CommunityViz: Exploring New Techniques to Help New Hampshire Communities Shape Their Growth

By Kate Hartnett

The Jordan Institute of New Hampshire and the Orton Family Foundation of Vermont are currently piloting use of an innovative software planning tool, CommunityViz, in New Hampshire’s I-93 Expansion Corridor. Starting with workshops held at the New Hampshire Local Government Center in August, 2005, and at Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission in October, 2005, The Jordan Institute (Jordan) and the Orton Family Foundation (Orton) plan to work with the four regional planning commissions and a number of pilot communities over the next year to combine CommunityViz with Jordan’s integrated development process, 3i Solutions. This article outlines what this pilot program can potentially mean for the 26 towns in the I-93 region and beyond.

What Is CommunityViz?
CommunityViz is a program of the Orton Family Foundation, a Vermont- and Colorado-based nonprofit operating foundation. Orton helps engage and empower people to make land use decisions to help preserve their character and heritage as they grow. CommunityViz is a software tool that allows local leaders to ask and explore “what if…," and peek through a window into the future. By providing GIS-based analysis, real-world 3D modeling, and economic impact forecasting tools, the software enables planners and community members to anticipate and understand the impacts of land development on a parcel, a neighborhood, or a municipality. The package allows people to envision land use alternatives and understand their potential impacts; to explore options and share possibilities; and to examine scenarios from all angles—environmental, economic, and social—and feel more confident in their decisions.

The Orton Family Foundation created CommunityViz not just to create a new piece of technology, but to offer a new approach to planning. The process allows people to think and act like citizens—beyond their own backyards and bottom lines—by employing the shared language of visualization. Alongside facilitated discussion and visualizations, CommunityViz helps people with different viewpoints and backgrounds engage in collaborative, informed and equitable decision-making about their common future. The CommunityViz process ultimately promotes and enhances informed civic involvement.

The Orton Family Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation formed in 1995. Orton assists rural communities, small cities and towns grappling with the rapid changes brought about by growth and development pressures to plan their land use futures. It exists because its founders, Lyman Orton and Noel Fritzinger, wanted to help local communities with limited planning resources make sound decisions about proposed development. They found no existing organization that they could just give money to do so, so they decided to do it themselves. The Foundation is funded by profits from the hugely successful Vermont Country Store.

What is 3i Solutions?
3i Solutions is an integrated strategy for protecting rural character, based on designing networks of healthy green open space and enhancing social connections to balance the expanding presence of development. People are energized by the approach because it brings together both scientific data, such as water supply zones and wildlife corridors, with important “heart and soul" places in a community that make it special, such as a village green and swimming holes. These elements are used to “map" the “three infrastructures"—green, built and social—that are the critical building blocks of any healthy, sustainable community, and, together, help shape the creation of a community vision that integrates and balances all three. The next two steps are to identify the voluntary practices, regulations, and policies that support getting there, and to work with local officials, developers, and citizens to bring such practices into use. 3i Solutions was developed jointly by The Jordan Institute and the Audubon Society of New Hampshire.

Why in the I-93 Region in New Hampshire?
CommunityViz first appeared in 2001. Over the past few years, a number of New Hampshire regional planners and communities purchased the software, but consistently found it difficult to incorporate into projects. In late 2004, as part of the Orton’s new strategy for CommunityViz, the Foundation decided to become an active partner with a number of select towns and regions in the Northeast and Rocky Mountain West grappling with rapid environmental, economic, and social change. Southeastern New Hampshire retains a primarily rural character, and is facing significant growth pressures. Given a promising set of conditions: (a) Jordan’s work on integrated development; (b) Orton’s new strategy of providing longer term technical support along with their planning software; and (c) the cooperation of the regional planning commissions and the GRANIT System at University of New Hampshire (UNH), the I-93 region became a top priority project.

From Training for a Pilot Region to a Statewide Resource Center

Another strength of CommunityViz is the capacity to depict alternate scenarios of how a site or neighborhood or municipality might shape its future growth. An example of this can be found on the CommunityViz Web site at www.communityviz.org.

As mentioned previously, Orton and Jordan worked together to fund and design a two-day initial training in August 2005. Both planners and GIS technicians from each of the four regional planning commissions in the I-93 corridor participated:

  • • Central Regional Planning Commission,
  • • Nashua Regional Planning Commission,
  • • Rockingham Planning Commission, and
  • • Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission,

along with representatives from the New Hampshire GRANIT System, New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES), and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. The group worked together as teams, combining the skills of planners and GIS experts to explore how CommunityViz could help local communities. The same group met again in October to work on using CommunityViz to depict future trends in selected communities.

These initial trainings are the first steps in a plan to develop GRANIT, the state’s GIS clearinghouse maintained by UNH’s Complex System Research Center (CSRC), as the statewide support hub for CommunityViz. Staff there will dedicate time to becoming expert with CommunityViz, so that they are able to assist local and regional planners and citizens seeking to use CommunityViz in their communities.

What’s Next?
Jordan and Orton have agreed to work together in the I-93 corridor for one year, through July 2006. At the second training in October, participants scheduled another training session for January 2006 to explore how to use CommunityViz to visualize alternate build-out options for a community. In addition, over the Winter 2005/2006, Jordan and Orton will work directly with each of the four regional planning commissions and a number of pilot communities in the I-93 region. Both also will work jointly with GRANIT staff to continue development of the statewide CommunityViz resource center. Jordan and Orton are committed to providing technical support to communities interested in shaping growth and evaluate their options while the opportunity still exists.

What Does This Mean for the 26 Towns in the I-93 Region?
Additional growth associated with the widening of I-93 is projected to convert more than 15,000 acres to development. The intent of the Jordan/Orton partnership is to support citizens and officials working to find ways to protect their character and heritage as they face such rapid growth. Over the next year, Jordan, Orton, and the four regional planning commissions will be working with a wide range of organizations and a number of interested local communities to use CommunityViz in helping communities visualize and evaluate trade-offs between multiple growth and policy scenarios, and making informed decisions that best promote and protect their desired community character.