Envisioning St. George Island: A Graduate Planning Project at the Front Lines of Community Engagement and Sustainability

Florida is known worldwide for its beautiful beaches, warm climate, and top-ranked tourist destinations.  Florida also has the distinction of being one of the nation’s fastest growing states. Balancing the desires and demands of our ever-growing population with the need to ensure the viability of our economic and natural resources has long been a challenge faced by urban planners. Change in the face of these countervailing forces is inevitable, but the key to good public policy is to ensure that this change occurs in the most representative and sustainable way possible.

Students in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning’s Spring 2021 Advanced Planning Problems graduate capstone course are undertaking a project entitled, Envisioning St. George Island.  They are tasked with helping a group of Island residents in understand and document existing conditions and the changes at play in this unincorporated area of Franklin County.  As part of this project, the students will plan and host a series of community conversations, develop after-action reports, and prepare an end-of-project “road map” document that will help the community members chart a course for solving both short and long-term concerns. The objective of the project is to optimize solutions for resource management and governance.

Strong community engagement underpins any successful planning project and in our first community meeting series, held on February 10, the students had a chance to demonstrate the use of a mixed-methods, synchronous public meeting framework. Relying on remote participation and actual in-person on-site meetings accessed through Zoom, the students guided 150 participants in large and small group discussions augmented by infographics, polling tools, and other platform-specific features.  The community participants convened in small groups in either a morning or evening workshop to brainstorm on what they treasured most about St. George Island and what they felt needed to change.  

Natural beauty, a low density “neighborhood” feel, and building height limits ranked high among the treasures while concerns about inconsistent application of the zoning code and infrastructure maintenance ranked high among concerns. Collectively the group then discussed the criteria or minimum expectations they would have for making decisions regarding the future. Examples included fiscal impacts, the division of responsibility for specific services, and the need to ensure sustainable growth. The results of these discussions provided a structure for organizing a follow-up community engagement series to be held on March 10, 2020.  After that second planning meeting, the students will host a final listening session at the end of April to review the outcome of the previous sessions, the highlights of their research, and to address and document any remaining questions or concerns. 

Like many planning projects, this effort was community-driven and started long before our students took up this semester-long project. Likewise, it will continue after the semester’s end. Our students’ objective is to have fostered the kind of data-backed community conversations that will allow the Island’s residents to be better prepared to solve their immediate problems and chart a course for the future in whatever form that might take, from re-evaluating the provision of services up to looking at alternative forms of governance.  As an outcome of this project, the student team also plans to develop best practice guidelines for public engagement in a socially-distanced or similar physically restrictive environment.  This work will have broad applicability to the planning profession. 

For more information on the Envisioning St. George Island project or the other work of the Mark and Marianne Barnebey Planning and Development Lab and Studio, please feel free to contact Dennis J. Smith, AICP, Planner-in-Residence at djsmith3@fsu.edu.

Dennis J. Smith is a Planner-in-Resident at Florida State University’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning. You can learn more about Dennis’s work here.

The feature image is from Wikipedia.

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