Planners Must Now “Anticipate the Unanticipated” – THE DIRT

Imagine Austin Growth Concept Map / City of Austin

“The planning practices of the past are inadequate for today’s challenges,” said David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference in San Diego. Rapid technological change, socio-economic inequities, natural resource depletion, and climate change are forcing planning and design professionals to adapt. “How can the practice of planning evolve to be more sustainable and equitable?”

In the 1920s, the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and the Standard City Enabling Act were passed. In the 1960s, the standard 20th century planning model, which focused on land use policy and planning, came into being. In the 1980s, there was a shift to smart growth and “visionary, values-based planning.” In 2010, the American Planning Association began a process of rethinking past planning approaches through its Sustaining Places Initiative, which provided models and standards for how to prioritize sustainability through local planning.

According to Rouse, today’s comprehensive plans require a new 21st century model rooted in four key aspects. First, sustainability, resilience, and equity need to be at the forefront of all planning decisions. Second, a systems-thinking approach is needed. “A community is a system made up of sub-systems.” Third, any planning effort requires “authentic participation” and true community engagement that can answer the questions: “Where are we headed? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?” And lastly, there must be “accountable implementation,” including priorities for action, funding streams, policies that can guide decision-making, and specified responsibilities.

Rocky Piro, executive director of the Colorado Center for Sustainable Urbanism and former planning director of Denver, said Rouse and himself reviewed hundreds of plans for their new book — The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Communities for the 21st Century — and found that “authentic engagement is foundational” to any new planning effort.

Planning processes must now include an engagement and communications strategy rooted in the issues and values ​​of a community and designed to reach all segments of a population. Any planning effort in 2022 also needs to be based in an understanding of the “impact of the past on the present.”

A vision statement is needed to kick-start these comprehensive planning efforts — “one with brevity, clarity, and the ability to inspire,” Piro said.

Land-use maps are still an important component of any comprehensive plan. In its plan adopted in 2012, Austin, Texas, created a “growth concept map” that includes places and their aspects (see image at top). Aurora, Colorado, included a “place typology” that includes a “sophisticated matrix” and a “place-based approach” in its plan.

Placetype plan / City of Aurora, Colorado

All communities are systems with sub-systems that include natural, built environment, social, economic, health, and regional connection systems.

“Planning for natural systems has come out of the landscape architecture field,” Rouse argued. “Ecosystem planning should now happen in communities and in context with other planning elements instead of piecemeal.”

Planner and landscape architects need to plan for land, water, atmospheric, and biodiversity change within communities. And instead of planning for water use and quality alone, an entire watershed approach should also be integrated into comprehensive planning efforts.

The ecosystem component that landscape architects are focused on can be integrated with the built environment components that planners are focused on. Through the involvement of multiple disciplines, plans can address “land use, character, ecology, mobility, community design, and civic spaces, and public art.”

Other important systems that need to be included in any new comprehensive plan are social systems that improve equity — “the social infrastructure” of communities, including housing and education.

Economic systems also need to be re-thought for the 21st century. “Economic resilience is about creating opportunities for all in a fair and sustainable way. We can move to a circular economy and rely on local assets and regional resources. We need to move away from a linear, throw-away society.”

Health systems need to be factored into any planning effort, and this is not just “about disease prevention, but about healthy transportation and food systems. How we move and interface with the built environment impacts our health.”

There are now many lens — a “climate lens, equity lens, health lens. Can we bring the lenses together?”

Both Rouse and Piro returned to the idea that any planning effort can only happen on a “foundation of community engagement.”

Once the voice of the community in its totality has been considered, then a plan can be developed that results in the revision of regulations, codes, and ordinances to help achieve that plan. The next steps are to shift public and private investments to meet goals, align interests and decision-making processes within communities, and form public, private, and non-profit sector partnerships that can lead implementation.

In the 21st century, planners need to be “prepare communities for change, be proactive, and take an integrated approach instead of just reacting,” Rouse said.

The challenge is that planners are also operating within a “cone of uncertainty.” In the short term, there are tactics that can be used to manage community change, which may be foreseen or unforeseen and therefore disruptive. In the medium term, planners can set strategies and plans. But over the long-term, they will need durable visions. “All of this planning must happen sequentially and simultaneously.”

In their book, Rouse and Piro outline five core themes, including equity and engagement, climate change mitigation and adaptation, systems thinking, people-centered technology, and effective implementation.

“Equity must be interwoven, and an equity lens must be brought to all goals. Climate resilience must be a guiding principle of all planning work. Technology must be harnessed to serve communities. Planning participation is about co-creation with the community,” Rouse said.

“Planning is an art and a science. Our jobs are to anticipate the unanticipated. How can we do it better?” Out of the hundreds of plans that Rouse and Piro reviewed, “we couldn’t find one that did this well. It’s a journey society — and planners — must take. It’s the future of comprehensive planning.”

During the Q&A, one audience member asked whether “top-down, paternalistic comprehensive plans” are a thing of the past. A comprehensive city plan assumes there is one community in agreement, whereas there are many communities in a city with different interests. The antithesis of a comprehensive plan is a neighborhood plan.

Community engagement is critical to forging consensus as is total transparency about budgets and timelines, Piro argued. Ensuring grassroots buy-in is the “path to success.” But neighborhood plans need to be integrated with comprehensive plans and can be implemented in tandem. “You need consistency and coordination.” Ecological, social, and other systems “can’t be addressed in isolation.”

Another audience member wondered how comprehensive plans can address the communities who are no longer there, who have been displaced due to gentrification. “How do we plan for who is not there?”

Rouse argued that it’s critical to retain populations by helping them create their own visions. “We can account for the past and systemic racism” — and planners and other design professions’ roles in creating those inequities.

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