“Visioning” – Know What You Are Getting Into

By Center for Intelligent Growth

Posted on Freedom Advocates on September 11, 2007

Visioning processes, when used for land-use planning can be manipulated through peer and mentor pressure that can influence participants core beliefs. This highly influences the outcome of community consensus meetings.

Although your dog may not bite, aren’t you happy someone told you early-on that others do? 

“Visioning” is a commonly used tool specifically designed to build a consensus from a group, usually consisting of individuals from diverse backgrounds, in order to seek a common goal. In this discussion, the “Visioning Process” we are referring to is the same practice, but as applied exclusively to “land use planning”. Land use planning is an action that employs a variety of tools by public planning and zoning officials to “achieve order in property development by regulating the use of land in an efficient, proper and forward-looking manner”. Visioning is just one of these tools. In some form or another, it has become a fundamental ingredient in land-use planning by virtually all local governments and non-governmental organization activists across the United States, as well as around the world.  

Most of the people involved on the ground floor of a local Visioning Process are sincerely convinced the steps being taken will lead to greater prosperity for the region and better life for its inhabitants. Elected public servants and hired staff may see Visioning as an opportunity to get a better fix on what their citizens want from government. Civic minded individuals volunteer their time and energy to these committees in order to do something positive for their community by improving living conditions, the economy and their future, as well as promoting proper environmental management and conservation practices. Those involved with local Visioning committees should be applauded, but we are firmly convinced that far too many of them– and their constituents – are being misled.  

Typically, participants begin the Visioning Process by individually looking ahead, imagining their community in an ideal 21st Century future and rank these ideas according to priority. The groups then discuss their individual ideas and arrive at an agreement on a list of items ranked by importance. An organizer arranges all of the ideas from all of these Visioning sessions according to rank and then passes this summary information along to local government staff for inclusion into government planning documents. These modified documents are then finally officially adopted by the local board.

This is a seemingly simple and agreeable process. Unfortunately, even if each of these individual public Visioning sessions were “very well attended”, the final result would only involve a small fraction of the people living in the target area. This is an essential flaw and one that has not been lost by extremists seeking radical change. Enter the “those who show up – win” rule: as nothing is done to make sure only real target area residents are involved in these meetings (or, if they are supposed to be there, that they are only involved one time), if enough passionate activists stack the deck in their favor their agenda is achieved.

The way these public sessions are often constructed also makes it impossible for anyone to know if the final report genuinely represents the actual input and accord of the people present. This is because a large meeting is typically broken down into a number of smaller meetings. All any individual knows is what went on in the meeting (involving between eight to twenty or so individuals) they attended, as the entire group does not reassemble and agree on the final results at the end. The topics, summary and the tabulations of the consensus of these collective exchanges are thus primarily in the hands of the organizers, to be later interpreted by staff and then translated into law. If this is the democratic process, someone has incorrectly defined it at some time in the past. “Ye Olde Towne Meeting”, where all citizens gathered into a single group and discussed the pros and cons of the issues and then voted yea or nay, has always been the traditional understanding of the ultimate democratic process. The town meeting had a chairman that may well have had an agenda, but was not a trained facilitator and only served to maintain an orderly process.

Another method to garner public input on these issues is by obtaining a “statistical analysis” from the target populace through polling that is typically conducted under a random sample phone survey. Let’s look at some of the components of this logically for a moment: 

Although considered to be “statistically valid” with better than “90% accuracy”, usually far less than one percent of the target citizens of legal age are actually involved.

Make a mental list of the people you know who have chosen to have their phone unlisted or “unconventional” (cellular) phone service only. All of them will be automatically excluded from the poll. Along the same lines, we know that only those individuals with local listed conventional phone numbers are to be contacted. As a result, the percentages of property owners versus tenants should be accurately reflected in the survey (assuming they both have the same percentage of active and listed conventional phones). What of absentee property owners? They also will be automatically excluded under this “statistically valid” survey method.

Most people, when interrupted from dinner, or from other events of their daily non-working lives, want this interruption to end swiftly. Consequently, hasty and impulsive responses are often the result.

Can you name one local topic more mystifying and convoluted in the public mind than municipal planning and the zoning of private land? At times, professional land planners and P&Z staff themselves become confused while answering simple questions, or when involved in honest debate.

Buying into these “hard and indisputable facts” compiled from answers to warm-fuzzy questions solicited from uninformed citizenry at random often serves to create (at times by design…) an unanticipated and dreadful situation.

One fundamental principal seems to have been lost here: If it is the right of citizens to express their preference for the future direction government planning will take us, then it is the duty of that government, before they solicit this response, to offer the public full disclosure of the information with which to make such an important contribution.

Some argue that it is impossible to have a predetermined outcome if these Visioning Processes are conducted properly. This is obviously true, on the surface at least, but is not the case at the nucleus: People’s perceptions, passions and the things they hold as truths are influenced by their core beliefs, the media, along with peer and mentor pressure. If these things are distorted, all in the same way, the ultimate outcome is quite predictable, particularly if the right questions are asked. Failure to consider and emphasize the things we take for granted, such as our rights and freedoms, plays a major part in skewing this process as well.

More often than not, the Visioning Process is set up by, or because of, non-governmental organization involvement. Far too frequently this is done in order to by-pass existing elected governments and their present codes, under the guise of seeking to work with those governments, in order to accomplish a specific agenda. Pressure is also often placed on local governments to come together on this because “it is what the people have said they want”, although it is actually the views of a vocal minority. If this succeeds, the people may lose control of their government because they ultimately turn the decision making authority over to a non-elected body. This is the blueprint for, and end result of, far too many Visioning initiatives.  

Yes, we do need to revise our regional future planning, particularly for the areas surrounding existing communities. Yes, the guidelines our officials follow do need to be updated from time to time by the citizenry. Yes, there are other issues that need to be addressed. And yes, we already have governing bodies in place to address them through the constitutional means provided. This process may not be as quick or as efficient as the process being proposed. It was not meant to be. It is supposed to be slow and laborious, for by being so it helps prevent us from making rash decisions we may live to regret.

Many of these initiatives are indeed noble, forthright, thoughtful, valuable and needed. Many are not. Others are simply orchestrated incorrectly. The individuals intimately involved with these initiatives, as well as those at the public meetings, need to probe beneath the surface to discover the true motives and agendas, as well as the ultimate cost of rushing to get an answer – no matter what it is.

If nothing else, remember this all really comes down to one thing: the unique rights afforded us under the Constitution, not least of which is our right to private property. Do not forget this when you are brainstorming about your “ideal” future…


“Success or failure of endeavors to substitute sound ideas for unsound will depend ultimately on the abilities and the personalities of the men who seek to achieve this task. If the right men are lacking in the hour of decision, the fate of our civilization is sealed. Even if such pioneers are available, however, their efforts will be futile if they meet with indifference and apathy on the part of their fellow citizens. The survival of civilization can be jeopardized by the misdeeds of individual dictators, Fuhrers, or Duces. Its preservation, reconstruction and continuation, however, require the joint efforts of all men of good will.”   — Ludwig von Mises 

“Visioning” – Know What You Are Getting Into by Center for Intelligent Growth

The Center for Intelligent Growth was founded in the mid-90’s and is located in the state of Arizona. You can contact them via email: cfig.org@gotsky.com

This article contains links to outside sources not controlled by Freedom Advocates and therefore are subject to change.

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