The Importance of Comprehensive Planning in a Down Economy

Justin Steinmann's picture

In many ways, the Great Recession has been a frightening time for planners. As development slowed, the flow of applications submitted for new development slowed from its torrent at the height of the housing boom to the trickle it is today.  With the decline in applications came a decline in workload for public-sector planners working in current planning roles and a decline in revenue for the jurisdictions that employed them.  The end result was hundreds of planners being laid off, and private-sector planning firms competing with one another for ever-decreasing shares of work from public- and private-sector clients.

The slowing in the pace of development has given those planners who remain something precious: time.  Especially in America's fastest-growing places, the pace of development at the height of the housing boom often left planners with little time to engage in planning that was not focused on the here and now.  As a result, in many jurisdictions important work to update archaic zoning ordinances or old comprehensive plans was left undone.  Comprehensive plans in particular suffered, as fast-paced development changed the face of towns and cities in ways not anticipated by plans of an earlier age. Except in those states where comprehensive plans are binding, the first hints of irrelevance (real or perceived) are often the death knell for a comprehensive plan's effectiveness. 

A good comprehensive plan that has earned the support of the community is one of the most effective tools planners have in effecting positive change in our communities. An effective comprehensive plan will:

  • Provide guidance for the future, based on examining existing and future conditions, the best examples of planning practice from around the United States, and a place's best vision for itself
  • Give the aspirations of a community substance and form by providing recommendations on how to implement the community's vision
  • Provide predictability and fairness for citizens, elected officials, city staff, and the development community by providing a community with a visionary future land use plan that provides appropriate recommendations for the type, location, and scale of new development for that community for years to come
  • Help the many plans and other guiding documents for a community work together effectively and toward a common purpose
  • Have clear and effective methods for implementing the comprehensive plan's recommendations

America's planners have long overlooked the importance of visioning.  Great places are not created by accident, and the things people love about places they visit do not have to be exclusive to those places.  Communities make choices every day about the type of places they will become.  These choices are incremental; it is not always clear what impact a single decision will have.  Many decisions made over time have created the communities in which we now live and will live in the future.

Visioning is the act of anticipating that which will or may come to be.  A clearly articulated vision about the kind of community that citizens want provides a community with a roadmap to that destination.  Without a vision, communities lack the guidance to ensure that their incremental choices create the final result they desire.  This is where zoning ordinances have failed us.  Too often, they consist of long lists of requirements, implemented by planners, that result in places that do not reflect the vision a community has for itself.  Building enduring communities that people care about requires us to set aside long-held practices that have not worked in favor of those practices that will.  We have long known how to build places that last, that work.  Those places are still with us, and it is from them that we can recall that which we have forgotten.

Comprehensive plans are one vital tool for communities to begin to effectively realize their own best vision for their futures.  These plans provide the missing link between what we want and what we get.  The slowing of development in America has provided planners with an opportunity to put effective comprehensive plans in place now that will shape our cities and towns for years to come.  This is an opportunity we must not let pass us by.

I would like to use this post and subsequent ones to foster a dialogue about comprehensive planning: what is working, what isn't, and the role comprehensive planning does and should play in our communities.

[This post was updated on 10/6 for the purpose of error correction].  

Justin Steinmann, AICP, is Principal Planner for the City of Auburn, Alabama.



How Comprehensive Planning does not work

Comprehensive planning strives to "Provide predictability and fairness for citizens, elected officials, city staff, and the development community by providing a community with a VISIONARY LAND USE PLAN that provides appropriate recommendations for the type, location, and scale of new development for that community for years to come." However, in practice, land use and development decisions that do not conform with these plans are made everyday by Redevelopment and Economic Development Directors, with the support of Mayors and City Councils. What brings money into the City must be approved, regardless of dream, plan or previous commitment. You will not get your boutique retail district if Target comes knocking.

Rather than focusing on land use control, look to comprehensively plan places where Public dollars are spent- in the design and implementation of everyday placemakers like streetscapes, public plazas, and transportation.

The cost of comprehensive planning

Justin, you make some great points. I recently heard a speaker tell the audience (primarily local government planners) NOT to update comprehensive plans right now due to the high costs associated with it. Although I don't agree with that statement, it raises another valid point - How do agencies with fewer technical and financial resources tackle such an endeavor during slow times? One piece of advice that is often overlooked is the ability to update the comprehensive plan one element/section at a time. If the functionality of the land use element has clearly shifted, then start with that. If affordable housing is critical, go for it. If your plan lacks an economic development chapter or natural hazards mitigation element, add them on if they are critical to the future development of the community! Comp planning is not an all-or-nothing endeavor and can be accomplished over time without the dreaded price tag. I would also add to the list of what makes an effective comprehensive plan: Does it have a plan maintenance section to guide future staff, appointed and elected officials? Give the future users of the plan the playbook for future updates. Anyhow, thank you for your timely post.

The Importance of Comprehensive Planning in a Down Economy

The Washington Post (October 13, 2011) is running this article: "Demolitions follow wave of foreclosures". Comprehensive planning need to incorporate downsizing in recognition of demographic/economic trends.

As an observation, allowing new development to expand into undeveloped (natural) areas while the old declining downtown area has a supply of vacant available buildings that could be utilized.

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