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Continuing Education Needs in the Last Green Valley: A Natural Resource, Land Use, & Community Design Needs Assessment
Susan P. Westa
C. Benjamin Tyson
Stephen H. Broderick
Abstract: A needs assessment survey was conducted by an Extension partnership program, the Green Valley Institute. The survey was designed to assess educational needs and interests relating to land use, community planning and design, and natural resources in a primarily rural region. Extension educators may be interested to see the strong across-the-board interest in learning more about these topics. As people gain a greater understanding of the importance of natural resources, the impacts of growth and the problems that occur when we don't protect our natural systems, the more they want to know and be involved in bringing about change.
Introduction and Background
The Quinebaug Shetucket National Heritage Corridor (QSHC) is a nationally designated, 35-town region located in northeast Connecticut and south central Massachusetts. The QSHC remains rural today, with active agriculture, valuable natural resources, and historic village centers. However, the region is feeling development pressure from all sides. People from surrounding urban areas continue to search for more inexpensive and attractive places to live. Residents from the QSHC commute longer distances, to Boston and Worcester MA, Hartford CT, Providence RI, and the casinos to the south, so that they can enjoy the quality of life the region has to offer.
If the region is to maintain the rural character that makes it so attractive, its communities must proactively plan for growth while simultaneously protecting its natural and rural features. Rural communities across the country are facing similar issues--some are experiencing even greater rates of growth. If Extension educators, planners, and resource specialists are going to help communities implement the best available solutions to addressing land use issues, we must share our success stories and the tools and information that are required. This article analyzes a natural resource, land use, and community design needs assessment survey and its implications for addressing these issues and continuing education needs in the QSHC.
In 1998, a unique partnership was developed between University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension System (CES) and the Quinebaug Shetucket National Heritage Corridor (QSHC). This partnership addressed natural resource and land use issues in rural northeastern Connecticut, a region referred to as the "Last Green Valley." The result of this partnership was a new Extension educator in community planning, funded co-equally by the University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension and by the Quinebaug Shetucket Heritage National Corridor.
In 2000, the partnership conducted a needs assessment survey to guide program development (Godin & Broderick, 2001). The assessment's target audience was municipal commissioners and other involved in land use decision-making. The initial needs assessment survey was used to focus educational programs, which address a wide range of topics surrounding these issues.
This effort has since evolved into an expanded partnership, the Green Valley Institute (Westa, Broderick & Tyson, 2005). Today the Green Valley Institute has two co-directors and six other full- and part-time employees, including a G.I.S. specialist, a volunteer coordinator, a land protection specialist, and a community design specialist. Other partners now also include:
Details about the Green Valley Institute (GVI) and how it evolved were published in Practicing Planner (Westa, 2005). GVI's mission is to provide the QSHC towns with the tools and information they need to make good land use decisions. Its target audiences are land use commissioners, large landowners, and others who influence land use in the region.
As in most of New England, each QSHC town has its own comprehensive plan and set of land use regulations. Land use decisions are made at the local level. The towns address many similar and related issues but also address issues unique to their own situation. Since this partnership was established, the number of individual town planners in the region has doubled to about a dozen. However, most towns still lack professional planning staff, and existing planners are overwhelmed with day-to-day work. Town planners often look to GVI for assistance and educational support. Thus the GVI partnership has become a staple of planning and resource information and education in this rural region.
The Green Valley Institute's educational and technical assistance programs have been addressing land use and natural resource issues for 5 years and have produced significant documented impacts in the region. To ensure that future programs continue to address documented community needs, a second comprehensive needs assessment survey was conducted in 2005. This article reports the results of that survey, including a comparison to the 2000 survey.
The survey and analysis were conducted in conjunction with the Center for Social Research at Central Connecticut State University. GVI is using the results to guide the development of new educational programs in the QSHC. These results will be of interest to other Extension professionals developing programs related to land use and natural resources.
