The Process and Citizen Participation

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Atlanta VISION 2020:

The Process and Citizen Participation

A Case Study

By Anthony LaColla

March 4, 1999

URP 5122


Visioning has become a new buzzword in current day urban politics and has spread across the country with numerous cities jumping on the bandwagon to a brighter future. Many cities, however, fail to recognize the importance of citizen participation and the importance of laying down an implementation process for the completed plan. The Atlanta region in particular has stressed citizen participation and has been somewhat successful. However, some question the extent of success due to the lack of a strategic plan and the failure of initiatives created by VISION 2020 participants. According to Amy Helling, the Atlanta region spent over $4.3 million on the visioning process between 1991 and 1997, but in the end, they have no concrete strategic plan to show for the time and effort and citizen participation has been limited (1998). This paper looks at citizen participation during and after the visioning process in Atlanta and seeks to examine what contributed to the vision and what may have limited its success.

Visioning aims to develop “a clear and succinct description of what…the community should look like…after it achieves its full potential” (Bryson 1995). A vision comes close to the traditional master plan, showing a vision for the future. However, a vision usually implies that some sort of collaboration or consensus building has been used. In this way it differs from the traditional planning approach. According to Jonathan Walters, visioning needs to reflect the hopes and aspirations of more than a civic elite willing to declare what is best for everyone (1998). Those in favor of collaborative visioning use it to address issues that are ill defined or uncertain, allowing multiple interests to be involved in areas where planners or politicians wish not go.

Several cities have jumped on the bandwagon including, St. Louis, San Diego, Jacksonville, Chattanooga and Tampa just to name a few. All have used different methods of visioning and all have had differing results. Some have been more successful than others, however; very few people will argue that visioning is insignificant. Although a vision may fail, it may still be a success at other levels such as improved citizen cooperation or network building. Many cities have promised to bring citizens, governments, nonprofits, and businesses together to fight crime, sprawl, racism and rebuild downtown (Walters 1998). Depending on the mechanism for implementation and citizen participation, results will vary.

In Chattanooga for instance, the revival of the city through a visioning process has been unparalleled. At the beginning of the 1980’s hundreds of citizens were brought together to discuss the future of this “civic cesspool” 20 years down the line. Few could imagine that the city would rise up to include a thriving waterfront and rejuvenated neighborhood (Walters 1998). Citizens were involved in every step of the process including the implementation of the projects that were detailed and included in a comprehensive plan.

Meanwhile San Diego was involved in a visioning process of it own which excluded the public. San Diego’s leadership unveiled a plan for civic renewal, including more than 20 capital improvements that were immediately shot down by community leaders. From the beginning, the plan was doomed because it lacked citizen input. Without a consensus from the community, how can it be expected that the citizens will take the initiative to implement projects? It was not until a group of concerned citizens got together that pieces of the plan started getting done (Walters 1998).


In 1991, regional leaders and staff from the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), the regional planning agency for ten counties in the Atlanta Metro area, started to look at what the region should look like in the year 2020. The actual process became known as VISION 2020 and looked to produce a long-range, comprehensive planning effort to serve as a catalyst for creating regionwide consensus on the future (ARC 1993). Three goals characterized the visioning process. The first goal was to break with the Atlanta tradition of decision making by the small elite and involve the community (Helling 1998). The second goal was to create a strategic plan for implementation. The third goal was to create initiatives that the community would become involved in. Some will argue that the process was unsuccessful because it lacked a strategic plan for implementation, while others will argue that VISION 2020 failed to involve citizens adequately, while others stress the fact that the initiatives have been a failure. Each of these arguments are just, but it must be noted that the visioning process has had a beneficial effect, even after $4.4 million has been spent. Citizen involvement has strengthened ties within the community, allowed for new ideas to be developed and has allowed for a justification of the visioning process and the creation of a comprehensive plan.


The visioning process was broken down into two phases, each one centering on a different strategy. The first strategy focused on the identification of pressing community concerns while the second strategy centered on the formulation of ideas and initiatives that would address these concerns.

