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(HOST) Reflecting on the hot debate ignited by so many issues these days, commentator Bill Shutkin thinks we might want to steal a few secrets of success from our favorite sports teams.

(SHUTKIN) 2004 was a banner year for New England sports fans, what with the Red Sox first World Series title in 86 years and the Patriots’ third Superbowl ring. Except perhaps for the antics of Pedro Martinez, the now former Sox pitcher and perennial prima donna, what set these teams apart is their team ethic. Players willing to take a back seat, make compromises and even take pay cuts to stick together.

Sports writer after sports writer extolled this team spirit as the key to their success. Apparently, other teams have gotten the message as they look to replace over-paid superstars with lunch-pail foot soldiers.

Now consider, not a sports team, but a community. Isn’t it curious that, when it comes to accounting for a successful franschise, we’re quick to celebrate team work, yet when many of us think of our own communities, we don’t think in terms of a team at all. At least we don’t act like we do.

At a recent school board meeting in my district, budget discussions soon devolved into an us-versus-them proceeding, as if folks were from different planets, let alone points of view. Or take your average planning meeting to discuss a proposed housing project or a big-box shopping center or, worse yet, a wind farm; team spirit is probably the last thing that comes to mind. It’s all about which side you’re on, who’s the enemy and how you’ll attack.

Sports are a perfect metaphor for community planning, not because they both involve competition, but for other reasons. Like sports, planning is about meeting challenges: the stakes are high, requiring stamina and skill, and there are strategies and tools that can help increase the likelihood of success, just like a Bill Belichik defensive scheme or the pitch calling of Sox catcher Jason Varitek.

Planning is also, by definition, a team sport; it’s about our ability to develop the “I” into the “We”, as sociologist Bob Putnam says. It demands that individuals check some of their self-interest at the door and open their minds to the views and needs of the larger community, their home team. This is less an intellectual exercise than it is an artful one, for it demands that people use their imaginations to step inside the shoes of their neighbor or a developer or, even harder, someone who doesn’t yet exist, the future generation.

At its best, planning is democracy’s ultimate team sport, demanding at once solid individual play and highly coordinated collective action. With Vermont facing unprecedented challenges like the affordable housing crisis, skyrocketing energy bills and rising education costs, it’s high time we raised our game. And what better occasion than with spring training just getting underway.

This is Bill Shutkin of Peru.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.

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