Proponents of Chapel Hill 2020 described the development plan as “a living document,” conceived with the intention of reflecting “the values, aspirations, and ideas of the community” by making it a “people’s plan, based on extensive public participation.” That “living” nature is critical now, because while the vision for Chapel Hill 2020 is admirable, it remains unfulfilled.
It is not that Chapel Hill 2020 has failed to collect values and aspirations from the community. In fact, the plan lists six of them. But because the outreach process did not provide substantive alternatives to attending meetings in person, it inherently overlooked the input of community stakeholders whose jobs and family commitments took precedence.
The best way for the Chapel Hill Town Council to reconcile this document with its mission is to take seriously the objective of engaging in a sustained dialogue with town stakeholders. They must produce a decision-making process that enables community members to articulate and refine their values and goals, one that provides a framework for weighing competing values.
If this document is to be used in both budget discussion and land use planning, it is important that it accurately represents the interests of all town stakeholders and conveys a clear, coherent and usable vision. It is not apparent at this stage in the process that Chapel Hill 2020 meets these criteria.
As Chapel Hill 2020 moves into its next phase, a Technology Advisory Committee would provide important information and tools for engaging the public in a sustained way. Such tools include feedback software that utilizes user-submitted rankings and ideas, online forums and blog space for town staff and concerned citizens to communicate regularly and publicly.
A simplified, coherent and publicized website for the plan and more social media outreach would go a long way in reaching people outside the council chambers.
The plan also does not provide an overarching framework for navigating these themes, which often conflict and in some cases are mutually exclusive — such as transit and sustainability, two important themes of Chapel Hill 2020.
Developing online resources, which have historically been overlooked in Chapel Hill and in the 2020 visioning process, can help ease gaps created by lack of access to transportation or a busy schedule and provide creative alternative methods of engagement to make sure underrepresented stakeholders have opportunities to make their voices heard.
Chapel Hill needs a development plan that reflects the things we as a community value and the town we collectively aspire to be. As a living document, Chapel Hill 2020 can still be that plan. But for it to successfully honor and navigate the diverse and competing values of this community, policymakers must expand the horizons of citizen engagement by incorporating online outreach.
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