History of Portsmouth Listens dialogues

Over the summer 2017, Portsmouth Listens engaged with the city to create a community dialogue for input on Portsmouth’s proposed housing ordinance. That ordinance tackles the difficult issue of creating more affordable housing in a city where home prices and rents are skyrocketing and inventory is scarce. The goal of the dialogue was to use the brainpower and thoughtfulness of city residents in a series of study circles to provide city decision makers values and fresh ideas that bear on the ordinance and provide new ways to tackle the problem.
Seventy-five adults meet with sixth graders. Sixth graders are amazed that adults will meet with them about school safety concerns. Adults are amazed to hear sixth graders articulate the issues. The dialogue resulted in a collaborative effort by children, parents and teachers to address bullying in city schools.


After the closing of one of four elementary schools, school populations were unbalanced with some elementary schools overcrowded, others underused. A dialogue with 105 residents resulted in 10 criteria for fair redistricting which guided a plan that won broad support and $2mm of bond-issue funding.
Based on the success of study circles in the schools, Portsmouth Listens was created to provide input to the city’s master plan. It was a time broad public input was vital, as the city was changing rapidly. More than 300 residents signed up to make a difference in the city’s future. Their deliberations presented a broad vision of a livable, walkable city in touch with its historic past, and operating in a sustainable way with its limited natural resources. Whole sections of the study circle reports (both vision and Phase II topical group work) were incorporated into the city plan.
After two committees proved unable to decide whether to renovate the historic Middle School on Parrot Avenue or build a green-field structure on open space near an estuary, Portsmouth Listens convened 135 residents in 14 study circles on the question. Shortly after the dialogue, the city voted to renovate instead of relocate, despite higher cost.
Portsmouth Listens convened 118 residents for a half-day dialogue using a “World Café” format. The process created an energized citizen group and identified the action areas going forward. A second round of full study circles on transportation, energy and other topics fleshed out the Sustainablity Plan, and resulted in a spin out group, the Porstmouth Sustainability Initiative, which took on a Sustainability Fair and education projects.
After a contentious 2010 recession-year budget in which lines of citizens waited until midnight to speak, Portsmouth Listens urged the city council to use deliberative dialogue for the FY12 budget. Though cool to giving up any of their budget-making perogatives, the council countenanced a dialogue if Portsmouth Listens sponsored it and provided city department heads to host a kickoff briefing. Citizens in study circles confronted the same choices between tax burden and services as city elected leaders. This dialogue included a mid-point night of dialogue between the study circles and councilors themselves. Citizens and councilors came to roughly the same conclusions and the budget process was less heated than the previous year.
Seventy-two residents along with Portsmouth High School students formed seven groups to review the city’s Blue Ribbon Transportation Plan. The study circles made recommendations for a sustainable, multi-modal transportation system that emphasized walking, biking and other non-automobile options. When city councilors asked, “where do these solutions work?” research study circles provided examples of successful transportation systems in small communities from around the world. The city adopted a Complete Streets plan, a pedestrian and bicycle master plan, and experimented with shuttle-bus satellite parking following the dialogue.
Every 10 years, the city planning board reviews and revises the Master Plan – a guiding document of what our community is, and what it wants to be in the future. This April and May, the city and Portsmouth Listens will convene study circles — small groups of 8-15 citizens – to deliberate on what worked and what didn’t work in our last plan, and what our city’s vision should be for 2025. The study circles will meet four nights (dates on right) and then present their findings to the planning board.
As the city develops, the Islington Street area could see the kind of rapid change that affected downtown. The city sanctioned Portsmouth Listens to hold small-group dialogues on the proposed West End zoning ordinances. The groups presented reports of their discussion directly to the City Council as part of the public input process. The  study circles had vigorous neighborhood participation, creating a vision for the area’s future — its scale, livability and creative vitality — for years to come as part of the city’s Master Plan. Each group met for two hours once a week for four weeks in February.