Planning NEXT’s work with counties spans over two decades. In the past two years alone, communities we’ve worked with have been honored at the national level with Small Town and Rural Planning Association (STaR) awards from the American Planning Association: Wayne Onward in Wayne County, Ohio (2020) and Vibrant Communities in Elkhart County, Indiana (2019). In recent months, we’ve begun or been selected to begin work in Wabash and Whitley counties in Indiana; Ashtabula and Clinton counties, Ohio; Sherburne and Wright counties, Minnesota; and Lexington County, South Carolina (as a subconsultant to Clarion Associates).
What makes countywide planning so special and so important? To us, perhaps most critical is the multijurisdictional nature of the work. This is why countywide planning is complex, requiring strong facilitation and a holistic approach to many inter-related areas, including land use, economic development, agricultural and open space conservation and more. But it’s also why it provides such great opportunity. By joining together, governments can work across jurisdictions and bring different interests together in ways that can profoundly influence the future and create value. In short, together, jurisdictions can often achieve more than they can alone.
We’ve facilitated many examples of this success, including:
- Planning strategically for growth. In Wayne County, Ohio, the Wayne Onward comprehensive planning process brought County planners together with representatives from cities, towns and townships to formulate a shared vision of development that focused on preserving agriculture, while strengthening urbanized areas.
- Leveraging resources for change. In LaPorte County, Indiana, a countywide visioning process supported a new community strategic plan and developed successful grant applications for implementation support. This demonstrated that when entities across counties come together, they can make a strong case for funding.
- Creating a more equitable community. The Envision Athens Action Agenda leveraged institutional capacity and grassroots passion to bring over 1,600 community members together and launch a movement focused in part on a more equitable future. The larger size and diversity of the population of the county was leveraged as a strength by bringing partners together for a shared purpose.
- Promoting a strong workforce. In Clark County, Ohio it was clear that a successful workforce development strategy required jurisdictions working together to develop new ways of matching jobs with the skills of recent high school, vocational training and college graduates. The Connect Clark County process focused the efforts of multiple entities on this critical issue.
- Inspiring sustained commitment. In Elkhart County, Indiana, the Vibrant Communities process was a collaborative effort across two organizations and six cities and towns. That commitment is propelling the county forward at a time of uncertainty, showing how counties are especially well-positioned to bring people and stakeholders together and build sustained commitment to a plan’s recommendations.
- Focusing on what matters. In Wabash County, Indiana, the leadership of elected officials, the community foundation and economic development organizations launched a process laser focused on decades-long population decline. ImagineOne85 is an all-hands-on-deck process to address quality of place, job creation and retention, infrastructure needs and more.
Over the past six months, especially through the challenges posed by COVID-19, we continue to see counties meet challenges and inspire community members to pull together to support each other. It’s our mission to bring people and places together for greater impact. County planning is an essential scale at which to make such an impact.