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Planning Without A Comprehensive Plan

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Where I work, in the urban city of Somerville, Massachusetts, we have for many years planned without a comprehensive plan. There, I’ve admitted it. Although I would prefer to be able to say that we have relied on a well-designed, frequently-updated comprehensive plan, it’s not the end of the world to do planning without one. And in the real world, it happens a lot more than some would like. So what do you do if you don’t have a comprehensive plan you can rely upon?

Sometimes a community will have targeted “area plans” that focus on a particular part of town, such as downtown or an industrial park. Other times there may be a transportation plan for a road or area where traffic has been a concern. More recently there has been a trend towards “policy” plans and “strategic” plans that focus on implementation rather than a final vision.

All of these plans can be well-designed documents that serve their purposes well. They often focus on the heart of the planning debate in a community, whether it is traffic or a failing downtown or loss of agricultural lands. Experience has taught me that it is possible, and even desirable, to start with smaller planning efforts to convince a community of the value of planning. Even if you never raise the stakes and develop a “comprehensive plan,” you’ve done your community a service by beginning to outline its aspirations and how to achieve them.

In Somerville, in lieu of a comprehensive plan, we have (over time) developed a series of guidelines that serve as an informal “policy plan” guiding development. These guidelines are based on avoiding the mistakes of the past, and on leading development towards the future. However, they have never been formalized through a public participation process, nor have they been legitimized by the endorsement of elected officials.

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