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American Citizen Planner – Indiana: Community Leaders Earn Certification for Public Planning

Indiana plan commissions, city and town councils, boards of zoning appeals, and county commissions make land-use planning decisions that impact their communities. These decision-makers need to have a grasp of federal, state, and local regulations, community values, land use decision-making, and economic, social, and environmental considerations. Indiana provides authority to city and county governments to pursue self-determined goals through comprehensive planning and locally developed land use regulations; therefore, it is up to local jurisdictions to develop plans, implement public engagement processes, and make decisions that achieve community goals. Indiana has a unique state statute that requires Purdue Extension Agriculture and Natural Resource Educators to serve on most county plan commissions. Those serving their communities as decision-makers on a planning related board or commission come from a wide variety of backgrounds, as do those who are interested in becoming more involved in local planning issues. Both need education to grasp the foundational aspects of local planning and the nature of serving as a public official to better understand the important role they play in planning and land-use decisions.

 In partnership with the Extension Foundation, Michigan State University, and the Purdue Land Use Team, Purdue Extension adapted the American Citizen Planner curriculum for Indiana audiences. The program goal is to prepare citizens to serve their communities by building understanding of planning processes, land-use regulations, zoning, decision-making with the public, and incorporating public input. There are two online courses covering fundamentals of comprehensive planning, public engagement, and land use regulation. Content addresses ethics for public planning officials, moving from issue to future land use policy, and enhancing equity in planning. Participants build knowledge of theories, tools and legal aspects related to planning and working with the public and, thus equipped, help shape plans that guide the future of their communities. Participants learn the role and duties of the plan commissioner and current and emerging issues in planning. Participants complete the first online course, then they attend a workshop (in-person or via webinar) led by ANR Educators. Next, they complete the second online course, and attend a second workshop. These workshops expand on course content and cover an additional, locally relevant topic selected by the host ANR Educator with input from their local plan commission. A guest speaker is invited to present on the topic. Past presentations have included renewable energy, invasive species management/natural resource planning, public health and planning, and public participation strategies for planning.

To advance equity in planning practice as a response to the historic racial justice events of 2020 and the lack of training available to public planning officials in Indiana, Educators delivered the enhancing equity in planning content during workshops. A total of 35 workshops were delivered from 14 Indiana host counties for 67 hours of instruction. Upon completion, participants may take the comprehensive online exam, and those obtaining at least a 70% earn a Master Citizen Planner Certificate. Since 2020, there were a total of 124 program participants who indicated they were citizen planners serving, or planning to serve, on area or advisory plan commissions, interested residents, elected officials, and municipal, county, or nonprofit staff. There were 32 who responded on the post-survey (25.8% response rate). They were white (100%), non-Hispanic (100%), female (55.2%), ranging in age from 27 to 72. They had master’s degrees (50.0%), and annual incomes between $100,00 and $149,999. About one-third were plan commission members (34.4%), local planning staff (28.1%) and Purdue Extension staff (28.1%). Over half (56.3%) were associated with county government units.

 Bringing World-Class Education to Rural and Urban Communities 23 Three-quarters (73.1%) completed all course requirements and passed the exam and earned the Master Citizen Planner Certificate. For knowledge levels before and after the program, participant average scores increased the most for access to continuing education resources for land use planning, and legal, regulatory, and constitutional powers related to land use planning and zoning. With average scores 3.9 (5-point scale), participants indicated that as a result of the program their confidence increased the most for their ability to: 1) apply concepts of public land use and development in your community, and 2) communicate about plan commission activities with residents. Participants indicated with an average 4.2 (5-point scale) that they are likely to “use information from this program for future community planning efforts.” Participants indicated how and when they will apply what they learned. Most common themes on how they will apply what they learned were improving work with and understanding of the comprehensive plan, improved abilities in my role as a commission/committee member, and better engagement with others/community. Threequarters (76.7%) indicated they would apply what they learned immediately. Participants indicated their most significant takeaways from the program was the importance of the comprehensive plan, openness and communication, and greater understanding of how all the parts relate and interact. Most (86.2%) participants would recommend the program to others and indicated that it was very informative, valuable and provided good and comprehensive content.

 In a one-year follow-up with participants, 10 respondents (15.9% response rate) indicated that in the year since completing the program they had used the data or resources provided in their decision-making, knowledge gained to develop or modify a plan, policy, or ordinance, and knowledge gained to improve resident and partnership engagement in the planning process. The American Citizen Planner – Indiana prepares individuals with knowledge and resources to make decisions, work with policies, and improve engagement in local planning for Indiana communities.

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