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Smart Growth / Smart Energy Toolkit Modules - Outreach and Education

Learn about the Smart Growth/Smart Energy Outreach and Education module.


Smart growth/smart energy outreach and education refers to the public education process necessary to adopt smart growth/smart energy techniques at the local level. Educational efforts should include, but not be limited to, outreach to a community's general population, to specific interest groups in a city or town, and to individual agents in local government.


Implementation of better development patterns or more innovative energy use technologies is generally most effective in the context of local initiatives. To achieve these goals, a critical level of consensus must be achieved. Toward that end, local practitioners or volunteers often find themselves advocating change to diverse audiences with an array of preconceptions regarding different land use techniques.

The ability to implement innovative techniques, either through plan development or zoning change, is a function of three essential and overlapping issues:

  1. Substance
  2. Process
  3. Outreach

If a local planner would like to implement zoning amendments for a controversial issue in the community, they must cultivate support and build constituencies in a way that is informed and inclusive. Where individual smart growth/smart energy techniques may be perceived as more innovative or controversial, the process toward garnering support must be careful and methodical. Effective outreach and education techniques may range from the most old-fashioned to the most cutting edge

To many practitioners, some of the following ideas may seem surprisingly basic. However, one of the most common and irreversible mistakes in any land use reform campaign is to assume that your audience is familiar with the material or shares many of your basic opinions regarding topics such as environmental protection, housing, or economic development.

Getting Started (Selecting and Framing the Issues)

Local planning practitioners may have dozens of "bright ideas" regarding new codes, new financing mechanisms, new committees, and new plans that could lead to the implementation of smart growth or smart energy techniques. Issues that may determine the viability of these options are those of local capacity (staffing, money, etc.) and existing opportunities (grant cycles, developer interest, etc.) Below is a small list of key issues that should be considered by local smart growth and smart energy proponents when considering priorities for implementation:

The Local Comprehensive Plan
If communities have recently adopted a Comprehensive Plan, this document should provide clear priorities relative to any new smart growth or smart energy initiatives. Other plans that may have been recently adopted include an Open Space and Recreation Plan, a Planned Production Plan (affordable housing), a Comprehensive Wastewater Plan, and/or a Capital Improvements Plan.

It is important to describe how the sought after mobility, convenience, privacy, and recreation found in traditional, higher density neighborhoods can be recreated elsewhere. This is especially important when talking about density because it is generally difficult to visualize 10 units per acre or 30 units per acre, for example, as well as what elements are included in the design such as green infrastructure and open spaces. Existing residents can take comfort in the fact that smart growth development will create natural buffer areas to their neighborhoods, protection and preservation of their environment, and typically, decreased property taxes. Resources that are readily available for visualizing denser developments can be found in clearinghouses such as Urban Advantage.

Committee or Community Resources

The degree to which different smart growth or smart energy issues need to be researched and discussed and the relative complexity of zoning provisions associated with different techniques varies tremendously. Local proponents and planners will need to assess how many staff members, volunteers, charrettes, presentations, and bylaw provisions will be required to successfully implement different techniques. For example:

  • An Inclusionary Zoning bylaw may require limited outreach and minor modifications to existing model bylaw language.
  • A Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program may require multiple outreach components to both the preservation and development community, master planning of receiving areas, and market studies to identify the correct TDR protocol.

Upcoming Opportunities

Many local planning efforts may be driven by different deadlines including Town Meeting, state level grant cycles or compliance with programs such as Planned Production affordable housing quotas. These deadlines can be used effectively to leverage support for urgent planning efforts and reallocate staffing resources accordingly. Other opportunities may include private sector interest in redevelopment that could be used to make specific zoning amendments more attractive to the voters at Town Meeting or City Council meetings.

Political or Cultural "Hot Button" Issues

Controversial issues in any community can be used to help or hurt smart growth outreach and education efforts. The political will of a community to embrace more innovative approaches to planning, energy, and development is, perhaps, most important. Gauging the public's willingness to discuss, understand, and eventually accept better ideas relative to land use and energy consumption will help determine the amount of resources required, the design and duration of an outreach and education program, and of course, the likelihood of success.

