Quality of life is not a luxury, says Robert McNulty, president of Washington, D.C.-based Partners for Livable Communities.
It's a resource.
"You put it to work and you invest in it. It's not something that, 'Oh, Santa Barbara can do that, but we can't.' "
Paying attention to things such as respect for the environment, historic preservation, good architecture, the arts and other pillars of culture makes communities--large or small, rich or poor--better places for everyone to live.
McNulty will share that view this week with Ventura city officials and others. The city invited him as part of its campaign to create a shared vision for its future.
He will speak at noon Wednesday at the Ventura County Museum of History & Art. Limited seating for the public is available; for reservations, call 658-4740.
A Northern Californian raised in the East Bay area, McNulty earned business and law degrees at UC Berkeley. In the early 1970s, he was assistant director of the design and planning program at the National Endowment for the Arts. That program gave small grants to help communities improve their economic, social and cultural situations.
"I met a lot of very interesting people who were dynamic leaders, who took small grants and changed their communities mightily," he said. "After working for seven years with those people I decided to form an association to take these leadership examples to a broader degree of community development."
In the two decades since, his nonprofit corporation has helped communities across the country make the most of their amenities and adopt public policies designed to encourage improving quality of life.
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Question: What message will you be bringing to Ventura this week?
Answer: I understand there is a need for some greater citizen involvement in setting the vision for the community to update the comprehensive planning process.
Also, there have been efforts to look at arts and culture and facility, park, open space and environment issues as they relate to the image, the definition, the economic opportunity and the marketing of Ventura. That's what my organization has specialized in for the past 22 years.
Q: When planners and others use the phrase "livable communities," what are they talking about?
A: It depends. When AARP [the American Assn. of Retired Persons] uses "livability," which they do, they talk about retrofitting communities for aging in place.
When energy groups use "livable," they talk about affordable energy bills. So it can be whatever agenda you're pushing.
We say that a livable community has certain characteristics: It looks ahead, it tries to protect and preserve and invest in its best resources, it creates a wage opportunity so people can afford to not only earn a living but stay in the community, it has fairness and equity, it's balanced in terms of everyone should have a chance for the good life, and there should be a great degree of citizen participation not only in setting the agenda but in being asked to help implement the agenda.
Q: Several of our cities here in Ventura County have held visioning processes and tried to get moving on them. Is this a nationwide trend?
A: Yes, the millennium approaching has created almost a Pavlovian desire for looking ahead, so there are lots of year 2000 or 2020 plans. We've done a fair amount of work both doing it and studying why it's done. Generally we find that unless there is a clear public groundswell of doing it, most of it is a waste of time.
A lot of the public visioning is done at the convenience of the bureaucrats rather than of the citizens. We specialize in helping to design innovative programs that are fun, that are of limited duration, that have results tied into them so that the people's good will is not wasted by a process that goes on so long that you forget what you're even doing, and that create a public-private partnership committed to implement the ideas before you even begin wasting people's time talking about what they want.
We designed the whole program in Chattanooga, Tenn., which is the national model for a citizens' process of visioning, setting the goals, implementing them and then re-visioning every 10 years to see what they want to do next.
Q: What other cities are doing things in a way that is not a waste of time?
A: I'd say any community that takes a broad base of its leadership (we call them the stakeholders, public and private), makes it fair (so that you include women, minorities, people with special needs), and then asks them to help design a process that would engage their constituents (whether it's the soccer moms or the church groups or the environmentalists) and then design a program of three to six months of seriously engaging these citizens to help set the course for the future and look 20 years out, but then bring it back five years, then bring it back three years, then say "What do we do in the next 12 months to achieve that?"