Convening a community visioning process

About community visioning 

Only a crisis- actual or perceived – produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

Milton Friedman

Community visioning is an opportunity to expose and inspire people with new ideas that may have once seemed impossible. Planning allows us to develop a vision for what a future community could look like, as well as the path we can take to get there. It allows us to think through how future needs will be met. Visioning is the process of coming together to ideate, debate, and dream, allowing communities to designate their “North Star,” a goal that can then guide planning, advocacy, and organizing.  

Community visioning can happen within an official community engagement process for a formal plan (such as a General Plan or CDBG-DR Action Plan). It can be done internally by an organization or coalition to articulate a shared goal or strategy for a campaign. It offers a moment to develop new values and priorities, and it can also be an opportunity to elevate existing ideas that once seemed outside the realm of possibility. 

Visioning after a disaster can achieve many goals, including:  

  • creating opportunities to bring people into the planning process and help bring a sense of purpose to a chaotic situation, 

  • giving residents a sense of possibility and hope during a time when many things may seem hopeless, 

  • building support for possible solutions that may not have otherwise been considered, and

  • creating clear guidance and expectations for decision-makers. 

Like any planning process, visioning requires time from all participants and additional staff capacity from community organizations and government agencies. This may create opportunities for philanthropy to fund additional positions or consultants to help facilitate this process. 

Additionally, no community is a monolith. Depending on the plan's scope, a community vision may contend with multiple views and values. However, the process is, in many ways, the product. The process of articulating a vision, building relationships, and developing capacity can be a valuable product of a visioning process, even if it does not fully come to fruition. 

Here are two great tools on how to help convene a community visioning: 

  • The American Planning Association has a series of post-disaster resources for planners, including one on visioning. The resource includes four key points for approaching a visioning process and includes references to case studies. 

  • The NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program’s comprehensive toolkit, In the Eye of the Storm, is helpful for community organizations interested in undertaking a community visioning process. The toolkit includes steps organizations can take as they create their visioning process, including specific guidance on using the “World Café Method” – a strategy for facilitating small and large group discussions on a community vision. 

Impact on frontline communities  

Visioning is both especially important and extremely difficult in the context of disasters. People are often displaced, distraught, experiencing trauma, and preoccupied with the challenges of meeting their basic needs after a disaster event. These are not the conditions generally associated with bold dreaming. And yet, the vision enacted in post-disaster redevelopment and recovery has deep consequences for impacted communities, especially frontline communities. Without the opportunity to articulate an alternate vision, communities risk defaulting to the same arrangements that existed before the disaster or worse. Therefore, community organizations and government agencies must engage in future visioning, despite the challenges.  

Actions to take 

For community-based organizations  and affordable housing providers

  • In the wake of an event, do your best to gather your community to conduct a community visioning process or participate in one that is being organized.  

  • Share the results of your community visioning with officials from your local Planning Office and the Office of Emergency Services.  

  • Advocate for local disaster response agencies to commit to and lead a visioning process after a disaster. 

For local government 

  • Engage frontline communities in a visioning process after any disaster event. Invite trauma-informed counselors to be there with you to support the community members who participate. 

For philanthropy 

  • Support local government and community-based organizations in their community visioning processes.  

  • Support the implementation of the outcomes of the visioning process.