Building on Recent Success

One of the easiest ways to advocate for smarter land use decisions is by building on the recent success of other local initiatives or proposals in adjacent communities. Where any local committee has gained credibility through their recent efforts, continuation of those efforts is simply a logical "next step" in the public's eye. Communities that have successfully passed smarter zoning provisions, for example, may want to continue the momentum of zoning reform and introduce new items for the next Town Meeting or City Council vote. Where a recently developed plan, such as a Planned Production Plan for affordable housing, has been adopted, communities should continue with the implementation of that plan as quickly as possible.

Building a Team

The smart growth/smart energy techniques identified by local practitioners will directly inform the development of a team that will lead the community through the education and adoption process. Using a team approach generally takes the form of a "committee" or "task force" that is in some way endorsed by local officials. A mayor or the Board of Selectmen, for example, can form a committee to research a particular issue, to develop a plan to address a unique local need such as the provision of affordable housing, or to manage a major project such as Zoning Bylaw revision.

Within a local committee, it is important to select members that represent diverse interests and bring different relevant areas of expertise to the project. This not only helps to create valuable discussion, but will also add credibility to the planning and outreach process. For example, a zoning committee that includes members from both the public and the private sector will send a message to the general public that the process is designed to provide both administrative improvements for local officials and economic opportunity to property owners.

Anticipate Problems Early in the Process

A committee may benefit from working internally or with a few key stakeholders at the start of a project to anticipate road blocks to implementation. These discussions can provide some early direction relative to specific topics that need to be researched and will also help the committee develop a strong cohesive stance on controversial issues. These issues can be addressed simply through discussion or can be embodied in a mission statement or a set of broad goals and/or guiding principles. Although these exercises may seem perfunctory at the outset of a project, committee members will often find that their assumptions regarding consensus on a particular issue may prove to be false. Further, a concise mission or goals statement will help to guide the committee through the public process as discussions become more complex or contentious.

Examples of basic issues or principles that committees can address early in smart growth/smart energy projects may appear as follows:

  • "The Affordable Housing Committee recognizes that development of affordable housing in our community to date has been guided primarily by outside forces and the Town needs to assume control of the process."
  • "A goal of Open Space and Recreation Committee is to redirect current patterns of sprawl development into areas better suited for viable mixed-use and economic opportunities."
  • "The Mill Complex Redevelopment Task Force is committed to identifying innovative financing opportunities to facilitate the redevelopment of this site and leverage significant environmental improvements."
  • "The Village Center Revitalization Task Force recognizes that 'no-growth' is not a viable option for our community and will look to shape future development in a way that is compatible with our existing community character."

Although these types of statements may seem overly simplistic to local practitioners, they begin to build a strong case for audiences that may be completely unfamiliar with these concepts. Smart growth/smart energy proponents must be prepared to start with very simple tenets in order to present a thoughtful and comprehensive approach.

Building Constituencies

Having formed a committee or Task Force and having identified potential areas of resistance, local smart growth/smart energy proponents should start to build constituencies as early in the process as possible. Individuals or groups that can be sought out should obviously add value to the project in one or more ways and techniques for identifying these constituencies may include:

Providing Balance to the Discussion

Proponents should look to develop positive relationships with individuals or agencies from a variety of interests. A healthy profile of stakeholders who can support something like a major zoning amendment could include:

  • Major property owners
  • The Chamber of Commerce
  • Municipal planning officials
  • The Open Space and Recreation Committee
  • The School Department
  • The Mayor or Board of Selectmen
  • Local Civic Associations
  • Regional Planning Agencies (RPAs)

Advocates should consider targeting those stakeholders from which they expect the most skepticism and resistance early in the process. Bringing these groups into the campaign as fellow supporters sends a strong message to the general public and to public officials that the process is well-informed and inclusive.

Providing Credibility to the Discussion

Many smart growth or smart energy topics are complex and technical. As a result, proponents should consider providing some level of technical expertise to their discussions through an outside source. Although many communities use consultants to fill this role, more cost-effective approaches may include having experts from local universities, lending institutions, the local professional community (e.g., planners or architects), or the RPA make periodic appearances at public events or provide technical information to the committee during the process.

