Planning is on the rise. Municipalities contract with consultants to prepare comprehensive, Downtown, and neighborhood plans.

What’s the difference between a neighborhood development plan and a comprehensive plan?

A comprehensive plan is the broadest type of plan conducted by a municipality. The plan can span a large geographical footprint such as a City or County. The plan also spans a broad range of topics and how they might evolve over a longer period of time, usually over a couple of decades.

Comprehensive Planning topics can include the type of economic and community development that the residents would like to see occur. They could include issues like transportation, environmental sustainability, public infrastructure such as parks and WiFi, etc.

Development plans look at parcel by parcel development of a much smaller area such as neighborhoods. Development plans can impact zoning and align investment.

Both types of plans are highly aspirational. The product of the plan will come after a long public engagement process that includes public meetings, public comment, and public debate. Citizens can weigh in on different options and how to allocate public resources.

The challenges associated with rolling out comprehensive and development plans can include externalized costs or unintended outcomes such as gentrification. Gentrification occurs when new development displaces residents of an existing area. Inevitably disconnects between residents and funders will surface during the public planning process.

Another challenge relates to the time span of planning resolutions. Plans might span multiple administrations. In fragmented local Governments, different political leadership might fight for scarce resources against one another derailing the follow through of the plan over time.

We identify three ways to improve the planning process to better benefit residents.

Use Technology to Envision the Recreation of Physical Infrastructure and Civil Society

The United States does not have a lack of animators, designers, and artists living in local communities that can contribute to the public envisioning of what a new project might bring to the area. New technologies such as virtual or augmented reality can improve the public engagement process. Local municipaliteis should look to integrate art, design, and technology into their planning roll-out.

An ideal scenario would be to craft an immersive application where residents could experience a new public space in virtual or augmented reality.

Be Specific About Costs and Revenues Generated from Investment

Many plans do not approach the forecast from a financial perspective. Plans typically look at new buildings, new initiatives, new organizations that could be resourced. Some plans will give only a general cost associated with implementation.

Rarely included in the document is a financial analysis complete with financial statements such as a balance sheet. A balance sheet might list current assets and how an increase in the value of those assets might impact municipal revenue over time.

Going a step further, municipalities could look at their balance sheet to determine the financial opportunities or incentives that can be offered to the public if the development plan succeeds. The planning process should provide a time for the municipality to fully value existing assets within a region across authorities, nonprofits, etc.

The Writing of a Plan Should be Public, Collaborative, and Open

Residents should have a digital path to provide ongoing and long-form feedback that assists in the crafting of the planning document. In many cases, the public engagement process is much more abbreviated. Residents may attend an event or submit a short comment. Residents may have an opportunity to vote on different options. They don’t have the opportunity to contribute in an ongoing manner to the text itself.

A public engagement process that allows for an open, online forum of engagement could help the plan become more detailed. It could help residents who might be negatively impacted feel more empowered to have their voice heard.

The Future of Planning Documents

As society becomes more complex and local regions become more differentiated in a global economy, the nature of aspirational planning will only increase in frequency and specificity.

In the future, neighborhoods led by their neighborhood association might conduct regular planning. Municipalities might conduct regular updates to municipal comprehensive plans or downtown development plans.

Online discussion and engagement might attract outside investors to participate in equitable local development and allow residents to adopt best practices and innovations from cities across the world. It helps residents truly understand or consider their cities’, neighborhoods’, or towns’ place in a global economy.

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