A mailing list of 1,364 municipal officials, town commissioners, and local land trust personnel in the 35 towns that comprise the Quinebaug Shetucket National Heritage Corridor (QSHC) was used as the sample frame for the survey. The survey employed a three-wave mailing consisting of:
The survey was conducted in April/May 2005. The questionnaire included a message from GVI and directions. Postage-paid return envelopes addressed to the Center for Social Research (CSR) at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) were included. The CSR was used to assure neutrality. A CCSU faculty member conducted the analysis.
The questionnaire was lengthy, taking over 20 minutes to complete. It asked individuals to respond to 52 different natural resource, land use, and community design topics using a 1 to 5 scale to gauge:
One hundred sixty-three usable surveys were returned (12%).
The reason that importance, knowledge, and interest variables each needed to be assessed stemmed from unclear results of the 2000 survey, which only assessed interest. It was unclear whether a low interest score was reflective of disinterest or ignorance about the topic. Some respondents in that study who gave Geographic Information System topics a low interest score, for example, actually wrote in that they didn't know what it was. Additionally, some respondents may have felt that they already knew enough about the topic and did not need any more information, hence their disinterest. This (2005) study allowed us to determine whether, a) low interest is due to low importance, b) low interest is due to low knowledge, or c) low interest is due to high knowledge though still seen as an important topic.
Four weeks after the cut-off date for the initial survey, a phone survey of nonrespondents was launched to evaluate if the data collected was representative of the population surveyed. Twelve representative questions from the initial survey were used in this 5-minute follow-up survey. Two university students trained in interviewing methods conducted the phone survey. A sample of 272 individuals on the mailing list (20%) were randomly selected, and phone numbers were obtained from public records for approximately 80% of these individuals. The interviewers began contacting these individuals until 50 surveys were completed.
Respondents to the follow-up survey represent 21 of the 35 towns initially surveyed. When asked how many years they had worked or volunteered in town activities, the average response from the follow-up survey was 9.4 years (not statistically different when compared with 12.3 years from the initial survey). The follow-up survey asked participants to respond to the 12 questions using a 1 to 5 scale (low to high). Independent sample t-tests were conducted comparing answers to these questions for nonrespondents and respondents. Significance (p < .05) was detected for only one variable, importance of managing town or land trust forests and other open spaces (t=2.108, p=.036).
Because statistical difference was detected for only one of the 12 questions, we believe it can be reasonably assumed that findings from the initial survey can be generalized to the target population. When asked why they did not respond to the initial survey, the most common reasons stated (in order of most to least frequent) were that they were either too busy, not interested, misplaced the questionnaire, or did not remember receiving it. In addition, the extensive length of the survey probably contributed to the low response rate.
As with the 2000 survey, the 2005 survey clearly shows that strong, across-the-board interest exists for continuing education in natural resource, land use, and community design (Tables 1-8). In 2000, on a scale of 1 (no interest) to 5 (great interest), only three of the 53 topics (6%) received an average score below the scale midpoint of 3. In 2005, again only three topics (5% of the total) received an average interest score below the scale midpoint. These included: 1) downtown neighborhood revitalization and infill development (2.9), 2) mill reuse and brownfield redevelopment (2.9), and 3) main street and downtown revitalization (2.9). The lack of interest in these topics likely stems from the small-town rural nature of the QSHC. Only three QSHC communities have populations exceeding 20,000.
In 2005, only three topics were rated slightly above the mid point, indicating better than moderate levels of knowledge. These topics included: 1) using map and resource data to prioritize areas for open space protection (3.1), 2) using map and resource data to evaluate and guide subdivision development and other land use proposals (3.1), and 3) roles and responsibilities of municipal boards and commissions (3.3). Results were somewhat gratifying for GVI educators and staff as GVI's mission is to improve the knowledge base from which natural resource and land use decisions are made. These topics have been a major focus of our educational programming since 2001. Results are strong evidence that significant progress has been made in fulfilling this mission. The self-reported low knowledge levels across all other topics, however, clearly suggest an ongoing need for additional continuing education.
Only four issues were rated below the scale mid point, indicating that better than moderate levels of importance are attached to most topics. The topics that respondents feel are less than moderately important include: 1) conservation initiatives in other states (2.9), 2) mill reuse and brownfields redevelopment (2.8), 3) main street and downtown revitalization (2.9), and 4) growing and harvesting wood products (2.8).
