Have you ever endured an incredibly boring planning meeting at Town Hall? Some developer, standing before a blizzard of maps and charts, drones on about how his subdivision will fit seamlessly into your community. You know that the size and location of the project will forever mar the incredible view over the river to the mountains and disrupt the migration of the local elk herd, but you have no way to show it. Soon, the meeting devolves into a shouting match.
Now imagine the same meeting, except this time the maps and charts are gone. In their place is a large screen, hooked up to a laptop computer. On the screen is a 3-D picture of your town, with realistic mountains and buildings and trees. As a planning commissioner plays with the mouse, the picture moves. Suddenly, you are flying over the downtown, out to the mesa where the proposed subdivision is to be located. With a click, the subdivision appears, streets and all. You fly down low, to ground level, and the new houses rise up as if you were a Star Wars pilot threading through a streaming asteroid field. Everyone in the audience instantly understands what the new development will look like. Soon, the developer and citizens are talking about a clustered development scenario that would leave much of the land open.
Welcome to the future of planning, where seeing is believing thanks to the wonders of technology and the efforts of the Orton Family Foundation. Two years ago, the foundation - which is the brainchild of Lyman Orton, founder and president of The Vermont Country Store - unveiled its powerful new planning software, CommunityViz. Not only does the software use GIS mapping technology to provide accurate depictions of the landscape, but it instantly tabulates how different development scenarios will affect everything from traffic counts to tax revenues.
The goal of CommunityViz is to help planning departments, citizens and developers anticipate problems and revise development plans early in the process, says Doug Walker, who works for the Orton Family Foundation out of Boulder, Colo. "It's about finding a common language for planning."
So far, CommunityViz has been tested in a few Western communities, including Santa Fe, N.M., and Lyons, Colo. It doesn't come cheap: The cost of the software and inputting all the data needed to operate it can run around $10,000. But the foundation is looking for partners (it's already working with The Nature Conservancy) to help make it widely available - and affordable - throughout rural America, to encourage towns and counties to team up.
For more information about CommunityViz, call toll-free 866/953-1400, e-mail email@example.com or go to www.communityviz.com. For information about other Orton Family Foundation planning tools, including the community video and mapping projects, contact Townsend Anderson, Western Office, at 970/879-2126 or firstname.lastname@example.org.