Last September, in the middle of the night in the small town of Lyons, Colorado, the water rushed in and homes were swept out. Tragically, one person was lost. Many more were left without their home and everything they’d ever known. As with most natural disasters, those hit the hardest were the town’s low-income residents. The site most affected was a mobile home park near the river, home to many of the artists and musicians who give the town its funky, artsy vibe. With limited affordable housing options in the area, many of these residents were left with no choice other than to relocate elsewhere. In a town as charming as Lyons, one can imagine it would be hard to leave.
The Town of Lyons is now wrestling with many issues, including:
- Does the Town facilitate the replacement of affordable housing units lost in the storm?
- If so, how many of the units should it look to rebuild?
- Where should it go?
Most of the conversation has centered on rebuilding affordable housing in current open space and parks since there aren’t any other known viable options, leading to strong opinions on both sides. In response, the town has chosen to undergo an intensive public engagement process to answer these questions.
This summer, as part of my Master’s in Urban Planning program at University of Colorado Denver, I took a Housing Development Post-Disaster Workshop which focused on Lyons at the same time as I was interning at PlaceMatters. Our project consisted of two parts: creating potential site plans for replacement affordable housing and developing a public engagement plan to address the varied opinions of a multitude of stakeholders. The value of engaging planning students in this situation is that they can explore options with very few barriers. Students are allowed to throw ideas out there and push further on ideas that have already been discarded. There aren’t a lot of consequences to our decisions, yet we have enough experience to produce something that at the very least inspires thought and conversation.
The engagement strategies our class decided on included a mix of “tech-y” and more traditional strategies, both of which have their benefits. When planning for a population where many have been displaced, digital strategies serve an important purpose. For instance, those that don’t have the time or money to travel and go to a long meeting can still participate in the conversation. They also serve other populations; some might work non-standard hours and be unable to attend a meeting scheduled around traditional hours and still others may simply feel shy speaking up in a room full of people.
One such strategy is digital storytelling. Digital storytelling is a form of digital media production that allows everyday people to share aspects of their life story or community through photos, video interviews and other non-physical media with the goal of finding common ground. It involves the creation of a communal blog where users from a given community can post stories or anecdotal reminiscences about a particular place. One town that achieved success with the storytelling strategy is Victor, Idaho. Victor, a scenic small town near the Grand Tetons, experienced a 73% increase in population growth in just 6 years and tensions subsequently developed between old and new residents. Using both digital storytelling collected on their Community Almanac site and in-person at local events, they were able to discover the values that the two groups shared and prioritize actions based on a shared community vision.
In a place where opinions are swirling and emotions are running high, digital storytelling might be just the tool to help Lyons’ residents, both displaced and not, understand each other’s needs and the desire to return home.
For more examples of communities that used storytelling in planning, visit Community Expressions.