving on the Burlington, Vermont, Planning Commission was the opportunity to expand my horizons, and learn much more about my community. It’s amazing how complex even smaller cities can be -- and how many challenging issues can come up.

The bottom line -- at least to me -- is that one vital responsibility of planning commissioners is to broaden their own perspectives by getting to know their community (and its issues) better. But how can planning board members most effectively do this?

That’s going to be the focus of a series of postings we’ll be adding to the PlannersWeb this Fall.

But we can use your help and feedback now.

We’re setting out below a list of topics we've collected so far (in random order). Some of these were suggestions we received from our March survey of Planning Commissioners Journal readers. Take a look. Again, they’re all generally related to ways in which planning commissioners can broaden their horizons and get to know their community better.

If there’s a topic missing you think we should focus on, add a comment below, or email us at: pcjoffice@gmail.com.

We’ll then address the topics over the course of this Fall.

Possible topics we’re considering:

  1. Surveying the public with questionnaires.
  2. Being a “loiterer” in your own community (we’ll take another look at some of PCJ columnist Dave Stauffer's ideas on this).
  3. Ensuring you have a diverse membership on your planning commission.
  4. Considering adding a youth member to your commission.
  5. Keeping in touch with governing body members.
  6. Going out and speaking to community groups and organizations.
  7. Holding a planning commission open house or a local planning fair.
  8. Finding creative ways to involve residents in the planning commission’s work.
  9. Sponsoring a speakers’ series for the commission and the public.
  10. Taking a group walkabout (something you just heard about from the Segedys -- so we can check this off as covered!).
  11. Considering what outsiders (non-residents) see in your community.
  12. Setting up a "citizens planning academy."
  13. Using the internet to get more diverse public feedback.
  14. Holding a planning commission photo challenge.