The project is called Mountain Landscapes, and it’s the brainchild of the Southwestern Economic Development Commission and two UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral students.
Armed with a video camera, doctoral candidates Carla Norwood and Gabriel Cumming — who are married — are documenting what locals love about the mountains and what they want to protect. They hope this open-ended, bottom-up approach will allow community members to step back and evaluate the future of their community, ultimately culminating in a toolbox of recommendations that will serve as a set of guidelines for counties to protect their land.
This approach is in contrast to a common method of letting government and business officials decide the future of a community.
“People are so tired of meetings and visioning sessions and things that go nowhere,” says Franklin resident Ben Brown, a spokesman for the project.
“Basically, what we’re responding to is that a lot of people throughout rural North Carolina express concern about the landscapes in which they live growing and changing, yet conservation and planning efforts often don’t involve much of the population,” explains Cumming. “Business is deciding it, government is deciding it. What happens down the road is people don’t feel like they have control.”
“We’re trying to create a community conversation where people feel like it’s possible to realize a future for the place that they live,” he adds.
So, one by one, Cumming and Norwood are interviewing residents of the seven western counties. The results will be shown in a documentary format at county meetings, followed by a charette with a panel of experts scheduled for May.
The approach the pair is using isn’t new — it’s just not used much in this country. Indeed, it even has a name: community-based natural resource management.
“It’s actually more widespread in other countries than it is in the United States. It was actually developed in the developing world, places like Latin America,” Cumming says.
The hypothesis of community-based natural resource management is that issues of planning and conservation will be made more relevant to peoples’ lives if they are talked about and voiced on a day-to-day basis. Then, people would be more enthusiastic and likely to participate.
A unique approach
The use of a video camera is an integral part of the process. It’s also unique.
Using a camera to make a documentary of the process, “is something we’ve come up with .... it’s not something that exists in the field,” explains Cumming.
“Basically, we wanted a way to engage people in natural resource management conversations that was accessible and that was capable of expressing people’s views in terms of stories, not just in terms of statistics,” he says.
Though there is a whole field of documentary theory, it hasn’t before been paired with resource management. As a result, Norwood and Cumming have received national recognition for their unique approach.
One benefit to the documentary approach of the project is that in close-knit communities, people can actually see their neighbors talking unabashedly about some of the same issues that may concern them.
“When you do a documentary — when people see this at a public hearing and they hear their neighbors saying the same thing that’s in their heads and hearts — they feel connected. There’s a lot of shared vision here as opposed to concentrating on all the things that separate us,” Brown says. “You start with these connections and you show that at these community meetings, and that gives you a great jumping off place to start.”
To gather opinions for the documentary, the project team goes out and conducts interviews with interested people in a community. The interviews last a couple of hours, and the questions asked are intentionally open-ended. This is so people can talk as much — or as little — about anything they want.
“Basically the benefit is that it gives the interviewee the opportunity to tell the story in whatever way they want ... to identify the aspects of living here that they care about. We’re creating open space to share their perspective. We don’t want to condition them by giving a closed set of choices,” says Cumming.
Cumming speculates that is exactly why other attempts to protect the mountains haven’t been successful — because people are forced to think within the paradigm of “regulations,” a word that strikes fear in the hearts of many mountain residents.
The point is “mostly about getting at their values,” explains Brown, as well as, “their core vision about their connection with the landscape.”
By giving people a chance to talk about whatever they want, the interviewers are putting an emphasis on listening, rather than asking. A sample question includes, “Why is living here in the mountains different from somewhere else? What’s important to you?”
Cumming hopes people will feel respected and be willing to participate because they are given the opportunity to discuss the issues on their own terms.
“In a way, I think the most valuable thing about this whole process is listening to people, because listening conveys respect, and it’s very important for people to be respected and valued,” he says.
Creating a toolbox
Cumming and Norwood have almost wrapped up their interviews, and are now working on sorting through some of the dialogue they heard. The responses are surprisingly varied.
Cumming said people not only expressed the value the landscape holds for them, but also frequently mentioned the value of their social connections here — their family, friends and community.
Subjects also spoke about the value of having working, productive lands, like pastures and farms.
Many were concerned about the economics of staying connected to the land.
“What’s going to be the way of economically making this landscape work for people down the road?” says Cumming. “They’re feeling less secure with the economic downturn in the past few years.”
When the responses are gathered and the documentary is put together, it will be shown at various county, town and civic meetings to get people thinking about what they want the future of the mountains to look like. All this will lead up to a charette in May, where a team of experts and specialists in areas like planning, design, engineering, traffic management and more will gather in a panel at Western Carolina University to answer questions.
After the charette, the team will combine people’s concerns and experts’ answers into a toolbox of guidelines of responsible practices. It will consist of a list of recommendations on the best ways to protect and preserve what residents love about the mountains.
Brown says the aim of the guidelines is to serve everyone — parcel owners, developers, non-profits, and elected officials. To accomplish that, the team wants to make sure the toolbox is useful no matter what stage of the process its potential users are at. This is particularly crucial in Western North Carolina, where the regulations in place vary widely. Jackson County, for instance, has some of the toughest development rules in the state; while neighboring Swain County is struggling to adopt its first subdivision ordinance.
“We have different levels of readiness throughout the entire region. Graham County, for instance, is in the very early stage of beginning discussions, while Haywood is very advanced. We have to create a toolbox that has different levels of access for certain points,” says Brown.
The toolbox will contain representative scenarios dealing with everything from slopes to river bottoms to revitalization of historic towns.
“If you have this kind of slope and soil mix, what are the alternative means of responsible development? These are the water conditions in the floodplain; these are your choices for siting a house in these conditions,” are a couple of examples, Brown says. “We’re looking for representative scenarios that help people in specific situations, but it’s definitely not one size fits all.”
The project team isn’t sure what the outcome of the Mountain Landscapes initiative will be. The guidelines in the toolbox won’t be put into law.
“There’s nothing regulatory about this toolbox. It doesn’t have the power of law. It just says, here’s the best we can come up with — state of the art knowledge in our region on how to do things right,” Brown says.
The team hopes that communities may find the guidelines useful enough to adopt.
“We’re hoping commissioners feel good enough about the guidelines that they begin taking them and figuring out ways to codify them. Those are the next steps, and that’s entirely up to the communities at whatever level of readiness they’re at,” Brown says.
“The goal is once we leave, the leaders in the community should be able to carry it forward,” says Cumming.