"There’s something special about every town — the corner barbershop on Main Street, acres of nearby wilderness, busy local shops, hard-working lands and people, or deep-rooted traditions. That character is why people love their towns. It’s why they live there. We have coined the term 'Heart & Soul Community Planning' to describe an approach that engages citizens in community building as a pathway to vibrant, socially and economically enduring places to live..."
— Heart & Soul Community Handbook
It's hard for me to imagine living in San Diego or Chicago or Baltimore or Detroit. I spent most of my childhood living in a residential area of Oakland, California, and certainly can't complain about my parents' choice to live close to my father's workplace, Oakland High School... but I didn't know what I was missing, living in a world of asphalt and concrete and freeways and double locks on every door.
I feel fortunate to live, for the moment, in two small Colorado mountain towns — part-time in each. Each town — Pagosa Springs and Salida — has its attractions, and many of them are shared, like clean air... clean water... friendly conversations in the grocery store... the ability to leave your Makita cordless drill sitting on the sidewalk all night (as I did yesterday) and still find it sitting there in the morning.
And each town also has its own special attractions.
And its problems.
Each town has its own unique problems... and then they have some very similar problems. Last night, my partner Cynda and I attended an informational meeting hosted by the "Friends of Salida Schools." Apparently, the elementary school in the center of town has been suffering from neglected maintenance for many years, and the school district has now decided on the best approach to the problem: tear down the building and build a brand new "21st Century School..." for $14 million in new school district debt and new school district taxes. The sales pitch Cynda and I had heard at the City Council meeting a couple of weeks ago had sounded so similar to Archuleta Schools superintendent Mark DeVoti's "mega-campus" sales pitches last summer, that I went home and found myself unable to sleep.
More about that later.
In relation to "attractions" and "problems" however, Pagosa Springs has consistently displayed one characteristic problem, ever since I arrived in town in 1993.
Fear of its leaders, by its citizens. Fear of its citizens, by its leaders. And for everyone, an underlying fear of impending scarcity, poverty, hardship — inextricably blended with a fear that greedy developers will eventually destroy precisely what we love best about Pagosa.
This morning, I was getting ready to write about a (seemingly impending) development: the Town's proposed "Amusement Park on Reservoir Hill." That plan, although officially approved by the Town Council, has a large number of local opponents, and at some point in the near future — if I am reading things right — those opponents will be presenting an "alternative future" for Reservoir Hill that assumes a very different approach to developing our downtown, 110-acre wilderness park.
Then I received, in my email, a link to a new report from the Orton Family Foundation.
"We live in a landscape of change. Change may, in fact, be the only constant in the history of our nation. But the nature and rate of that change has quickened over the past half century, and in many cases, our response to this pressure has not resulted in healthy communities."
I should give you a brief introduction to the Orton Family Foundation. Here's the first couple of paragraphs from their Mission Statement:
"The Orton Family Foundation helps small cities and towns describe, apply and uphold their heart and soul so that they can adapt to change while maintaining or enhancing the things they value most.
"Every town has authenticity, character, spirit — its own heart and soul. One-size-fits-all development means that many towns in America are losing what makes them unique, those special qualities and distinctive characteristics that keep a place from becoming Anywhere, USA.
"Land use planning in America has yet to engage a broad base of local citizens to define and shape the future of their communities. Attempts to involve people in community planning often fall short because the process doesn’t convey how citizens’ day-to-day lives and livelihoods will be affected. Meanwhile, incremental change occurs, yet its cumulative effects are hard to imagine or predict. Growth and change creep up on a community, and the consequences are born by future generations..."
This morning's email announced a new Orton effort to promote what they call the "Heart & Soul Approach" to community planning. It's an approach that turns on its head, the approach I have witnessed at nearly every Pagosa Springs government and quasi-government meeting I've attended over the past eight years. If indeed a "Heart & Soul Approach" — as suggested by the Orton Family Foundation — can help preserve the "heart and soul" of a community, then I might classify the approach I've seen in operation here in Pagosa as the "Chase the Money at All Costs Approach."
From the email I received from Orton:
"The Heart & Soul approach is an innovative, multi-disciplinary method that helps citizens from all walks of life discover, value and protect their towns’ heart and soul assets—those special places, characteristics and customs that people treasure. The heart and soul of a place is what makes people love where they live. Those attachments, in turn, lead people to care enough to take action to improve their hometown and get involved in the tough decisions required to protect it. Places lacking heart and soul aren’t loved, aren’t cared for, and aren’t going anywhere.
"With the Heart & Soul approach the days of 'PUBLIC HEARING, City Hall, 7:30 PM' are gone, replaced by: 'We’re coming to your school, community center, home, club, or neighborhood to listen to your stories, your hopes, your concerns; to listen to what you care about.'
"In our work with [small towns] we have witnessed that when neighbors wrestle with visions of their future together, weighted against what they care about, they find pathways to quicker, less divisive decisions, actions and results. The Heart & Soul approach encourages and honors new relationships between groups that no longer talk—or never did. People are more likely to find common ground given time to listen to and share what’s important to them — when they have the chance to tell each other what matters and what their hopes for the future may be. Our approach is built on an underlying set of principles..."
What kind of "underlying set of principles" could possibly help a dysfunctional little community like Pagosa Springs overcome its most basic problem... our fear of our neighbors?
And just how "tough" are the "tough decisions" we would be required to make, to preserve our town's heart and soul?
Read Part Two...