Exploring Sustainable Communities

How to Conduct a "Visioning" Exercise

Ask students/group members what kind of community they would like to live in as an adult. Explain that the object is to collect as many ideas as possible--nothing is too small, too big, or too crazy for consideration. This technique has been used in real-life cities with great success, as they will learn later.

"Why bother with visions of the future when today's problems seem overwhelming?" Both problem solving and visioning are important; they are quite different approaches that should be used in combination.

  • Visioning generates a common goal, hope, and encouragement; offers a possibility for fundamental change; gives people a sense of control; gives a group something to move toward; and generates creative thinking and passion.

  • With problem solving, a group can become mired in technical details and political problems and may even disagree on how to define the problem. Problem solving, although useful, rarely results in any really fundamental change.

  • A problem is something negative to move away from, whereas a vision is something positive to move toward.

  • In moving toward a vision, you will be likely to encounter a number of problems to solve.

  • Ask, "What would your community be like if you had the power to make it any way you wanted? Where would people live? Where would they work? How would they get to their schools and workplaces? On their days off, where would they go and what would they do? What kind of a house would you live in? Where would you shop? How would you get there? What kind of energy would be used for heating? For tranportation? For travel? Where would it come from? How would the air, water, and environment be kept clean?"

  • Break into small groups to brainstorm what an ideal community would be like in 10 to 20 years. Encourage group members to be specific. As a guide, the group leaders might use the categories used to describe change in your community. The categories are people, housing, schools, job/businesses, health care, crime, transportation, amenities, environment, and public involvement.

  • Return to the large group. Ask one member from each group to make one positive, declarative one-sentence satement about how the community will be in the future. Make the statement in the present tense. Examples: Ther are lots of bike trails. You can walk at night in safety. Transportation is fast and cheap.

  • Write these statements on a piece of newsprint that all can see and that can be saved for revision later. Continue around the room, and then repeat the sequence with another member of each group. Continue until time is short or ideas are being repeated. Then ask if there are any other hot ideas. (Note: you may have to rephrase ideas into simple declartive present-tense sentences. Ask the speaker if you have retained the gist.)

    Note that in multicultural groups, you may get different visions based on different cultural backgrounds. Be alert to statements that may have cultural, ethnic, or even gender roots. The goal is not to find the majority opinion, but to arrive at a vision that reflects the thinking of the diverse groups in any classroom or community.

  • Ask group members to highlight some of the major differences between now and the future they have created. Most will initially focus on population size and technology change, but also try to elicit changes in attitudes and values regarding the community or surrounding environment, in concepts of what constitutes "progress," and in standard of living and quality of life. (Standard of living refers to economic success and comfort; quality of life refers to more intangible satisfaction with life in general.)

  • Ask group members to put themselves in the place of a resident 50 years ago and to try to imagine the likelihood of some of these changes. Were some changes predictable? Were others outside the realm of predicition? Remind group members that the changes of the next 50 years will probably be just as astounding. Things that seem impossible now, may become commonplace ot their grandchildren.

  • Spend about 20 minutes trying to group elements of the vision into some common themes. Find the areas of consensus, and identify any areas of disagreement. Focus on the areas of some consensus. Create a new sheet listing items that have strong support from either the entire class or a subgroup. Be careful to nurture ideas that may come from an ethnic or gender perspective even though they may not initially gain the support of the entire class. Vision statements can include ideas that pertain to only one segment of the community, such as, women can walk around at night without being afraid; the community has developed a cultural center open to all with an exhibit of local art; and students can walk to school without interference by drug dealers.

    The common vision statement can be presented in a graphic form. It can include photos, maps, and other images. Or it can be a list of ideas. Simply articulating a vision can be a powerful learning tool.

    In the real world, of course, having a vision is only a first step. An old proverb says,

    A vision without a plan is just a dream.
    A plan without a vision is just drudgery.
    But a vision with a plan can change the world.

    Planning the next steps toward achieving their community vision will be beyond the scope of most classes, but some may actually become involved in communitywide efforts. Students could begin, for example, by presenting their ideas to the city council, organizing a small awareness-raising event, or writing an opinion piece for the local newspaper. They may discover other strategies we cannot imagine.

    Source: World Resources Institute (WRI), 2000

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    Comments and suggestions:
    Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org