The Planning Fetish: Comprehensive Plans

A guest post by Jennifer Hurley AICP, CNUa, PP, sent via channels affiliated with CNU NextGen. Although I didn’t write this, I agree wholeheartedly based on my experience working in several cities with varying degrees of commitment to comprehensive planning.

Planners have a fetish about comprehensive plans. Their belief in the power of comprehensive plans and their obsession with creating comprehensive plans illustrates what anthropologists call “magical thinking.”

Comprehensive planning as taught in most planning schools is a failed institution. I’ll pause for the collective gasp. Unless required by state law, most communities undertake a comprehensive planning process rarely, if ever. For years, planners have bemoaned this state of affairs—if people only understood what we do and how it benefits them. To address the lack of interest in comprehensive planning, planners have taken a marketing and education approach, trying to persuade people that we have a product they need.

But the market is telling us something. Maybe we should listen. If comprehensive plans were truly useful and a good return on investment, communities would presumably clamor for their creation. So why don’t communities “do” comprehensive planning?

Comprehensive Planning is too expensive. Being thorough in scope, data analysis, public participation, policy formulation, and urban design is incredibly expensive. It takes a great deal of technical expertise and time. Only a few communities can afford to do it at all, and even those only occasionally.

Comprehensive Planning is exhausting. In addition to the expense and exhaustion, comprehensive planning is no fun. Planning staff, public officials, and the public experience burnout. Once they complete the plan, they don’t want to touch it again for years.

Comprehensive Planning is not effective. Most comprehensive plans sit on a shelf rather than motivate people to action. The thoroughness of comprehensive plans means that few people have the time or attention to read the document, and no one uses it as a ready reference. Planning Departments often specify in Requests for Proposals that they want a plan that is “implementable”, gets used, and does not “just sit on a shelf.” They know what they do not want, but they do not know what to ask for in its place.

How can planners overcome these weaknesses in conventional comprehensive planning? The answer lies in understanding “plan” in its verb form rather than its noun form. The “plan” itself is simply a byproduct, not the most important outcome, of good planning. The most important task of comprehensive planning is to develop extensive understanding and not just to include everything and the kitchen sink.

Planners can provide value, improve the communities in which they work, and raise the profile the planning profession by focusing on three basic aspects of good planning.

Visioning: A community, group, organization, etc. needs a shared vision of the future they hope to reach. A vision is what people see when they can imagine that all of the constraints of today have fallen away. The community’s vision is not merely an amalgamation of many individuals’ visions, but something larger that individuals uncover and build together through group efforts. A concrete, articulated vision gives people a goal, a collective sense of direction, and a reason for moving forward through hard work. Achieving that specific vision is not important; in fact, the changing environment almost guarantees that any vision we articulate today will be out of date in the time it takes to achieve it. What is important about the vision is the motivation and collective goal it provides.

Relationship & Community Building: Community and the relationships that make up community comprise the living, breathing organism through which we carry out action. We need to leverage our targeted, short-term planning processes and interventions to build stronger relationships, healthier communities, and organizational capacity. The effects of a planning process reverberate through an area for years, possibly decades. Long after the specific details and data are obsolete, the quality of the experience, the institutions nurtured, and the relationships built through the process shape the future.

Strategic Action Planning: Strategic Planning involves analyzing various aspects of the environment, including physical, social, economic, political, etc., to evaluate how they affect realization of the vision. Action Planning creates a vital roadmap for immediate next steps. Putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again, is the only way things get done. The institutionalization of repeated rounds of Strategic Action Planning transforms planning from its noun form (an occasional process resulting in a static product) into its verb form (an ongoing method for acting in the world).

The world needs planners and planning. We owe it to the communities in which we work to provide effective planning. We cannot allow our blind faith to deprive the world of good planning.