Getting the Word Out / Bringing People to the Table

A fundamental goal of outreach and education in the realm of smart growth/smart energy is broad inclusion of a variety of stakeholders. Although this concept sounds straightforward, actually accomplishing this goal can be extremely challenging. And if the goal is not achieved, the outcome could be costly. Local practitioners must think strategically and creatively to ensure that the word gets out to as many stakeholders as possible. From an idealistic perspective, this approach will ensure that everyone's opinions are heard and a truly diverse discussion can take place. From a strategic perspective, this approach ensures that last minute dissenters cannot discredit the process due to a perceived lack of outreach.

Techniques designed to bring stakeholders to the table can be divided into "quantity" and "quality" based approaches, which can certainly overlap by design during the course of implementation. A "quantity" based approach simply implies that all of the most basic informational outreach approaches are used on multiple occasions to flood the stakeholder environment with basic information. These techniques can be used early in the outreach process to generate interest and to ensure that most stakeholders are at least peripherally aware of the issues that will be discussed in more detail on later dates. Strategies that can be used to generate this wholesale increase in awareness can include:

  • The use of regular newspaper advertising
  • Dissemination of informational or invitational fliers at community "pot-lucks", churches, grocery stores or post offices
  • Sending notices or surveys home to parents through the classroom
  • Posting announcements on municipal websites
  • Presentations at regularly scheduled meetings such as Planning Board meetings
  • Postings on community bulletin boards
  • Radio or public television announcements
  • Presentations at Town Meeting.

The length of time required to effectively saturate a community with general materials will vary based on a variety of factors. For example, if the community has been talking about affordable housing for years and there is general consensus that "something needs to be done", then introducing new efforts to address the problem may only require a few weeks. However, if practitioners are looking to introduce relatively new or complex concepts, it may take a couple of months to ensure that the word gets around regarding a new smart growth or smart energy initiative.

"Quality" based approaches to smart growth or smart energy outreach and education imply more substantive discussions or presentations that may be directed toward the public at large or to focused stakeholder groups. The more basic forms of "quality" based outreach and education approaches include:

  • public forums
  • charrettes
  • focus groups
  • workshops.

The Venue

In many communities, it may seem like common sense to hold public forums at a place like the Town Hall. There may be excellent meeting space that is easily accessible and well equipped for media presentations and other necessary amenities, and of course it's free. Despite these practical advantages, proponents may want to consider venues more strategically. Using a town or city-owned facility may increase suspicions within the development community, for example, that the municipality is controlling the process and moving an agenda that is counter to private interests. Where issues may be contentious, local committees will want to consider more "neutral" space to convene public events. Local restaurants, libraries, and VFW halls represent just a few types of public or private venues that may create a feeling of an "even playing field" and provide for a less guarded discussion.

The Speakers

Similar to the choice of venue, choosing speakers for a public forum, charrette or workshop should be carefully considered. Local committees should consider the value added (or detracted) by specific individuals that could be included on the agenda. For example, having a local official like the Mayor or a member of the Board of Selectmen give an introduction may demonstrate a commitment from high level officials that adds credibility to a visioning or planning exercise. Likewise, having a key property owner give testimony in favor of potential zoning amendments may add credibility for other property owners and/or members of a chamber of commerce. These appearances should be planned carefully and selected individuals should be chosen based upon how trustworthy and knowledgeable they are. "Token" appearances by local officials who have little investment in a particular planning issue should be avoided.

The Props

When planning a targeted or public planning event, organizers will need to think about display items and other props that could add to the quality of presentations. Typical examples include:

  • poster boards
  • fliers
  • copies of recent reports
  • maps depicting any specific study areas.

Creating posters can require certain graphics and printing capabilities and the use of GIS can greatly enhance a committee's ability to provide a geographic context to the discussion. Where communities may not have these resources "in-house" and do not have the resources to hire a consultant, they may wish to look for donated support services within the community or through their Regional Planning Agency (RPA). RPAs are generally well equipped to provide high quality GIS mapping and often have monetary reserves to help support local planning initiatives. Where local committees do have access to sophisticated graphics capabilities, these resources can provide a tremendous boost to outreach and education efforts.

