Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Incremental Planning?

3 minute read

The concept of incrementalism can be applied to numerous fields and disciplines—one of which is planning. In the field of planning, the word incremental is usually used as an adjective to describe other planning words, such as code reform and development.

A row of multistory, brick buildings in a small U.S. city, with retail uses on the ground floor and apartments above.

Eddie J. Rodriquez / Shutterstock

Incremental planning breaks planning processes into small, manageable chunks, in contrast to the larger efforts required of comprehensive plans or general plans. An incremental approach to planning, therefore, evolves gradually by focusing on one issue at a time and creating a "plan within the plan." In the planning field, the word incremental is usually used as an adjective to describe other key planning terms—most notably incremental development and incremental code reform. 

American political scientist Charles E. Lindblom first developed the concept of incrementalism in a 1959 essay titled "The Science of Muddling Through" as a response to the "rational-comprehensive" approach to policy making. The concept of incrementalism has since expanded to other fields, including technological development, project management, and planning. 

In the field of planning, proponents of incrementalism cite several advantages of this approach compared to rational planning or comprehensive planning, including lower costs for planning work and a more citizen-oriented process. Generally, a rational-comprehensive approach to planning will function as the province of a centralized planning power (also referred to as a command-and-control approach or top-down planning). Incremental planning, on the other hand, is typically intended to emphasize the diversity of people, communities, and culture with a stake in the policy-making process.

Incrementalism also has its detractors. Nicholas Negroponte, architect and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, is credited with saying “incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy.”

Incremental Code Reform: "If You Do Nothing Else, Do This"

Much of the discussion about incrementalism in the field of planning has coalesced around an initiative of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) called the Project for Code Reform. Through this initiative, CNU promotes an incremental approach to code reform so that a larger number of cities can make progress on updating their zoning codes without taking on a long, arduous comprehensive or general plan process. According to CNU, an incremental approach to code reform can remove barriers to progress, such as political opposition and the expense of comprehensive planning. Echoing the generally applicable description of incremental planning as a more democratic approach than top-down planning, CNU also argues for incrementalism as a benefit to context-sensitive—not one-size-fits-all—results.

CNU credits the application of incrementalism to code reform to former Nashville Planning Director Rick Bernhardt, who pioneered an approach to planning that responds to the mandate: "If you do nothing else, do this." Former CNU president Lynn Richards suggests that an incremental code reform process should focus on "the biggest little thing" that can enable better places. According to CNU, these biggest little things are most likely to fall into one of just a few categories: streetscape, form, use, frontage, and parking. 

Incremental Development 

Building off of the messaging and concepts developed by CNU for the Project for Code Reform, Charles Marohn and the team at Strong Towns has shifted the concept of incrementalism away from the process of code reform toward the result of code reforms: development. 

As presented by Strong Towns, an incremental development approach ensures that cities don't build ahead of their capacity to fund and maintain the built environment. According to Marohn, incremental development was always the way that cities built wealth and prosperity, until, that is, the "Suburban Experiment" of sprawl and car-centric planning that dominated planning and development in the United States through most of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Marohn's concept of incremental development echoes one of the key characteristics of incrementalism, regardless of context: the ability to balance need with financial capacity. "Before our Suburban Experiment, people around the world didn’t build incrementally because they were wise. They built that way because, for the most part, they didn’t have another option. They lacked the resources and technology to move mountains, actually or metaphorically," wrote Marohn in 2017. That all changed with the City Beautiful movement and Daniel Burnham, who famously said, "Make no little plans."

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