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Sharing Experiences: When it’s OK to Copy your Neighbor’s Work


So far in 2014, 2.9 million acres have been destroyed by wildfires in the United States. It’s been one of the worst wildfire seasons in history, and climate experts worry that the situation in the west is only going to get worse.

For people living in the six states currently reporting large fires, it’s a devastating outlook. But for the firefighters, community leaders and emergency responders, it’s a wake-up call.

Just like so many communities facing change or disaster, locals are learning from the sometimes-devastating experiences of others and gleaning lessons that fit their unique needs.

They’re saving lives by tapping into that network and sharing experiences. Air quality, fire prevention and flame-fighting tactics are all popular topics of discussion among local firefighters across the west at the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center.


The unthinkable loss of 19 firefighters at the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013 forced a re-examination of the communication, surveillance and planning techniques used to fight fires in challenging situations. (Photo courtesy Dagny Gromer/Flickr)

Prevention, recovery and resilience are also continuing lessons among the 32 cities and counties in the Rockefeller Foundation’s inaugural class of Resilient Cities.

Through reports, observation, conversations and collaboration, communities like Jacksonville, Boulder and Oakland are learning from each other how they can build infrastructure and economies strong enough to weather hardships.


The success of newly-appointed Chief Resilience Officers in cities like San Francisco is inspiring other cities to hire resilience officers of their own. (Photos courtesy Rockefeller Foundation)

Taking cues from other communities isn’t just helpful when recovering from disaster. Organizations like the International City and County Managers Association (ICMA) give local leaders a place to collaborate and share experiences with the express purpose of making communities better places to live.

The City-County Communications and Marketing Association (3CMA) is a network of communications and public relations professionals, focusing on forging deeper and more meaningful connections among civic leaders and community members.*

3CMA uses those connections to meet what it says is the ultimate challenge for local government, “converting passive consumers of public services into responsible, supportive citizens.”

Everyday planning is a constant coupling of new ideas and proven methods. Grand Central Station inspired countless other transit hubs. Cities across the country are modeled after Washington, D.C. Ohio University is often called the Harvard on the Hocking, partially because of the similarity of its architecture to the Ivy League mainstay.

Photo courtesy Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

Cutler Hall, Ohio University. (Photo courtesy Jimmy Emerson/Flickr)

Community leaders often turn to their residents to find that inspiration. A city park in Arkansas could inform the creation of a similar park in a small Nebraska town. One city’s solution to a transit headache could be borrowed and adapted to work for another.

Communities even follow the lead of others nearby in connecting with their residents. When launching Engage Breckenridge, Director of Communications Kim Dykstra says the city took the experiences of neighboring communities into account when making its engagement game plan.

“Every community is different, but there are common lessons that we can all learn from. I would go to a lot of other city’s sites and figure out how they would frame the questions.”

Kim says as the city got more educated, so did residents. “People are more informed and educated, simply because we’re asking them about these questions.”

No community wants to reinvent the wheel if it doesn’t have to. Creativity and unique assets are always taken into account, and can lead to some pretty incredible places, projects and programs. But one of the greatest assets communities have at their disposal is the bank of others’ experiences that they can learn from.

By observing that network and how similar communities have responded to similar situations, mistakes can be avoided, good ideas can be perfected, and the efficacy of projects can be solidified.


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