The Refreshments

Many seasoned smart growth/smart energy proponents agree that one of the most effective ways to get people to turn out for public discussion is to provide food and drinks. As a most basic rule of thumb, attendees at a focus group or public forum should be offered water, coffee, soda, and some type of snack food like popcorn, pretzels, etc. However, local committees should be looking for opportunities to provide a more festive atmosphere. Involving local restaurants can create opportunities for pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, or off-site catering. These events can work wonders toward developing the type of relaxed atmosphere necessary to having less guarded discussions about complex and often controversial smart growth topics.

The Support

Members of the business community, local officials and RPAs can provide support for local planning initiatives in many ways. Aside from graphics production and refreshments (discussed above), local committees may want to consider looking to members of the community to help with the following issues:

  • Mass production and distribution of fliers and/or surveys
  • Tallying of survey results
  • Extra organizers and facilitators at charrettes
  • Web-page developers to host chat rooms, gather electronic surveys or post interim products

Prepare Your Arguments

It is impossible to anticipate all of the questions or objections local stakeholders may have toward various smart growth and smart energy issues. With that said, there are several common misconceptions about smart growth and smart energy that local smart growth/smart energy proponents will want to be prepared to answer during an outreach campaign. Some common misconceptions and tips for addressing them are provided below.

"There's no market for smart growth."

Many people in the general public and also within the development community will argue that there is no market for smart growth. Big box retail and single family residential sprawl, they will argue, are the dominant land use trends because that is the market demand. Although there can be no denying that these market pressures exist, it is important to strongly assert that the market for high density mixed use development is strong in Massachusetts. The bigger problem is that local codes often do not offer viable alternatives to sprawling development. Proponents should therefore be familiar enough with local zoning provisions to point out problematic sections during these discussions. Basic elements such as minimum lot sizes, required setbacks, and minimum parking requirements can help to illustrate how local zoning encourages inefficient use of land.

"Increased density won't look right in this community."

This common misconception often arises in communities that have higher density housing developments left over from the 1960's or 70's that are poorly designed and very unattractive. Proponents will need to be armed with photographs depicting various densities in attractive, walkable settings to disarm these critics.

"Affordable housing isn't a need for residents in this community."

A common perception, or fear, associated with affordable housing development is that units will be occupied primarily by low-income individuals from outside the community. To help allay these fears, it helps to gather a series of important but easily obtainable facts:

  1. Research the income level for households having between one and four individuals, which qualify as "low income" in your Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The incomes displayed in all Massachusetts MSAs are approximately between $40,000 and $60,000 per year for households ranging from one to four individuals. You can view the appropriate statistic for your MSA.
  2. Research the average income levels for school teachers, Town Hall employees and fire fighters in your community. Be careful to present this information in a manner that does not easily tie the income levels to a single position. Although, this information is in the public domain, presenting average salaries for groups of people is a more considerate way to present it to the general public.

Many residents will be familiar with the argument that affordable housing is "for our teachers and municipal employees", but will still remain skeptical. Seeing the actual numbers for what is considered "low or moderate income" and what important local employees are being paid can be an eye-opening experience.

"Alternative approaches to wastewater aren't practical."

When discussing alternative wastewater approaches, one often finds resistance to new technologies based on several factors:

  • Local officials or developers may consider package treatment to be "untested" or too maintenance-intensive
  • Many officials and developers believe that the permitting is too challenging and the costs do not make financial sense.

With regard to the first assumption, package treatment technology and innovative systems are well tested and MassDEP has identified over 25 technologies that they are willing to approve. Maintenance of innovative technologies are generally more intensive than standard septic systems, but requirements are clearly spelled out by MassDEP and manufacturers can give detailed information regarding the type of maintenance program required for the continued operation of each technology.

With regard to the permitting challenges and costs, MassDEP made changes to Title 5 regulations in 2006 that made it significantly easier to permit cluster septic systems. If a community has an approved cluster bylaw, new subdivisions will no longer need to demonstrate that each lot could accommodate an individual system before the cluster system is approved. Also, with regard to cost, there is no question that cluster systems require increased construction costs. However, when the efficiencies and pollutant removal capabilities of these systems are considered, the "per acre" cost for wastewater disposal becomes much more cost effective. To further answer to the cost issue, communities should seriously consider the possibility of offering effective density bonuses in cluster development that may help to offset initial increases in the construction budget.

