Smart Growth Stories: A region collaborates in Southern Maine

Balancing development with environmental and economic concerns is one of the biggest challenges facing Southern Maine today.

“Maine has a lot going for it: its sense of place, its scenery, its quality of life,” says Carol Morris, President of Morris Communications and lead consultant for Sustain Southern Maine, a regional partnership of organizations, communities and businesses working to make Maine’s economy, environment and sense of community stronger. “If we lose that, we’ll never get it back, and people understand that, so there’s a fair amount of local support for balancing it all together.”

Sustain Southern Maine is addressing these important challenges with a multi-faceted, comprehensive approach to planning. Aided by a Regional Planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the partnership is working to make sure development in small, rural communities as well as larger urban areas like Portland – Maine’s biggest city – will benefit the communities and economies of the entire region.

Part of this involves getting feedback from members of each community, whether from local governments, developers, or residents. “We want to get folks to tell us what they’re really interested in, what they want to see,” says Morris, “so we want to ask questions like, ‘What kind of housing would be best for the population?’ How much growth can a certain area handle? How much mixed-use? What things need to change from a policy standpoint?” The answers to these questions are an integral part of how planners can best address the needs of the community and the region.

“Our efforts are a little unusual.” Morris admits, “in the sense that we’re basically trying to plan by doing, letting communities lead the way.” It is this planning-by-doing that has spurred Sustain Southern Maine’s current project: eight small-scale but diverse pilot development locations.

“We’re focusing a lot of the planning work in small pilot demonstration areas, applying the principles we’ve learned from previous studies,” Morris says. “We will choose eight locations from a range of types, suburban to rural to potential strips to village centers and remote crossroads, then do intense planning to set up the area to attract growth, looking at barriers, opportunities and assets and customizing our planning to each community’s desires.”

The eventual goal is to understand how communities throughout the region can plan for the future and thrive economically while maintaining a sense of place and their unique identities.

New housing is also integral to these efforts, especially meeting the needs of workers and tying it to the region’s transportation network. “We have enough jobs here at the skilled level but we are having a harder time attracting people from out of state because the housing stock is very old and there’s a gap in the housing need,” says Morris. “There’s a market need for the kind of transit-oriented development we’re looking for.”

By recognizing the ways in which communities’ needs and issues overlap, Sustain Southern Maine is working to move the entire region’s residents towards a more sustainable future and an economically stronger Maine.

“We want to create a pattern of growth that can maintain itself over time while preserving the quality of life, the environment, and the other qualities that make Maine a desirable place to live.”