Good City Planning
Gets Results

In some places city planning is downright controversial. I don't mean the specific decisions about planning, but rather the very idea of planning (by the government, no less) somehow sounds suspect.

Well, I understand that government isn't always effective, effective, and thrifty. But really--to be against planning? All of us plan constantly--what to wear, where to shop, what we'll do with our next paycheck, and what to do when the sofa wears out.

So, come on, folks. Planning as a community really isn't such a terrible thing. Let's think about why communities might want to have a written plan for the future, regardless of whether it's lengthy and scholarly, or informal.


Three Benefits of City Planning

1. Planning creates lasting value in a community, as opposed to one flashy store, strip center, or subdivision that looks great for awhile until it goes out of style. When citizens have contemplated their future and anticipated what is likely to happen, they will create a more versatile community that can adapt to changes in lifestyles, preferences, and economic trends.

2. Thoughtful planning tends to result in a wider variety of choices in types of housing, places to shop, and options for businesses wishing to locate in a community. When a planning and zoning commission and a city council keep up with the times, for example, they would see that more people want to work at home and are able to do so, thanks to computer and communications technology. These elected officials and boards then could clear any zoning or regulatory obstacles to home employment.

3. Creating or updating a plan allows citizens, business interests, neighborhood representatives, activists, and civic leaders to come together every few years to understand one another's needs and requirements better.

These occasional formal planning exercises offer everyone a voice in the decision making about overall goals, objectives, and strategies. Conflicting needs will be brought out into the open, but with skillful facilitation, this can result in a stronger sense of community and unexpected win-win solutions to problems.

It's just that somehow when the government thinks ahead--even your mostly trusted local government--people worry about too much government control. Private property rights are a big deal in the U.S.

We're sorry if the term city planning is alienating you. It's just the name of the discipline. The methods and processes apply equally to regions, counties, towns, very small towns, and rural areas that want to work together.






Who Plans?

After years in the city planning field, I think the central question is not "Is planning good?" but rather: "Who plans?"

Developers will be glad to figure out land use and transportation for a little piece of your community, often at the expense of other neighborhoods.

The people who bought real estate first in your neighborhood sometimes protect their own economic interests rather than thinking hard about the future of the entire citizenry.

Someone always plans your community, regardless of its size. The question is who. We have four suggestions.

1. The Public

If you want city planning in the public interest, to protect the broad population, you will need to involve ordinary citizens through community engagement.

Why is community involvement essential? Because you want the buy-in. You want people to support and refer to the finished city planning product and not constantly try to cut it down to size.

But to get buy-in, you're going to have to let people really have their say. And yes, there's a danger they will make bad decisions, but that is why you should enlist some really wise people for your team.

2. Specific Stakeholders

Besides the general public, you may need to think about involving your stakeholders (people who have a stake in the outcome) regularly in city planning. A stakeholder can really jump start or detract from implementation.

Examples are major businesses, institutions such as schools and universities, utility companies, the state highway department, railroads, federal installations in your town, and churches and other organizations that may be important in civic life.

While a company shouldn't necessarily have more voice than an individual citizen, that company's capacity to make or spoil the town means that the company should be singled out for their input.

Especially when there are some obvious major stakeholders, whether they are organizations or individuals, you may want to consider the intensive charrette method.

3. Children

One more group actually has the most to gain or lose from a future-oriented activity such as city planning. That would be the children. City planning with kids isn't for sissies, because kids tell you the truth, state the obvious, and don't stand for a bunch of silly jargon words that don't really mean anything.

Ask them what they think the town should be like in 5 or 10 years. If they say more ice cream, is that really such a bad idea?

4. Professionals

Ideally you'd have some smart, open-minded professionals looking over your shoulders to point out unintended consequences. In larger towns and cities, these may be paid staff, or you may hire city planning consultants.

If you can't afford professionals, imitate what professionals do in other places. Their finished products are easily available on the Internet.


Comprehensive Plans Compared to Neighborhood Plans and Three More Specific Types of Future Visions




Plans may be "comprehensive" or "master" plans, attempting to address all important aspects of community life that the local government impacts. Some places call this the "general plan" also.

Few places meet the goal of being truly comprehensive and inter-linking the various topics that comprise a community, however.

Then there are the sub-types. In general, we would divide plan types into physical plans, economic plans, and social plans. Somehow in the U.S. physical plans have become almost synonymous with the term city planning and are even passed off as comprehensive plans in a typical city. But we want to point out that the planning methodology applies equally to other types of community issues.

Neighborhood plans address a smaller area and may be a combination of physical, economic, and social plans. They offer the opportunity for an area to differentiate itself from other neighborhoods. In urban areas, that differentiation supports the real estate market and keeps business humming.

Many small area plans are written for corridors, commercial districts, industrial areas, downtowns, or redevelopment districts.

Specialized plans addressing particular issues also may be prepared. For instance, a community experiencing rapid growth in immigrants from a different culture and language might write a plan for assimilating the new community members more effectively.


Stages in the City Planning Process

We'll simplify and call it four steps, but you may want to visit our page on community planning process, where these are elaborated in more detail and described differently.

