A Placemaking Journal

Cutting Edge, All-Purpose Comp Plan: For you? Free (conditions apply).

Pssst! You say you need a comprehensive plan? On the quick and on the cheap?

If you pay retail, it can cost you tens of thousands, maybe millions, depending upon how many layers of wonk and weasel language you layer in. And it can take years. But I can offer you the best one you’ll ever get for free and for less time than it takes to get to the bottom of this blog post.

And that’s not all. Add to the cost and time-saving advantages these value-added extras: You can put the whole thing on a single page. And it applies at the scale of the smallest community to the mega-region.

Here you go, starting with the promise:

We will shape future development and redevelopment through strategies that:

  • Are derived from transparent processes in which all citizens have opportunities to influence outcomes;
  • Respect traditions that have given the community/region its sense of place and inspired its citizens’ devotion;
  • Nurture an economy that’s diverse, adaptive and capable of providing opportunities for all;
  • Enhance accessibility to safe, dignified housing for citizens of all ages, incomes and physical abilities;
  • Enable the full range of mobility choices, including private automobiles, transit, biking and walking;
  • Foster community/regional health by reducing health risks and increasing access to sources for healthy food;
  • Minimize and mitigate harmful environmental impacts;
  • Increase energy efficiency and affordability at the parcel, neighborhood, community and regional levels;
  • Spread the responsibilities and rewards of policy development and enforcement equitably;
  • Position the community/region to attract and reward future public and private sector investment.

You’re welcome.

Okay, so you may have to add legalese to satisfy the requirements of state or county law. And you might have to change words here and there for the sake of local vernacular. But I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t come up with a better list no matter how much time you take or how much money you spend.

I can say that for two reasons: First of all, this is reality-based thinking. If you set out to identify the principal challenges before communities and regions in the post-sprawl era, then sort through alternatives for addressing them, you’ll be persuaded that success must be measured against standards such as these. The issues and the evolved strategies for dealing with them are universal.

That gets us to the second reason: Lots of other folks, working independently of one another and just as determined as you are to assert the specialness of their perspectives, have done the research and the sorting and arrived at eerily similar lists. In fact, my version is a mash-up of lists from: Smart Growth America; the EPA/HUD/DOT Sustainable Partners program; the National Association of Home Builders; the National Association of Realtors; the Urban Land Institute; and hundreds of communities and regions that have invested millions of tax-payer dollars to affirm the obvious.

Any questions?

Oh, you want to know why, if comp planning processes lead inevitably to the same place, governments at all levels insist on spending all this time and money to retrace the route.

Knowingly or otherwise, all of us involved in this stuff conspire in a lie. We promote comp planning as a collaborative process to hammer out a set of growth-guiding principles unique to a particular place. All the while, we know — or should know — that the collaboration is likely to identify universally shared issues that imply universally shared strategies. And we should also know that, no matter how painstakingly inclusive the process, these strategies will flunk the implementation test if we haven’t also fixed the broken parts of systems charged with fulfilling a plan’s promises.

Elected officials facing push-back from small-but-loud constituencies can abandon support and doom passage. Silo-stuck public works officials can scuttle the process by digging in their heels when asked to revamp old assumptions or to change old routines. Planning staffers, exposed to attack from all sides during entitlement processes, are tempted to take I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it positions on reforms. Property owners and developers, pecked to death by burdensome approval processes, might suspect any new system will just add another layer to the old one.

Distrust and cynicism abound. Which is why a planning process has to elevate trust-building and implementation system repair to the same level as the production of planning documents.

We’ve addressed some of the strategies of trust-building here, here, and here. And we see the importance of this conversation rising along with the anxiety among community planners and officials at the levels of anger and frustration they see in public meetings. Holding a bunch of meetings just to arrive at a list of lofty promises ain’t gonna fix what’s broken. But if it makes you feel better to have a world-class, reality-tested list, be our guest.

Taken by itself, it’s worth exactly what we’re charging for it.

— Ben Brown

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