Priority Categories and Topics
As can be seen in Table 9, topics relating to the broad category, Community and Land Use Planning, dominated respondents' interest in learning (3.7). Table 9 shows that topics related to the three broad categories: a) Inventorying and Prioritizing Natural Resources (3.6), b) Open Space Protection (3.6), and c) Legal Issues and Board/Commission Capacity Building (3.6), were a close second in terms of respondents' interest in learning. It should also be noted that there is not that much difference in interest by category overall, with the highest to lowest ranging from 3.7 to 3.3.
Table 10 shows that five of the top 12 specific program topics that respondents were most interested in learning about stemmed from the Community and Land Use Planning category, including: 1) creative development techniques (4.2), 2) innovative zoning (4.0), 3) smart growth and sustainable development (3.9), 4) strengthening zoning (3.9), and 5) planning for wildlife corridors and recreational trails (3.8). Table 10 also shows that four of the top 12 specific program topics of interest stemmed from the other three broad categories noted above, including: 1) using maps and resource data to guide subdivision development (3.9), 2) open space funding (3.8), 3) explaining the value of open space (3.8), and 4) new land use legislation (3.8).
Although the Community Design and Computer Mapping categories received the two lowest scores (both 3.3), some of the specific topics in these categories rated high for participant's level of interest. One of these topics, alternative forms of commercial development (4.0), was the number two item of interest. It should be noted that it is specifically the downtown topics in this category that received the lowest interest scores and pulled the overall category down.
The other category receiving a low interest score, Computer Mapping and Other Technological Tools, did not contribute any items to the top 12 list of specific program topics. This is interesting because each year GVI and its partners conduct a 2-week-long Geographic Information System training sessions with many participants from the QSHC. Use of Natural Resource Inventory data by towns was rated as numbers 2, 3, and 4 on Table 11 below, which lists the top 12 specific topics by importance. Respondents, it would seem, agree that map and resource data are important to guide subdivision development (4.3) and open space protection (4.2) and focus economic development (4.2). Most, however, either already received what training they feel they need or have little interest in learning how to use a G.I.S. themselves.
Table 11, Importance of a Specific Topic, shows that four of the top 12 topics are again from the Community Planning Category, including: 1) creative development techniques (4.2), 2) smart growth and sustainable development (4.1), 3) innovative zoning (4.1), and 4) strengthening zoning regulations (4.1). These are followed closely by topics from the Inventorying and Prioritizing Natural Resources Category, including: 1) using map and resource data to guide subdivision development (4.3), 2) using map and resource date to prioritize areas for protection (4.2), and 3) using map and resource data to focus economic growth. The Open Space Protection Category follows closely with: 1) open space funding (4.2), 2) grant writing (4.1), and 3) explaining the value of open space (4.1).
A further comparison of Tables 10 and 11 reveals that this trend of giving topics a higher rating for importance than interest in learning is almost universal. Apparently respondents frequently recognize the significance of these topics, but lack the personal time or interest to invest in learning about them.
The specific topic, Creative Development Techniques that Conserve Natural Resources, received the highest rating for interest in learning in both 2000 and 2005, and the most important rating in 2005. As a whole, Community and Land Use Planning topics rated highest for interest in learning by category in 2005, and they are perceived to be much more important in 2005 than they were in 2000. This may reflect growing knowledge about these issues, stemming both from past GVI educational programs and greater media coverage of these topics. Specific topics related to the broad categories of a) Inventorying and Prioritizing Natural Resources and b) Open Space Protection were of priority interest in both 2000 and 2005. In 2005, the three specific topics rated as most important after Creative Development, were all from the Inventory and Prioritization of Natural Resources category. When rated for importance, these were followed closely by the Open Space category and the Community Planning category.
