In 2004, six months after the Cedar Wildfire, County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, launched a “Revitalization” effort in Alpine, CA. In support, Sterling Insights, volunteered to design and facilitate an inclusive community engagement process that ultimately generated Alpine’s first community authored vision and set of strategic priorities. Vision elements have continued to be implemented ever since.
Conduct an engagement process whereby every business, community group and individual could participate in articulating a vision and set of strategic priorities for Alpine. The process had to deliver focused products that could be acted upon by many stakeholders working together or in parallel. The approach had to make communication to local government more representative of the citizenry, while still including the few who typically dominated planning input.
Alpine is a rural town of about 20,000 located roughly 35 miles east of downtown San Diego. A significant portion of Alpine residents work “down the hill” in urban areas closer to San Diego, many others are trades people working around the County. In the early 2000’s, Alpine was evolving from a small Western village bypassed when Interstate 8 went through to a bedroom community of suburban neighborhoods and big houses on small acreage. There was no venue or process for improvement ideas or problems other than the Alpine Planning Group, a County recognized advisory body. As is common in such locales in the 1990s and early 2000s, the development community dominated the planning discussion. Most residents were disconnected from town planning for the big issues, and for the small issues had few tools for self-organizing to get stuff done. There was no explicit vision or set of strategic priorities. Those put forth by a cadre of developers to the County were mostly opaque to the public.
Sterling Insights used a six part approach for this project:
- Sponsorship - Develop a diverse and respected “Sponsor Team” that would ensure that Sterling Insights’ work stayed open, inclusive, and made sense to the broadest swath of the community.
- Self-Organizing Visioning Process - Design a system of meeting protocols that could be implemented by any community group of any size within the greater Alpine area to learn its own members’ dreams and priorities. This was ultimately called the “Do It Yourself Vision Kit”. It was edited by the Sponsor Team to ensure that it met the needs for participation by as many groups as possible. The process in the DIY Vision Kit instructed participant groups how to first develop individual visions among their members, and then how to coalesce those individual visions into a shared group vision on a 10 year time horizon. As a baseline, the visions had to account for economic, social, and environmental sustainability. The groups had to describe how the town of Alpine would look, sound, feel, smell, and taste once the vision was realized.
- Outreach Strategy – Rather than figure out which individuals to invite into the process, we committed to encouraging every community group to participate. We left it up to the groups to select their delegates and thereby put the burden of selecting individuals onto the groups that wanted to be represented. This process also modulated the few hyper-outspoken individuals found in every community who often dominate public forums. We advertized the DIY Vision Kit, emailed it broadly, and ran stories in the local paper to encourage participation. For some groups, a member of the Sponsor Team helped facilitate their DIY Vision Mini-Workshop.
- Roll-up Strategy – After 45 days, we convened an event open to representatives of any community group that wanted to participate. Out of 173 discrete groups in Alpine, delegates from 53 groups came representing over 4500 members (out of ~20,000 residents). Through an iterative process all the vision elements brought in by those delegates were consolidated into categories. Each category was analyzed by the delegates for common themes and ultimately a short list of most frequently suggested improvements was highlighted and a summary statement was made for each category. All vision elements were captured on master lists. This effectively honored and rolled up the hundreds of discrete ideas generated by the community.
- Synthesize to a Coherent Vision – During the Roll-Up event participants were challenged to do two other important synthesis tasks: 1) create 1-page vision narrative that described Alpine in its glory with all vision elements maximally expressed; 2) customize a map of the Alpine’s town core, about 3 miles of a 3 lane County road, to show as many vision elements as possible in play – to create a coherent set of patterns for economic, social, and environmental sustainability. The product of this workshop was posted to www.4RCommunity.com along with all the pre-event products. The site was advertized in the local paper and sent by email to all groups.
- Let it Settle, then Test it - A year after the first engagement cycle in 2004-2005, the Revitalization process was ramped up again in 2006 to test our first iteration of the vision and strategic priorities. The theme of the test was “Make Alpine recession proof and disaster proof”. A similar cycle of DIY Kits and roll-up workshop was run. The turnout was lower, but the initial vision and priorities stood up with only minor tweaks. More energy was focused on major infrastructure projects including a library, high school, and major road improvements.
In the 5 years since these two rounds of vision work, bi-annual meetings have been conducted with Supervisor Jacob to work strategic initiatives that are consistent with the vision and strategic priorities. Wild fire safety, a new high school and library, and many other initiatives are making progress. When San Diego Gas & Electric announced that they would be installing major transmission lines under Alpine Boulevard, we were able to negotiate through the County that after tearing up the road SDG&E would put it back better than they found it, and to the specifications of our vision. This work is underway now. Through this process, the community has a self-directed tool they can use any time and a pathway for getting community improvements accomplished. Sterling Insights contributed an open structure and facilitation. We occasionally participate in meetings, but the community is running with the ball.
Keywords: Alpine, San Diego County, revitalization, community engagement, do-it-yourself vision kit, self-organized open governance.