‘Visioning’ and the Vision Statement in Our Comprehensive Plan
In two workshops on Nov. 12 and 17, I took part in discussions of the ‘Vision Statement’ that serves as a preamble to our current Comprehensive Plan. The workshops covered other ground as well, and did so very constructively. In this post, after some broad comments, I will focus on the first paragraph of the vision statement, which I think should be radically re-thought.
Looking back on the two meetings, several things stand out in my memory. Both workshops drew capacity crowds, and a range of viewpoints were represented in the group discussions at separate tables. The current Vision Statement was regarded critically, as a description that now seems dated and incomplete.
The most interesting general critique that I heard was this: Present what matters most to us in one paragraph, then describe strategies for bringing that imagined future into being. I heard a good deal of impatience with rosy descriptions of the way things are, and with the litany of “should” and “should not” statements that only remind us how little leverage resides in the Comprehensive Plan.
Here is the first paragraph, from which I’ll excerpt some passages for discussion:
Bainbridge Island is a cohesive community with a distinctive urban center and individual settlements. Winslow is the heart of the Island. It is the place where all residents come to transact daily commerce and to meet for social activities. Its vibrant, pedestrian-oriented core should be enhanced as a center for the Island’s commercial activity, a common area or center where the local community can meet. The neighborhood service centers of Rolling Bay, Island Center, and Lynwood Center offer small-scale commercial and service activity outside Winslow. These areas would remain much as they are, with some in-fill development.
I have several problems with this description of our population and the way we live together. Are we, the citizens of Bainbridge Island, a cohesive community? I don’t think so; I don’t think we ever were. In saying this, I’m not complaining; I don’t feel a lack of cohesion, only an awareness of complexity in our cultural fabric.
I’ve always felt that ours is not one community, but many cliques and affinity groups, sometimes at odds but mostly maintaining a respectful distance from others, claiming freedom to pursue different goals, and resentful when they are imposed upon by people unlike themselves.
However, there’s a strong ‘sense of place’ that our diverse and dispersed population enjoys, and that sense brings us together to protect the common good – although people may differ vehemently in their definition of it. The whole island is more than the sum of its parts, and it’s the place, not the people, that can be called cohesive.
Winslow is the heart of the Island. This is true, and more true today than when the Vision Statement was first composed. (I don’t know if these words go back to 1994, or to the update in 2004.) But some of what follows in the paragraph, describing Winslow’s importance, strikes me as blather and special pleading.
Its vibrant, pedestrian-oriented core should be enhanced. Well, now it has been enhanced in several ways, and further improvements are going forward, although many downtown merchants are still struggling, and the perennial parking problem in the pedestrian-oriented core has yet to be solved. So Winslow still needs work.
The paragraph ends with two sentences about the neighborhood service centers, and I want to see the demeaning term service dropped. Each of the three neighborhood centers is a different place, and they don’t possess an equal potential for commercial and residential growth, but each is an attractive hub not only for neighbors, but for people living some distance away.
Should the neighborhood centers remain much as they are for the next ten or twenty years? Certainly not. Only Island Center has remained much as it was in 2004.
I expect some serious sub-area planning to take place in the context of this Comp Plan update. Perhaps pocket-size mixed-use zoning could be introduced in other neighborhoods to allow for more gathering places outside of Winslow. (Recent developments in the Business/Industrial zones have already given Islanders more places to go.)
Historically, Bainbridge Island has been composed of distinct neighborhoods (quaintly called individual settlements in contrast to the distinctive urban center). That pattern persists today in some parts of the Island, and growth in our population has only increased the importance of neighborhoods and good neighbors.
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I want to return to what was said above about our sense of place, and my statement that it’s the place, not the people of Bainbridge Island, that can be called cohesive. One thing that brings crowds of people together is a sense that our island’s environmental integrity is continually being compromised, sometimes heedlessly and sometimes by permission of the authorities. If only we could all agree to live within the limits defined by our physical environment . . . but cultural and economic imperatives pull in a different direction.
The “should” and “should not” statements running through our current Vision Statement express an earnest desire to protect and preserve our sense of place – but by what means? There, I believe, our vision needs to be clearer. We, the resolute defenders of ‘Island values,’ tend to dwell on threats posed by our adversaries, those unreliable ‘Other People,’ when we could advance a more positive agenda, assuming responsibility for managing change.
During the visioning workshops we were challenged to imagine the changes our island – the place and the people – will face in the decades ahead. Climate change will bring on many other changes, predictable but still unknowable; increases in population throughout the Northwest will be, I’m sure, one of the consequences of worsening conditions elsewhere.
In the workshops, we began to talk about adaptive strategies, and those conversations will continue, involving more people and going deeper, gathering information on which to base goals and policies.
Can the sense of place that is meaningful today provide a baseline and guide us as we look ahead? I believe so, if we allow that some features of the place will change, even radically, as they have changed in the past. Is there some better compass than our sense of what this place provides, and what it asks of us? If so, tell me about it.
I’m going to propose – you’ve seen this coming, haven’t you? – a radical revision of the Vision Statement, making it less about us and our fears and wishes, and more about the place where we are temporary inhabitants, stewards of what was germinating or already flourishing when we, or our parents perhaps, settled here.
Let’s begin by describing where Bainbridge Island is, and what our position in Puget Sound means to us: proximity to Seattle, with the Cascades and Mt. Rainier visible in good weather and a short drive away; proximity also to communities and shopping on the Kitsap Peninsula, with the Olympics and several attractive towns not much further away.
But there’s a catch: with access to all that surrounds us, and an earning and spending population that depends on that access, we must also adjust our ambitions to living mindfully, within our island’s limited resources of land, water, and air. And another catch: we’re connected to both sides of the Puget Sound region by two-way streets, and we don’t control the traffic.
After acknowledging that our location provides both advantages and problems, we could describe the physical geography of the Island itself, with its miles of shoreline (most of it privately owned); its hilly terrain, streams and wetlands, forests and open space (with many acres publicly owned or in conservancy); its beaches, and several harbors that accommodate boating.
Then, and only then, this version of the Vision Statement would describe the built environment, commercial and cultural activities, and the evolving demographic characteristics of Bainbridge Island.
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To some readers, surely, it will appear that I am advancing environmental interests and neglecting people, whose well-being is much more important. On the contrary, I think I am only providing a sound framework for long-range planning and community development. I’ve left to someone else, or to another occasion, the thinking through of the last part of the Vision that I outlined in the brief paragraph immediately above: it may be the most important part, and at this point I don’t know enough to complete it.
Let’s agree at this point, though, that in the decades ahead, land use planning will be very different, and more demanding, than it has been in the past. As our population increases and the land available for development diminishes, environmental impacts become more significant. Minimizing impacts by good design and best practices becomes essential.