A New Kind of Town Hall in Chattanooga

A dispatch from Chattanooga, where the world’s largest community visioning effort is helping local advocates reimagine their city.

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Josh McManus is the Founder and Creative Director of Createhere.org. He is also a member of NAC’s Next American Vanguard.

As public discourse around the country becomes increasingly shrill, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, productive conversations happen on a daily basis, and the tenor of “town hall” is refreshingly positive. Discussions in both the public and private realm focus on how things can be better, and this summer, the cornerstone of those conversations has been “Stand,” a community visioning effort for the region.

The effort starts with a four-question survey that asks:

1. What do you like about the Chattanooga Region?

2. Imagine the best possible Chattanooga Region. Describe it.

3. What challenges must be addressed?

4. What actions, big or small, can you take to help?

By the end of September, 25,000 individuals will have completed this survey, speaking up for their families, their neighborhoods, and their city.

Visioning is a planning process where a community imagines the future it wants and begins to make it a reality, and the process takes a lot of forms around the world. Stand was modeled after visioning efforts like Portland’s VisionPDX and Calgary’s ImagineCALGARY, where citizens participated through surveys. With just over 18,000 responses, ImagineCALGARY was the world’s largest survey-based community visioning effort when it was completed in 2006.

Stand launched in May of this year, and it’s been a remarkable three months. A field team of volunteers and paid organizers has been taking the survey to events all summer, from music festivals to community barbecues. A team of community partners pledged to take the survey to their employees and networks, and an online version of the survey has been an ideal portal for that purpose.

As I write this, Stand has collected 24,000 surveys. We’re averaging just under 1600 surveys a week lately, which means that we have completed the world’s largest survey-based visioning effort.

That’s an exhilarating, impressive fact, but it’s not surprising given the legacy of community visioning in Chattanooga. Just 40 years ago, Walter Cronkite called Chattanooga the dirtiest city in America on the evening news. In 1984, still facing dire economic, environmental and social challenges, a handful of citizens rallied a few thousand of their neighbors to identify problems and possibilities. Chattanooga Venture’s Vision 2000 process established a legacy of visioning in our community and played a significant role in the remarkable turnaround of Chattanooga’s downtown in the following years. Today, Chattanooga is known regionally as the “Scenic City” and has growing industries in clean energy, new manufacturing and eco-tourism.

This is all to say, community visioning can turn cities around. It worked for Chattanooga.

But how will Stand continue with that legacy of successful, sustainable urban development? The survey is just the first step. As we rapidly approach the 25,000 milestone, we’re looking for ways to act on our community’s needs. A few things we know: the results of the Stand survey will be made public, searchable by zip code, to promote community-based action. The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, one of two independent organizations processing Stand data, will also produce an executive summary that highlights recurring themes and concerns. What comes out of the responses, we can’t say just yet. But we do believe this process could serve as a model to change the way cities move forward, across the globe.

For more information on Stand, visit ChattanoogaStand.com.

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Tags: portlandchattanooga

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