One moment...

Blogs / ICMA | blog / Success Stories: The Effectiveness of Community Engagement

Success Stories: The Effectiveness of Community Engagement

Orton Family Foundation

Four small cities. Four distinct challenges. In Biddeford, Maine, an industrial incinerator in the center of town stymied growth.  In Golden, Colorado, rapid growth was threatening to corrode what residents liked about their western town.  Planners in Essex, Vermont, wanted to write a town plan that residents would actually read. City leaders in Cortez, Colorado, meanwhile, aimed to build trust and bridge divides to broaden participation in local government.

While the challenges were unique to each place, all four communities turned to a community planning and development method developed by the Orton Family Foundation called Community Heart & Soul®. Through actively seeking the collective wisdom of all residents, including those whose voices are often missing, Community Heart & Soul brought residents together in each of these towns to create change that resulted in stronger, healthier, and more vibrant towns.

Biddeford, Maine

With stagnant population growth and limited job opportunities, the former mill town was defined by an industrial incinerator in the center of town, earning the town the nickname “Trash Town.” That all changed after the city’s Community Heart & Soul project got residents talking about what they loved about their town and what they’d change.

The incinerator was not well liked. That spurred the city council to buy the plant and tear it down. Since then the downtown has thrived with the redevelopment of the former textile mills, including a $50 million hotel and $15 million in affordable housing. Vacancy on Main Street has dropped dramatically. The business and industrial park is nearly full.


Golden, Colorado

Dramatic population growth presented challenges in terms of walkability, community engagement and affordable housing. With further growth projected, the city wanted to involve the community in discussing these potential challenges.

Over 2,000 residents (12 % of the population) took part in the city’s Community Heart & Soul project, which gathered input through block parties, chili socials, festivals and community summits. The result was guidelines driven by residents for future comprehensive plan updates, neighborhood plans, land use decisions, code changes and community investment decisions.

Golden was recognized for its innovative engagement efforts with awards from the International Association of Public Participation and the Denver Regional Council of Governments.


Essex, Vermont

The Town Plan was up for revision and planners wanted follow the example set by the town’s recently completed Community Heart & Soul project and involve the community in the plan’s creation. They asked residents for photos to include in the plan. They held neighborhood meetings. The 280 page document was trimmed down to 124 pages with the action items moved from the back of the plan to the front, with clear assignment of responsibility. The 2016 plan won Plan of the Year, twice, from the Northern New England Chapter of the American Planning Association and the Vermont Planners Association.


Cortez, Colorado

Cortez was preparing to update its comprehensive plan and revise its land use code—not exactly the stuff that draws crowds to public hearings in city hall at 7 p.m. on a weeknight.  City planners began to think beyond the public hearing.  Planners went to people in their neighborhoods and sponsored block parties and pot-luck dinners. As a result, trust was built, voices often missing from local government were heard and new leaders emerged.


Don’t miss the FREE Heart & Soul Talks: Strengthen Your Community Through Engagement, Thursday, Jan. 26, 3-4 p.m. Eastern, with Jim Bennett, past president ICMA and Biddeford city manager; Mike Bestor, ICMA member and former city manager, Golden and Kirsten Sackett, former planning director, Cortez. Register now! (If you can’t attend, sign up and you’ll receive the event recording.)




Doug Li
Doug Li said

Interesting article .

Please sign in to comment.

Posted by