Do Comprehensive Plans matter? Should we bother? Why?

Comprehensive planning gets a bad rap- one that it has partially, although not completely, deserved. In the past few years I seem to encounter more and more clients who are either trying to avoid comprehensive planning, or trying to hybridize their comprehensive planning with something more “practical,” like a short-term development strategy.   Many economic developers, and not a few urban planners, have told me that comprehensive planning is irrelevant, a waste of time, and consumes money that could be better spent to “make something happen.”

Certainly there are no shortage of comprehensive planning efforts that look like a probable waste of time and effort.   After nearly 20 years of dealing with comprehensive plans, there are definite ways to tell which are useful and which are destined to sit on the proverbial shelf, gathering the proverbial dust.  They fall into several basic categories:

  • The Encyclopedia.  Everything you might ever possibly have wanted to know about the place, and a whole lot you didn’t.  These plans tend to be at least 75% existing conditions by volume, and go through every possible element the textbook tells you to, whether they are relevant to this community or not.   The actual planning part is relegated to the last chapter, where a mini-version of the Laundry List (see below) comes in.   These plans seem to result from a combination of three factors: an inherited 1970s federally-funded 701 plan (before my time, but I think they paid by the page), bare-minimum funding to “update” that piece of archeology, and a planning staff (whether in-house or consultant) that does not have the power or leadership capacity to play a real role in shaping policy. 
  • The Kum Ba Yah.  This plan emphasizes the public’s (usually residents’) input.  The process of developing the plan is dominated by massive public meetings and extensive numbers of focus groups, surveys, and other feel-good activities (usually featuring the latest whiz-bang electronic voting campaign.  The problem isn’t that they get public feedback (that’s critical!), the problem is that it often generates a Santa Claus wish list of pet projects and ideas that, while perhaps important, don’t take into account real-world parameters, like where the funding will come from.  The great fault of these plans is that they present these wish lists as The Plan.  The people have spoken… whether or not it can be done or not is apparently someone else’s problem.   
  • The Laundry List. This plan actually makes recommendations, often well-thought-out recommendations, but it makes so many recommendations, and in such a disorganized stream of bullet-point statements, that no one knows where to start, or what to do first, or what to do if the first, fifth or 20th thing on the list becomes out of reach because of changes in funding requirements, regulations, or a variety of other possible factors.  The result?  “Um….”
  • The Pretty Picture.   For both economic developers and visually-inclined planners, the belief sometimes still holds  that If You Draw It, It Will Somehow Turn Into Reality.  These plans often feature gorgeous renderings of a Beautiful Place, preceded by a real estate analysis that appears to have been entirely ignored by the designers, and followed by a rudimentary outline of the zoning changes that need to happen to allow the castle to materialize out of the air. Whether or not the Beautiful Place has any potential to be constructed in a capitalistic market setting is never really addressed. 

Each of these approaches takes an element of what a comprehensive plan should be reasonably expected to contain — existing conditions information, recommendations, conceptual graphics — and blows that element all out of proportion.  That would not be a problem, except that in the process of over-emphasizing one element, these plans usually fail to account for some other aspect that is part of the delicate mix of conditions we need to make communities thrive.  

At its core, though, each of these approaches represents something more troubling than an incomplete plan: they represent situations in which planners (by force or by choice) sidestepped the critical responsibility that is the reason for doing any long-range plan: the  group management, critical thinking and communication needed to help an organization of people figure out the best path from a known present into an unknown future.  Writing an encyclopedia is easy.  Getting a lot of people to say what they want is easy.  Throwing a bunch of ideas on paper is easy.  Drawing a picture of something you want in the future is easy.  The hard part is the part missing from each of these: balancing a realistic, critical understanding of existing and potential future conditions with the need and the desire for an improved future, and helping the people who have the most at stake in that future be part of figuring out the puzzle. 

A successful community must have a comprehensive plan.  They may call it many things — it might not even be written down in one book (*gasp*).  But I guarantee you that, if you investigate any community that has been the success story of its region for more than a generation, you will find a plan, and long-term use of the plan, at its core.    Comprehensive planning for communities is like career planning or retirement planning for individuals:  if you don’t set goals for your future and figure out a doable way to get from where you are today to where you want to be, you can be pretty well certain that you won’t get there.  My retirement savings plan does me no good if it overestimates my earning potential, or makes unrealistic assumptions about what my needs will cost in the future, but if it’s reasonably accurate, and I rely on it consistently over a long period of time to guide how I use my money, then I have a much higher likelihood of that sailboat in Antigua than I do if I just cross my fingers and play the lottery.