Relationships Between Interest, Importance and Knowledge
In 2000, two questions were raised concerning data interpretation:
To ascertain answers to these questions, the 2005 survey asked about a) importance of the topic, b) knowledge of the topic, and c) interest in learning about a topic. Multi-item scales were constructed for each question under each topic category using the individual topics listed for each category. Tables 1-8 show the topics that comprise each category. Table 12 lists measures of reliability for these scales. As can be seen, all measures have adequate internal consistency.
Table 13 shows the relationship among the Interest, Knowledge, and Importance measures. As expected, in all cases there is positive relationship between interest in learning more about a topic and the importance attached to that topic. In future surveys the questionnaire could be considerably shortened (and response rates possibly increased) by asking about interest or importance but not both.
Table 13 shows that the relationship between interest in learning and present knowledge is more ambiguous. In half the cases, there is a significant positive relationship between these two variables. (In the other half, the relationship was not significant.) This can be interpreted to mean that low knowledge about a topic may equate to low interest in the topic. It may also suggest that it is less common for respondents to feel they already possess high/sufficient knowledge about a topic and hence have little interest in receiving more information. Further, there is little evidence that a relationship exists between knowledge and importance.
In 2005, we included three columns (importance, knowledge, and interest) on our questionnaire in an attempt to answer questions that were unanswered in the 2000 survey. Including these three columns added significantly to the length of the survey, which may have contributed to the low response rate. Nevertheless, there was very little evidence of response bias. The results confirmed the positive relationship between interest and importance. Future surveys should be shortened by asking about either interest or importance but not about both. A shorter questionnaire could result in an increased response rate. The analysis of the relationship between knowledge and interest, and knowledge and importance was inconclusive, however.
Survey results will inform future GVI choices concerning continuing education topics in "Last Green Valley." The respondents' greatest interest continues to be in:
Closely related is a strong interest in using natural resource data to guide growth and development while prioritizing land and resources for protection.
Tools available to communities to addressing growth and conservation across the nation are continually changing and improving. A Cooperative Extension forum for exchanging information about planning tools and approaches that work would be very useful for Extension educators nationwide.
A May 2005 survey of Extension professionals in the northeast identified economic development, land use, community engagement, and planning as the most critical emerging issues in the region. This same survey identified "communication and information sharing within the region" as one of the services that would be most helpful for the Northeast Center for Rural Development to provide (Goetz & Whitmer, 2005). The Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development has developed a Web-based toolbox <http://www.cas.nercrd.psu.edu/Toolbox/index.htm> to address these issues. Extension educators have also formed a working group, the Northeast Extension Land Use Network (NEELUN), that is considering new regional approaches for Extension education programs addressing land use issues.
Extension educators across the country may find regional approaches to information sharing valuable. It is also important for different regions across the country to learn from each other about new approaches to land use issues. A new national Cooperative Extension forum on land use planning could fill this role, or this could be an expansion of an existing forum such as the National Association of Community Development Extension Professionals <http://nacdep.net>.
As our communities grow nationwide, decision-maker education on issues relating to land use, community planning, and natural resource conservation will grow in importance. This is true wherever land use decisions are made at the municipal or county level by volunteer commissions. Cooperative Extension Systems in such areas are likely to realize significant programmatic impacts by addressing these issues. Community education has historically played a significant role in Extension programming. A need for a focus on community and environmental planning will continue well into the future.
Godin, K., & Broderick, S. H. (2001). Partnering with a national heritage corridor: A Connecticut case study. Journal of Extension (On-line), 39(5). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2001october/a3.html
Goetz, S., & Whitmer, W. (2005). Economic and community development Extension priorities identified. Network 05, A Quarterly Newsletter for Northeast Rural Development, 20 (3).
Westa, S. P., Broderick, S. H. & Tyson, C. B. (2005). Getting the Word Out in the Last Green Valley: Integrating Digital Video, Direct Mail, and Web-Based Information for Specific Target Audiences. Journal of Extension (On-line), 43(1) Article 1FEA7. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2005february/a7.shtml
Westa, S. P. (2005). The Green Valley Institute: Balancing growth and conservation through a university partnership. Practicing Planner, Vol. 3, No.3.
This article is online at http://www.joe.org/joe/2007october/a9.shtml.
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