In brief, you need to proceed through:

1. Gathering information and data, including maps and statistics

Neighborhood demographics are important. Demographics means characteristics of the population, such as age, gender, income, ethnicity, and so forth.

You also will need to know what state highway departments and federal agencies might be thinking, and how developers and prospective residents view your community. Find out what the business community thinks of your city and whether it is concentrated in expanding or contracting sectors of the economy.

Start thinking early about what maps probably will be necessary to show existing conditions and your future plan. Determine whether you have the capability of producing such a map. If not, GIS (geographic information systems, or computer-produced mapping capacity) is increasingly common. A larger government nearby or even a utility or industry might be a mapping partner.

Once you've gathered what is likely to be a formidable amount of city planning information, including public attitudes and opinions, you begin sorting through it to see what is important.

2. Analysis of existing conditions

Figure out what is interesting, intriguing, problematic, or unusual in your data and information you have gathered. Try to distill what it means. Ask experts what they think and read this website, and rely on your own intimate knowledge of the community as well.

Analysis might include projections of existing or desired trends out into the future.

Will your town grow? (Of course you think so, but is there any evidence of that, such as a historical trend or a new major employer nearby)? So what will be the population, and the composition of that population, in 20 years?

3. Consider city planning alternatives

Start putting together "what if" scenarios. What if we could get rid of that ugly vacant lot in the middle of town? What if we could reconnect Main Street through where that old factory interrupted it? What if we try to bring artists downtown to live and create some 24-hour-a-day presence there?

What if we say that all new developments have to be north of the stream, because we're going to keep south of the stream as open space? What if we look at our analysis and say that with our uneducated workforce, we have no chance of competing with our neighbors to the north for back-office operations, so we'll make warehousing our growth industry?

4. Decide on the future of your community

Then lastly, you make some decisions. When we say "you," of course we mean a plural you that includes the citizens. You decide as a community it's logical to separate our residential from our commercial--or not. You say we want to double the population, or not. You figure out that you have a competitive advantage economically if you attract even more doctors' offices.

Writing down these decisions so that everyone can see the plan is very important, but most places invest way too much money and energy into a glossy plan.

A great plan explains how the recommendations can be implemented, and will take a community in its desired direction, regardless of whether it looks good or sounds impressive. Pretty colored maps may or may not mean something, but most of them don't.

Contribute your idea of the best plan you've seen, done, or heard about right here. It will be exciting to see what our collective wisdom tells us.


Most Important Topics in a Physical Plan

Since we acknowledged that the physical plan is dominant in the U.S., let's talk about what's usually included in such a plan.

For a comprehensive plan, the most common key decisions will lie in these areas:

Land use. This means whether the land is used for residential purposes, or whether it is commercial, industrial, office, cemetery, institutional (schools, churches, charities, and so forth), public (government buildings or facilities), agriculture, open space, park, and so forth. There is no one correct list of land use classifications, and the subject is complex enough to have its own page. Use what fits your situation.

Sometimes the residential category is divided by densities; density means the number of housing units per acre or square mile. Usually single-family homes are listed separately from multi-family, and sometimes mobile home parks are considered separately as well.

The idea is to start thinking about the future layout of all the activities that make up a community, according to a set of land use planning principles. If we put all of the houses together over here on one side of the river and all of the shops on the other side, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I've spent a lot of time trying to convince people that they have to segregate different activities from each other, because that's what I learned at the university. But there are many advantages to some degree of mixed-use development.

Transportation planning. Transportation usually means highways, roads, and streets in the U.S.

There should be a hierarchy of roads allowing some streets to be faster moving with fewer interruptions. The key streets in a town usually are called arterials, and the street coming out of a subdivision, for example, may be called a collector because it collects traffic from minor streets. Other lists of street and road types are possible.

Get progressive and consider a complete streets approach, in which transit, pedestrian, and cycling modes get equal rights.

The key transportation goals are connectivity and redundancy.

• School size and siting. This is an unconventional choice, but let's think for a minute. If school planning can be integrated into city planning, so that huge schools aren't being built on the outskirts of town, benefits include more walking to school, more kids being known and noticed, less sprawl, less abandonment of historic school buildings, and better opportunities for school-community interaction. School site selection and neighborhood planning should go hand in hand.

• Open space. Open space may take the form of parks, preserves, conservation areas, or simply undeveloped land. I put open space on an equal footing with land use and transportation in determining the physical plan for a town because open space is easily manipulated to stop growth in one direction and redirect it to another. Also city planning that preserves open space allows protection of floodplains or other environmentally sensitive lands such as wetlands, beaches, or mountains.

If your local folks hate regulation, you can use privately negotiated conservation easements for implementing sound land use and open space policies.


Useful Rural Plans

One of the toughest challenges is making sensible rural plans, discussed on a rural zoning page. Sometimes it seems as though the assets and options are outweighed by the overwhelming lack of a future during those times when agriculture is depressed and light industry has left the country.

However, formulating a common vision for a rural community is incredibly important.

Believe it or not, the process is exactly the same in a rural situation as in city planning. Only the priorities among the topics differ.


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