In July of 1991, ARC staff completed a prospectus on VISION 2020, whereupon they selected a steering committee to lead the process. By this time Phase I was well under way. The steering committee, with fifteen distinguished people from the region, was selected by ARC staff and led by former governor George Busbee to prepare for the participatory second phase. By December of 1991, VISION 2020 was officially announced. Before the end of May 1992, the results of a Delphi survey, which involved local, regional and national experts was announced. The critical issues were defined and possibilities for the future were outlined and presented to the steering committee.

In September of 1992, the Steering Committee and ARC portrayed the Atlanta region in 2020 under current trends as well as Atlanta in 2020 after a variety of scenarios. A future statement was produced and presented to the Regional Leadership Institute (RLI), a local organization which teaches established or up and coming regional leaders leadership skills. In October of 1992, a consultant facilitated a VISION 2020 Congress, which brought together 500 regional leaders (many graduates of RLI), planning experts, private industry leaders, non-profit organizations, labor unions, property owners, high school students, and legislators to discuss the future of the Atlanta area.

In January of 1993, the actual community participation began. Up until this point, the local leadership had dominated the VISION 2020 process. Community Forums were held, the VISION 2020 Speakers Bureau made presentation to over 90 civic, community, business and government organizations, and a town hall meeting aired on WAGA-TV (Channel 5) with 300 participants. All activities involved thousands of participants giving their ideas on how to shape the future of Atlanta. By March of 1993 the results of a major citizen survey of over 10,000 participants was released. All of these efforts were combined to bring about a conference report called “A Shared Vision for the Atlanta Region.” This report created the capstone of Phase I work, outlining issues which the steering committee, the ARC board, the 500 VISION 2020 Congress participants, and the 10,000 Atlanta metro area residents brought up for areas of concern.

“A Shared Vision for the Atlanta Region” synthesized the ideas of the community members into a basic idea that would guide the participatory Phase II. Common themes emerged and it was noticed that the hopes and concerns of the regions people were very similar. Several key areas of concern were identified including public safety, economic development, education, communications, transportation, race relations and cultural diversity, health care, housing, human services, environmental quality, and governmental relations (ARC 1993). Of the 10,000 surveyed, 52% identified crime and drugs as the number one issue for the region. A strong economy (42%), educational reform (40%), health care (33%), and environmental quality (28%) were the other most important issues identified. Others included bus and rail transit (23%), affordable housing (20%), race relations (16%), disadvantaged services (12%), children and family services (10%), regional cooperation (7%), highways (6%), and arts and culture (4%) (ARC, 1993).

In June of 1993, the National Civic League provided three two-day sessions of community collaboration training in anticipation of Phase II. By January 1994 collaborative initiating committees were trained and Phase II was ready to begin.

By this point, the steering committee had used the results of citizen surveys, ideas from the VISION 2020 Congress, and others to come up with 10 topics that the region should address. These included diversity, accountability, the environment, economic development, education, health, housing, human services, public safety, and transportation. Together, these ten topics were the focus of Phase II.


Phase II looked to bring together community members in a collaborative approach that would develop objectives for the ten selected topics. The entire process engaged over 1150 community members also called stakeholders. ARC staff and the steering committee selected participants for this part of the process, trying to include as diverse a group as possible. Many of those who were involved with VISION 2020 Congress were selected, however others such as housewives, students, business owners, and minorities were included to give an general representation of the region. The overall purpose was to ensure a diverse group would come up with initiatives that the whole community could reach consensus on despite race, ethnicity, gender or social status.

From this point, each one of the stakeholders was invited to become a member of one of the ten professionally facilitated “collaboratives” (Helling 1998). Leadership Strategies Inc. using the National Civic League model of facilitation, facilitated the meetings as well as managing the collaborative process and training ARC staff. ARC staff did not participate in discussions or guide groups. Instead they acted as assistants to facilitators. ARC staffs job was to take notes and provide technical assistance only when necessary.

