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In the 1990s, the state government in Utah, USA was concerned by the negative consequences of rapid economic growth on their people and natural environment. In 1997, it launched the ‘Envision Utah’ initiative, with the first task being to gain a better understanding of what people valued about living in Utah and what quality of life and wellbeing really meant to them.

Initially, the Government faced resistance by the various regions, towns, and districts who all saw themselves as responsible for managing growth and by other powerful stakeholders, who were sceptical of involving residents in the strategy design process, because of paternalistic assumptions regarding what citizens wanted and what was good for them. However, it made some strategic choices that allowed ‘Envision Utah’ to develop as a participatory economic strategy design process:

1) The first was to regard the pursuit of an inclusive and sustainable economy as a long-term endeavour, not one that would be managed within the confines of political or administrative cycles.

2) The second was to frame Envision Utah’s work as visioning rather than ‘planning,’ which is generally associated with narrow, technically managed processes.

3) The third was to see the visioning as a continuous process, not a project. This ensured that stewardship of Utah’s economic development was not a short-term, managerially-driven exercise that was restricted to isolated, time limited projects.

With widespread public buy-in for the project, the Government commissioned the ‘Values Survey’, which asked residents a series of building questions to gain a better understanding of what people valued about living in Utah and why they valued it. Upon completion of the Values Survey, the Government developed a model of what Utah would look like if economic growth continued unabated. This study was extremely time intensive as the state had never gathered or coordinated local information at this scale. More than 140 public and private agencies provided information on land-use data, air quality, water, transportation, infrastructure, housing, business, economic development, open air and critical lands and neighbourhood demographics. This baseline model was released to the public in 1997 and was a big wake up call for residents of the potential damages of uncontrolled economic growth.

The government undertook a massive media and information campaign to educate residents on the potential challenges of growth, to raise awareness of the ‘Envision Utah’ initiative, and to motivate them to participate in future surveys and meetings. Community meetings were used to develop the ‘Quality Growth Strategy’ with participants, which involved building their ideal neighbourhoods by placing chips on a map to represent green spaces, residential buildings, mixed-use buildings, employment centres, cultural or civil centres, and retail space. These community discussions also provided space for communities to express their desired form of government intervention; they revealed that residents clearly preferring incentives over regulations. Communities also wanted to ensure that these strategies were tailored to each community’s unique character and needs and did not add additional layers of bureaucracy, but rather helped communities and decision-makers to consider a variety of choices.

After years of exhaustive involvement of the public, local, and state elected officials, business, civic, and religious communities, and other key stakeholders, ‘Envision Utah’ successfully developed a publicly supported ‘Quality Growth Strategy’, which outlined 6 primary goals to help protect the environment, maintain economic vitality, and promote quality of life:

  1. Enhance air quality;
  2. Increase mobility and transportation choices;
  3. Preserve critical lands, including agricultural, sensitive and strategic open lands;
  4. Conserve and maintain availability of water resources;
  5. Provide housing opportunities for a range of family and income types; and
  6. Maximise efficiency in public and infrastructure investments to promote other goals.

The achievements of ‘Envision Utah’ have been impressive, from reduced carbon emissions to smarter land-use. However, one of the major successes cited by its leaders was a regional transportation policy. In 1990, voters rejected a proposal to expand Utah’s public transportation system, as many residents held conservative values which made them sceptical of tax increases and government planning. However, in 2000, as a result of awareness raising and public debate facilitated through the ‘Envision Utah’ initiative, all three counties in the state passed the measure. This illustrates how participatory strategy design processes can help policy makers overcome political hurdles and create opportunities for transformative change.

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