The Importance of Comprehensive Planning in a Down Economy

<p class="MsoNormal"> <span style="font-size: 10pt; line-height: 115%; font-family: Garamond, serif">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.<span>  </span>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.<span>  </span>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.</span> </p>

October 4, 2011, 8:28 PM PDT

By Justin Steinmann


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

Justin Steinmann is Principal Planner for the City of Auburn, Alabama, where he also teaches in an adjunct capacity in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University.

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