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Beginning with the end in mind: San Diego Foundation spearheads ‘Regional Vision Initiative’

San Diego Cities - Regional News – BY LANDON BRIGHT

In 1909, the San Diego Civic Improvement Association engaged John Nolen, the country’s top city planner, to San Diego to develop a long-term plan for the city. Many of the issues that Nolen addressed at the beginning of the 20th century are still pertinent today. A century later, public relations consultant Peter MacCracken is the driving force behind efforts to catalog the city’s top concerns and use that information to plan the city’s future 50 to 100 years from now.

The plan is called the Regional Vision Initiative and it’s organized by the San Diego Foundation. MacCracken came up with the idea seven years ago, after years of working on airport issues confronting the region. Later, in the summer of 2007, he approached the San Diego Foundation with his idea and now the program is months from launching. In this interview, MacCracken explains why this effort is different from past ones and why this initiative could be one of San Diego’s most important.

Landon Bright: What are the main challenges for getting the Regional Vision Initiative off the ground?

Peter MacCracken: Making it tangible for people. The biggest question is why should the community at-large care and start thinking about the future if we have issues today? The biggest challenge is making it meaningful today, for people with day-to-day lives. And to engage the largest number of people who have ever been engaged in an effort like this.

LB: Why do this initiative now?

PJM: I came to the conclusion long ago that an airport for the sake of an airport in San Diego was a loser—it will never happen. But if we decide how we want San Diego to be in the future and an airport is part of the way to get there, it’s a slam-dunk win. It’s not just an airport; it’s a lot of big decisions. You really can’t make smart, big decisions without a sense of where you’re going and we don’t have any long-term plan of where this region is going now.

LB: Many people would argue it is not necessary to spend $2 million to get opinion from the public. What is your rebuttal to that thought?

PJM: There is certainly merit to that, if you think we are only going to learn what we learned before. There is a process for engaging a large number of people in the community and that process is an expensive and difficult undertaking—and we are talking about engaging tens of thousands of people, which has not been done in San Diego. Second is, you need to do a lot more than just get opinion, you have to engage the populace on an ongoing basis.

LB: Do you think engaging the public to this extent is going to be difficult?

PJM: I think it is going to be easier then even when I started looking at what other regions did six or seven years ago, and the reason is social media. I think social media has the potential to be a breakthrough for this type of civil engagement. It will engage a greater number of people on a greater ongoing basis. The experts that the Foundation have brought in from around the country see social media as one aspect of the engagement and it is only one aspect, but I really think it’s a breakthrough. Town halls are yesterday’s method.

LB: Once you get the opinions and information put together, where will you go from there?

PJM: The first step is to develop a real values study. That involves survey research, where we will see a lot of what we expect and maybe some surprises. It entails in-depth, extensive interviews with about 100 people, who are leaders of different sectors and stakeholder groups in the community. Then, you use that values study to develop alternative scenarios for the future. The general rule is to come up with four alternative scenarios for the future and those scenarios you use to engage the public. That engagement will lead you through a process that has been tested in other places, to a vision for the San Diego region in the future. That vision needs to be used to develop a strategic, actionable plan. Then you have to have someone or something responsible for making sure the plan is followed. The San Diego Foundation is in the process of creating the Center for Civic Engagement, and that’s the kind of entity that should be responsible for this. The question is, why would this be any different than any pervious exercise like this? The answer has to be, we begin with the end in mind.

LB: What do you think are going to be the main issues that the public will want to see changed?

PJM: The less any of us involved in this know, guess or prejudge the outcome the better the process will be. We must be agnostic to this process. But we know and the experts know a lot of things are not going to be surprises, including protecting quality of life and quality of environment.

San Diego Foundation’s current status on the Regional Vision Initiative: The plan is expected to take 18 months at a price tag of $1.5 million total. The values study is expected to take up $500,000 of that total. The San Diego Foundation is currently fundraising. Once they raise $500,000 they will launch the program. They hope to launch the program early this year; the civic engagement process will take approximately one year.


Peter James MacCracken, APR is Principal of Strategic Communications, a public relations consultancy that focuses on community-based issues (www.strategic-communications.com). He can be contacted at 619/275-4110 or pjm@strategic-communications.com.

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