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Why Comprehensive Plans Gather Dust

Editor’s Note: see also my interview with Della Rucker about her article on comprehensive plans.

Read an excerpt from this article below. You can download the full article by using the link at the end of the excerpt.

In my last Planning Commissioners Journal article (“Welcome to the Tightrope Act“), I noted that planning commission members often find themselves at center ring, trying to balance the community’s economy with its physical and functional needs. Since a comprehensive plan is one of your basic tools for keeping that balance, let’s look at some of the issues that prevent them from being useful, and what we can do to make them better.

I regularly encounter clients who avoid comprehensive planning, or try to hybridize it with something more “practical.” Some have told me that the money spent on comprehensive plans should be used instead to “make something happen.”

While planning commissioners know better than anyone else how important comprehensive plans are, we have all seen plans that we know will sit on the proverbial shelf, gathering the proverbial dust. The dust-gatherers typically fit four categories:

The Encyclopedia. This plan covers everything, whether it matters or not. By volume, these documents are at least 75 percent a catalog of existing conditions. The actual “plan” — that is, the portion that establishes strategies for the future — is relegated to a few vague pages in the last chapter.

The Kum Ba Yah. This plan’s development is dominated by public meetings, focus groups, surveys, etc. Of course, the problem isn’t that the plan lacked public feedback, but that it simply repeated the public comments. A Kum Ba Yah plan creates a wish list that ignores real-world constraints, like funding. The wish list becomes The Plan.

The Laundry List. This plan presents such a disorganized stream of recommendations that no one knows where to start, or what to do if the first or twentieth recommendation becomes impossible. Result: unusable. Welcome to the shelf.

The Pretty Picture, or If You Draw It, It Will Come. This plan features renderings of a Beautiful Place, often preceded by a market analysis that was ignored by the designers and followed by an outline of the zoning that will allow the castle to materialize out of the air. How the Beautiful Place can be constructed in the private market isn’t addressed.

Each of these plans takes one piece of what a comprehensive plan should contain, and blows it out of proportion. Each fails to account for the complicated nature of the real world, simplifying either the planning process or the act of making recommendations to make it simpler to manage.

End of excerpt

… the second part of the article focuses on ways of avoiding these kinds of plans.

photo of Della RuckerDella Rucker, AICP, CEcD, is the Principal of Wise Economy Workshop, a consulting firm that assists local governments and nonprofit organizations with the information and processes for making wise planning and economic development decisions.

Rucker is also Managing Editor of EngagingCities and author of the recent book The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help — portions of which will be serialized here on during 2014.

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