Each collaborative meet monthly for over one year to create objectives for the Atlanta region. The objectives were to be carried out by a set of initiatives, also created by the collaboratives. Initiatives are key ideas that are created to improve the community through community involvement. Initiatives lay down a goal, list key action steps and a timeline, identify the agency or partners which may be helpful in carrying out the initiative and list the resources required to carry out the initiative. By February of 1995, a second VISION 2020 Regional Congress was initiated to discuss the numerous initiatives and narrow them down. Shortly thereafter, a second, live TV Town Hall meeting involving over 300 citizens, was aired to discuss new ideas and tinker with initiatives (ARC 1998).

The deadline for objectives to be created was late spring of 1995 when a large public meeting was scheduled. Unfortunately four of the ten collaboratives never developed objectives. After the public meeting the collaboratives ended and were replaced by Action Planning Teams to combine the 41 initiatives listed for action, created over the year, into one document. From this point an Implementation Committee was created to “lead implementation of specific initiatives and to foster interest in those that falter” (West 1995).

On September 8, 1995, the Vision 2020 41 key initiatives for the future were presented to the community for implementation at ARC’s Outlook Conference ’95. These initiatives included accountability, community leadership and citizen involvement, cultural arts, health systems, housing and community development, human services, media forum, natural resources, public safety, regional center for educational excellence and workforce development, regional economic development, and transportation land use.


The ultimate purpose of the 41 initiatives was to have community organizations or members of the community take over an initiative and sponsor it. Without community- wide support, initiatives will not be taken up. Thus far, the initiatives only reveal a work in progress with just 13 initiatives being put in place. Other initiatives are waiting for sponsors or are being looked at for consideration. Organizations or companies in the Atlanta Region have taken up 13 of the initiatives, while others still need support to bring them to reality. In this regard, citizen participation in VISION 2020 has been lacking. It was expected that members of the collaboratives or the community would take up a majority of initiatives right away. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives are still searching for support.

After the completion of Phase II, the Implementation Committee approved benchmarks developed by the ARC staff (Helling 1998). These benchmarks set specific quantifiable targets for measuring advances in the quality of life and the goals of VISION 2020. Some of these include measurements of export trade, miles of bike trails, voting performance, water and air quality, student performance, and community involvement in the arts, just to name a few.

In addition to these benchmarks, ARC also concentrated on the integration of VISION 2020 with regional transportation and development plans. By incorporating the ideas of the collaborative and community members, the comprehensive plan would be more widely accepted. By the spring of 1997, six public meetings were scheduled through out the region to obtain input for the plan revisions (Soto 1997). These meetings were widely advertised and encouraged community participation, usually bringing upwards of 300 or more to discuss revisions. ARC Staff also created a small group of people (75-100), to “advise, react to, and provide feedback to ARC” (ARC 1997). This focus group was helpful, in that it allowed people to freely express their opinions that could not be expressed in large public meetings.

Time Line of Vision 2020 activities: Phase I, Phase II, Post Visioning
Month, Year
Phase I.

July 1991 * ARC staff completes VISION 2020 prospectus.

Oct. 1991 * Selection of Steering Committee.

Dec. 1991 * Press announces VISION 2020.

May 1992 * Presentation of Delphi survey.

Sept. 1992 * Joint retreat of ARC board and VISION 2020 Steering Committee

refines future statement containing alternative scenarios for the region.

Oct. 1992 * Future statement presented to RLI members.

* VISION 2020 Congress.

Dec. 1992 * Joint retreat of Steering Committee and ARC Board to review future statement.

Jan. 1993 * Outreach begins: Community Forums, Speakers Bureau.

March 1993 * TV Town Hall Meeting.

* Citizen survey and newspaper supplement.

May 1993 * Outlook Conference presents report “A Shared Vision for the Atlanta Regions.”

June 1993 * National Civic League provides three two-day session on community

collaboration training.