"Traffic congestion is already too high to accommodate new growth."

This issue is a common point of contention when discussing higher densities and downtown or village revitalization. If this issue may be a focus of public debate, it may be worth the investment to have traffic counts and Level of Service (LOS) analyses performed at critical intersections. Not only will this provide valuable baseline information, but many times it may put a more objective perspective on a problem that is more perception than reality.

Traffic counts can therefore help to place a "reality check" on local perceptions and allow people to move on to other discussions. Additionally, alternative modes of transportation, such as public transit and pedestrian infrastructure, should be strategically included in the conversation.

Advanced Visual Techniques

Visualization can provide the public and decisionmakers a clear idea of proposed smart growth/smart energy policies and plans, as well as potential impacts to the human and natural environment. Through visual imagery, the complex character of proposed plans, policies and programs can be portrayed at appropriate scales and from different points of view. Examples of visualization techniques include sketches, drawings, artist renderings, physical models and maps, simulated photos, videos, computer modeled images, interactive GIS systems, GIS-based scenario planning tools, photo manipulation and computer simulation. The following types of visualization exercises are often used to develop sophisticated depictions of potential future development scenarios:

Computer modeling (e.g., SketchUp, CommunityViz, Form Z and Photoshop).

These computer programs range in complexity; however, they are all designed to provide a 3-D model of a project (e.g., building or buildings at a site or an entire downtown area) to help the audience conceptualize what the final project would look like on the existing landscape. Tutorials are available on less advanced programs such as SketchUp that can be used by planners and volunteers with limited funds to hire outside assistance.

Simulation Exercises

Participants in simulation exercises can create land use plans by using scale models. Typically, participants are asked to place "icons" (e.g., chips, blocks, paper cut-outs, etc.) on a map representing community features (e.g., homes, commercial operations, schools, mass transit, or parks/open spaces). Recommendations are presented to the community and planners/designers. Photographs are often taken to record created maps.

Visual Preference Survey

This process includes showing a series of photographs or graphic representations of a community, development area, or site where the audience is asked to rate each photo or graphic (e.g., on a scale from 1-10; 1 being what they liked least). This exercise allows the community to define what it likes and dislikes as well as indicate design features that are most desired. A particular type of Visual Preference Survey TM, developed by Nelessen Associates, asks participants to rate a series of photographic slides (-10 to +10; zero being neutral).

Listen and Respond

It is important to remember that the most essential technique of all is to listen and respond. Stakeholders who are involved in the public discourse, whether they are in favor of or against a particular initiative, are taking the time to involve themselves in local issues and this personal investment must be respected. The most effective way to demonstrate that level of respect is to engage these stakeholders and effectively answer to their concerns.

The idea of "listening and responding" is fundamental. But all too often during public discourse facilitators will brush over objections or suggestions that they may feel are inappropriate or otherwise not valuable. In these cases, members of the public may feel distanced from the issue and proponents will unwittingly erode general support for important initiatives. Some basic tenets of public discourse that should always be remembered include:

  • Address people respectfully
  • Be direct about allotting a reasonable amount of time to each discussion. If a member of the audience is taking too much time speaking at an event, politely explain that there needs to be time for as many people as possible to contribute and that you can continue the discussion after the event
  • Acknowledge when you do not have the answer, commit to finding the answer, then follow through for your next public appearance
  • Make yourself available for post-event private discussions. Many people may have valuable insights but are not comfortable speaking at public events
  • Thank people for attending at the beginning and end of any event
  • Acknowledge any individuals or agencies that have provided support for the process or a particular event.


Many local practitioners get caught in the trap of dealing almost exclusively with the substance of an issue and not planning enough for the outreach. At the outset of each smart growth or smart energy initiative, local planners may find themselves in the position of "advocate" very quickly and therefore must be prepared to "make their case" to the community. Planning for outreach often requires as much effort as planning for the drafting of an ordinance or the development of a plan. Without a thoughtful approach to outreach, many local planners will be putting their efforts at risk for failure. Conversely, a well-executed outreach and education campaign may not only ensure the short-term success of a single initiative, it can also lay the groundwork for more ambitious and comprehensive reforms in the future.


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