Board games, interactive theater help a Virginia community plan for the future

Economic development improves citizens’ economic, political, and social well-being. Sustainable development assures that development does not compromise future generations’ ability to meet their needs.

So when a rural Virginia community wanted to assure progress and growth, its citizens took creative measures to decide the best way to allocate resources.

By reaching out to residents through board games, interviews and interactive plays by local performing artists, community leaders in the New River Valley gathered information on the region’s top priorities and then came up with a plan to meet those needs.

Kim Thurlow, director of community programs for the Community Foundation of the New River Valley, said the challenge was to assure that area residents could express their concerns and interests.

“The question was how do we get to people where they are and where they live in creative ways … to have more of a conversation,” Thurlow said. “Everywhere around the world there are artists and musicians to engage in community work. Often these folks are underrepresented in developing a planning process.”

The New River Valley Livability Initiative began as a three-year regional planning process, with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, then continued into an implementation phase.

Protecting local charm while embracing change

Through the interaction, people in the New River Valley, located about four hours southwest of Washington, demonstrated concern about protecting their rural communities and natural environment and a desire to have choices in housing and transportation.

As energy concerns were a priority, the group focused on finding ways to reduce heating bills and use alternative sources of energy. One strategy that emerged: a project to make affordable solar power available in bulk. The resulting, award-winning Solarize Blacksburg project quadrupled the community’s use of solar energy and inspired similar programs in additional Virginia communities.

Other projects helped make existing buildings more energy efficient and supported constructing new, affordable and energy-efficient senior housing.

In one New River Valley town, an old primary school is being converted into affordable senior housing along with a commercial kitchen and food center. The food center will include a brewery and restaurants and will serve as a business incubator for food-based businesses using local agriculture.

Another town unveiled the Solar VoltzWagon, a utility trailer equipped with 1,500 watts of solar power. This traveling solar energy supplier powers a community market and can also be used to demonstrate the utility of renewable energy. Even better: the VoltsWagon can also provide emergency power during an electricity outage.

The New River Valley Livability Initiative addresses many of the themes being discussed in the October 17–20 Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. These include sustainable development, resilience, and ensuring that all sectors of society are involved in finding and implementing solutions.

The New River Valley is among the communities profiled in a new guide from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The guide illustrates how different sectors like philanthropy and government can join forces to advance sustainable development.