Jan. 1994 * Training of Initiating Committees.
Phase II.

May 1994 * Leadership Strategies Inc. is hired to facilitate, manage collaborative


June 1994 * Meetings of collaboratives begin.

Feb. 1995 * Second VISION 2020 Congress.

March 1995 * Second TV town hall meeting.

May 1995 * Leaders of all ten collaboratives meet to define major initiatives.

June 1995 * Second public opinion survey.

* Launching of Action Planning Teams.

July 1995 * Implementation Committee formed.

Sep. 1995 * Outlook Conference presents printed report, “A Community’s Vision Takes Flight.”
Post Visioning:

Oct. 1995 * Evaluation Begins.

June 1995 * Evaluation Complete.

May 1995 * Public hearings begin on revision to the Regional Development Plan and the Regional Transportation Plan.

Aug. 1995 * First initiatives taken up.

Sum. 1996 * Atlanta Hosts Olympic Games (planning efforts put on hold for several months).

July 1999 * Region wide comprehensive plan will be complete.


How can we determine if the visioning process has been successful? What indicators will give us the information we need to determine success? These questions were asked at the end of the visioning process when the Atlanta Regional Council commissioned a study of the success. Four basic questions were asked (Helling 1998):

  1. Were VISION 2020 objectives met? Has VISION 2020 made a contribution to changing the Atlanta regions civic infrastructure and the way civic business is done?

  2. Were these objectives met efficiently?

  3. If it were to be done again, what should be changed about VISION 2020?

  4. How should the VISION 2020 process continue?

The evaluation of Phase I and II was carried out between October 1995 and June 1996. A survey with 35 questions was sent to a random sample of the 1,156 stakeholders. Of the 479 people in the sample, 206 (43%) choose to respond (Helling 1998). In addition to the surveys, 35 individual interviews with stakeholders, and two group interviews were conducted. All of the surveys were completed after the collaborative process was over, so all results reflect the participant’s views after participating. Certainly, a random sample of the Atlanta Regional population would have been a better idea of the vision visibility, but it would have shown less detail on its quality and failings.

The results of the survey were mixed in regards to VISION 2020. In general, 4 basic facts were stated concerning VISION 2020 (Helling 1998).

  • It was very effective at promoting interpersonal interaction on topic they identified as important.

  • It yielded few clearly significant immediate results from the list of action initiatives.

  • It produced no plan capable of achieving the vision.

  • It required a commitment of $4.4 million in resources.

The evaluation discovered that VISION 2020 had been successful at promoting interpersonal interaction, a key objective for ARC. Two-thirds of the survey respondents thought their collaboration was somewhat effective at creating civil will while sixty-four percent thought their collaboration efforts had accomplished something significant to the metro area. Several respondents (44 %) noted that their relationship had extended beyond the VISION 2020 meetings to other business while seventy-eight percent expected their contacts in VISION 2020 to continue in the future (Helling 1998).

The influence of VISION 2020 was also measured. Approximately 85 percent of survey respondents expected VISION 2020 to be “somewhat influential” or “very influential” on the issues that their collaborative had addressed (Helling 1998). Survey respondents also stated that they would judge the success of the process according to what would happen next. In fact, many respondents were in favor of reducing their commitment, but they were nearly all in favor that the most important work was ahead initiating the 41 initiatives.

Citizen Participation:

So, what was the role of citizen participation successful in Atlanta? The ultimate answer to this question can be differing. However, if one looks at the role of citizen participation in visioning before VISION 2020, it can become apparent that citizens have been involved greatly. It was necessary for the elite to get the project off the ground. Former Governor George Busbee and his colleagues knew the importance of involving everyone in the project to form a community consensus on the future. With the guidance of ARC staff, the project took on the task of involving thousands of people. From the survey of over 10,000 people, to the involvement of 500 in the VISION 2020 Congress, to the numerous public and town hall meetings, to the almost 1,200 individuals involved in the actual visioning process, the role of citizen participation is apparent. Input from citizens of every walk of life was included. Whites, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, wealthy, middle class, poor, males, females, executives and housewives were all included.

