The City of Huntsville, Alabama has a history of looking toward the future. A progressive approach to growth and development has helped the community ride out boom and bust in the cotton industry, weather uncertainty during years of antebellum strife, accommodate the advent of a new industrial age, and experience explosive growth (sometimes literally) around the expansion and diversification of Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center. A city of barely 8,000 residents in 1910, Huntsville’s vision and adaptability resulted in more than 2,300 percent of population growth in just over a century. Given current trends, both national and regional, it is a safe bet to predict that the City will continue to attract new residents and businesses at a high rate.
While growth is a great problem to have, it does present challenges that a smart city needs to address. In recognizing incoming growth, how does the City plan to implement the new housing and infrastructure needed to accommodate thousands of new residents? How does a City that is heavily reliant on the federal sector diversify its economy, in order to avoid potential downturns? As the population ages, how does the City support a growing proportion of our citizens that may become health- and mobility-challenged? How does the City change its regulatory structure to support new and evolving modes of development, and how does it get creative in supporting redevelopment of the many aging and blighted commercial centers throughout the area? How does the City help in forging an identity for our community, not just on the regional level, but on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis as well? How do we best serve all the residents of our community? How do we leave a legacy worthy of future generations?
The BIG Picture is the City of Huntsville’s effort toward answering these questions, and many more. It is a comprehensive planning process that looks at the three major legs of development – Land Use, Transportation, and Economy – and how they will inform the future of Huntsville. It takes a data-driven approach to analyze how we have grown in the past, and how we’re likely to grow in the coming decades. It looks at how our economy has changed, is changing and will change, and what factors are influencing those changes. Most importantly of all, it engages the citizens of Huntsville in identifying the issues that are most in need of attention, and what shape a future Huntsville might take. At the end of the day, the people of Huntsville should be able to say, “It is our study, our vision, and our plan for our city.”
This first part of the process focuses on documenting and dissecting the existing; how we’re living, working, spending our money, and aging. By taking detailed stock of the foundation and framework of our community, we can best position ourselves for the opportunities that will present themselves in the future. In parallel with gathering and analyzing data, a large portion of the planning process has been focused on public involvement. A wide array of characteristics are examined, from the physical – the age and condition of our housing and commercial structures; the breadth and depth of quality-of-life amenities; the natural resources and geography; the extents and variety of our transportation network; among many others – to the social and cultural – who we are as citizens formally kicked off in the diversity in the community (in terms of age, cultural affiliation, social media fluency, and many other facets), a multi-pronged approach has been followed, engaging the public in both online and in-person formats. For the part of our community that prefers technology-based interaction, the Big Picture has used (and continues to use) e-surveys, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, and social media portals including Facebook and Instagram. The centerpiece of the outreach effort, however, is the project website: bigpicturehuntsville.com.
On the Big Picture site, visitors can find information on scheduled events, maps and demographic information, an array of planning precedents and trends, and suggested readings (for those so inclined). It also offers links to other social media sites, as well as a project-specific discussion board called Imagine Huntsville. On the Imagine site, participants can float their own thoughts and ideas for the future of the city, as well as comment on and discuss others. The idea is to provide an open community forum to help citizens share and talk about developing a vision for the Huntsville of the 21st century. While many community members have taken advantage of the online engagement, we know many of our fellow citizens prefer face-to-face interaction, and that has been likewise provided through a variety of public meetings and scheduled events. These have included large-scale forums called “Citizens Academies”, which have dealt with broad community-based topics (such as Economic Development and Neighborhood Revitalization) and which have been held at various venues around town. At a smaller level, the Big Picture has organized and conducted multiple “Focus Groups” – topical groups the meet on a quarterly basis to discuss and take action on key concerns (including Greenways, Outreach, and Transportation, among others). Finally, one of the most popular ways to connect has been to “Book a Planner”. Members of the Big Picture team have gone out into the community and met with scores of organizations, including corporations, civic associations, arts groups, chambers of commerce, church congregations, student organizations, and even a Boy Scout troop.
At its core, the goal of public engagement is to reach as many stakeholders as possible. That can best be accomplished with a broad and varied mix of digital and human interaction. It is likewise important to remember that a public process is a two-way street. It is a key vehicle for gathering public opinion, at the same time that it shares valuable information on the powers and constraints of planning, and sets expectations regarding how decisions will be made. To this end, the City wants this to be the most transparent process possible.
In subsequent phases, the input garnered from this first phase will be used to shape and direct how the City plans for the next several decades: Where and how we grow, what new development will look like, how we’ll address quality of life concerns, how we will allocate time and resources, and what kind of city we want to leave our children and grandchildren. As the Big Picture takes shape, outreach will continue, every step of the process vetted and reviewed by the public. The key to the success of the plan is community buy-in, and that can only be achieved by involving the public in every step of the process. To this ideal, the BIG Picture is fully committed.