So how do you design a comprehensive plan so that it can be used, not just shelved?  In line with the four ineffective plan types, there are four key elements of a successful plan:

  • Existing Conditions that improve understanding of the key issues facing the community.  You don’t  need to know everything there is to know.  You do need to know and think deeply about the issues that are likely to have the biggest impact on the future.  And it’s not enough to feed facts to stakeholders and residents — they need to think deeply about the implications of what you found out, too. 
  • Channelled and managed public participation.  No planner wants to attend the public meeting where two or three loud people dominate the floor and complain about things that have nothing to do with what you called the meeting for.  But here’s a little-known secret: the public (well, all except those guys) don’t want to go either.  It’s a waste of their time as much as a waste of ours.  And most residents, if they think about it, don’t want to just churn out ideas that might or might not help the community, either.  It doesn’t have to be like that.  Especially for comprehensive planning, we need to manage the public’s participation process, just like we manage internal meetings.  We need to design the meetings to not just elicit off-the-wall ideas, or complaints from a few spotlight-seekers.  We need to design the public participation process to engage the bold and the shy, confident speakers and stammerers, and not just ask them to spout ideas, but give them real-world challenges to grapple with, so that the feedback we get from them is thoughtful and includes everyone’s voice. 
  • Set priorities.  I don’t know why more plans don’t do this.  We all know that there is only so much time and money to go around, and not all of our plan’s bright ideas can get done right away.  So why pretend otherwise?  Pretending is not going to make money appear in the air.   We need to guide our stakeholders through the tough decisions to decide what’s the most important — and what can wait if it has to.
  • Never, ever ignore what has to happen to make the plan become reality.   If we want to propose some Grand New Thing, our proposal must answer two critical questions: why hasn’t it happened already?  and what evidence is there to suggest that it can happen in the future?   That doesn’t mean that we can’t be ambitious — we cannot assume that the way things are today is the way they shall always be (a common mis-assumption of elected officials and Zoning Commission members).  It does mean, however, that we have to be clear-eyed about the past and the future, and make decisions based on facts, not what we want the facts to be.  By halfway through a planning process, most of my steering committees can recite one of my favorite lines: if it were easy, you would have done it already.  We have to understand why our Grand New Thing hasn’t already been done, and we have to understand exactly what needs to change in order to make it easy. 

What do you think makes comprehensive planning ineffective?  What do you think makes for a good comprehensive plan?  Should we bother with comprehensive planning, or is there another approach we should be trying?  I am really looking forward to comments on this one!

4 thoughts on “Do Comprehensive Plans matter? Should we bother? Why?”

  1. There are sooo many things that make comprehensive plans ineffective. The list could go on and on.
    What makes an effective comp plan?
    I agree a comp plan can take on many forms and be effective, but the key ingredient is a shared understanding of community core values and mission. Most times these are not well or ever defined, but unless they are the rest of any comp plan, whether written or not, will fail. The more time planners spend on making sure these are understood, the easier the rest of the plan will come together. Since comp plans establish a long-term vision, making sure city manaement, council and planing commission understand and accept intuitively the core values and mission.

  2. I was always taught as both a new zoning inspector (a few decades ago) and as a city manager that Comp Plans, or some sort of short and long term Plan was needed. Your descriptions are very accurate. I think what makes a Comp Plan ineffective is often the political will of the City Council, City Manager and/or Planning Commission if the community vision contradicts theirs or that of parts of the business community (I’ve seen all cases). The Council and/or the City Manager may also NEGLECT making any part of the comp plan interact with the budget process – a key omission.
    It may not be as important if Comp Plan is a good plan or bad plan. What is important, is the process and community acceptance, political adoption and inclusion of plan elements in operations and capital budgets, as well as annual work plans. Further, there should be some sort of annual report to the community as to progress being made on Comp Plan elements.
    Someone noted earlier, we are darned if we do and darned if we don’t plan. However, we are further behind if we as public organizations and leaders within public organizations, and as independent consultants if we do not bring up the topic and argue for short and long term planning.

  3. This was a comment that Bill Lutz, the Community Development Director of Piqua, Ohio, posted on Facebook. It’s reprinted here with his permission, since I thought his comments were too good to not include. If you want to see a town that has done it right — long-term focus, building on its assets, maintaining willpower in the face of setbacks — you won’t find many examples better than Piqua.

    I think there are value in Comprehensive Plans, but it’s the application of those plans that I think end up giving some folks consternation about the products. I can go through our plan here and, as you state, there is recommendation after… recommendation of things we need to do and those recommendations are so vauge, they end up providing little guidance.

    If I was to tell planners what they need to concentrate on it is the following:

    1. Make recommendations clear and concise and relevant. Vague guidance such as “expand a path system to connect destinations” is of such little value. This just leads to questions of what destinations are warranted a connection? And of course, when we expand a path system, you know we are just going to put it to the middle of nowhere (sarcasm added).

    2. Give historical context. So much of what happens in our community occured due to private market forces. For example, if 75% of our downtown is vacant, could you tell me why?

    I agree, leadership for any comprehensive planning process is critical and very hard to come by. The biggest challenge is finding that right individual or individuals who are willing to take a stake in the process. Let’s face it, local politicians may be hesitant since 1) it takes time to actually implement the plan and they may not be around for that and 2) who wants to come out and endorse a plan that may actually force us to look into the mirror and make changes? Community staff aren’t exactly the best folks for the leadership role either since it makes comprehensive planning from a community-led effort into a staff-mandated exercise. We certainly can’t expect consultants to lead the effort either. Let’s face it, you are only going to be able to comment on the things you hear about or know about; much of which may end up out of the process all together. I guess in the final analysis it all ends up on the residents to come out and help the process move forward.

    BTW, feel free to share my comments, for what they are worth.

    Thanks, Bill!

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