Some, such as Amy Helling feel that the visioning process will add little to planning. She argues that a consensus on the region already existed and that reaching a consensus was no extraordinary accomplishment. A consensus may have already been established, but it is beneficial for community members to be involved in the process in order to formalize linkages to local and regional public sector planning. By having citizens involved in the process, they will feel like stakeholders allowing them to freely express their ideas. These ideas may, in fact, be a guiding point for comprehensive plans.

Although no strategic plan was ever created, the work of the citizens in the collaboratives has not gone to waste. According to Judy Dovers, of ARC, the goals of the collaboratives will clearly be seen in the comprehensive plan, which is soon to be released. The goals and the ideas have been woven into the comprehensive plan to allow for regional development that has been discussed by the Atlanta Metro residents. Dover argues that the money, time and effort have not been in vain. In fact, many of the collaborative members are still in contact with one another. Business deals have been made and alternate initiatives have been created. Beyond creating a vision for the future, the process has created interpersonal linkages that will benefit the community in the long run.

Judy Dovers, however, has stated that the goal of establishing initiatives has had mixed results. As stated earlier, only 13 of the 41 initiatives have been put in place due to a lack of participation and community initiative. Each initiative created was to be sponsored by an individual or company, but this has not bee the case. Dovers describes some initiatives as being “dead in the water.” In order for initiatives to be taken up, time, money, and leadership must be just right. Perhaps patience and time is needed. Communities move at their own pace. Ideas come into being and go out. If an issue becomes a major point in the region then perhaps the initiative will be taken up. Only time can tell. Dovers states that “one can not judge the impact and effect of the vision only a few years out…it take patience and time (1999).”

In the end, it can be concluded that VISION 2020 has been somewhat successful. The original goal was to have citizens involved in the process and this has been successful. The second goal was for the creation of a strategic plan. Unfortunately no strategic plan has been created, but the ideas from VISION 2020 are being incorporated in the regions comprehensive plan, therefor the decisions made by the community participants have not gone to waste. The third goal was the creation of initiatives that the community would become involved with. Yes, this goal has had limited success, but perhaps time and patience are needed as Judy Dover’s suggests. In the end the process can be declared somewhat of a success. The elite has stood back as community members have created ideas that will guide the community for the next 20 years. Although there is not a strategic plan and the initiatives have only been somewhat successful, it is the feeling that the community has that they have been involved in the shaping of the future which has had the greatest impact. If the community is behind the vision, then the vision will have meaning and be justified whereas if the elite had created the vision, the community would disregard it as just another attempt for the elite to gain authority.

Atlanta Regional Commission. 1993. A Shared Vision for the Atlanta Region: VISION 2020. Atlanta. Arc.
Atlanta Regional Commission. 1995. A Communities Vision Takes Flight: VISION 2020: Key Initiative for the Future. Atlanta. Arc.
Atlanta Regional Commission. 1996. Atlanta Regional Outlook. Atlanta: ARC.
Atlanta Regional Commission. 1997. Board Briefs. Action 27, 3:5.
Bryson, John M. 1995. Strategic Planning for Public and Non-Profit Organizations: A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement. Revised edition. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Dovers, Judith. 1999. Atlanta Regional Commission. Interview.
Goldberg, David. 1997. Tell Regional Planners What You Want. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, May 12, E7.
Helling, Amy 1998. Collaborative Visioning: Proceed With Caution!:Results from Evaluating Atlanta’s Vision 2020 Project. Journal of the American Planning Association 64,3: 335.
Soto, Lucy. 1997. Forums Help Shape ARC Goals. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 26.
Walters, Jonathan. 1998. Cities and the Vision Thing. Governing, May 1998. 32.
West, Harry. 1995. VISION 2020: Key to Regionalism in the Atlanta Region. The Regionalist 1,3: 33-41.

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