Friday, April 16, 2010

Blog Redirection - Thoughts on Planning

Most of y'all that read this post may wonder where the quote at the top came from. 'If planning worked we'd all be speaking Russian'. A crusty old man said that to me at a community meeting in Matagorda (a small, unincorporated community on the coast). I'm an urban planner, I help cities in the LCRA service area plan for growth (or work to slow decline) through their land use, housing, economic development, parks and open space, infrastructure, etc. This blog is my effort to redirect somewhat back to this because it is what I do for money and its something that I know a whole lot more about than exercise and nutrition!

So, the quote, why has it stuck with me for several years? Well, because to a large degree its absolutely true! Why would a planner say this, it seems to discount the point of my profession. I say this because planning in and of itself will not bring about real change in a community. What does that is IMPLEMENTING the plan! You have to work the plan for it to have an impact, just writing a fat plan and putting it on the shelf to gather dust is completely a waste of time and resources. The Soviet Union had 5 year plans that included everything from how much grain would be grown to how many cars would be built. The problem was, the plans were never really implemented. Farms and factories simply made up numbers showing production that exactly matched what was in the plan. Inefficiency and corruption in the system made it impossible to accomplish the already unrealistic goals set in the plan. Based on this than it is true, if planning worked, we'd all be speaking Russian because the plans laid out how the Soviet Union would dominate the world. Lucky for us the IMPLEMENTATION failed!

So, that's the trick of my profession. As a planner, my role in the community is to help them identify goals and objectives to move forward. I can provide expertise and guidance to address the issues that are impacting their city. The problem is that I'm not there to work the plan once its adopted. It is up to City leaders, businesses, and citizens to work together to make the plan a reality. The plan may be the most concise, well written document ever, but if nobody takes ownership and does the work it is worthless. I've had several plans I spent months working with a community to develop end up going nowhere. Several years later the towns are still struggling with the same issues. I've also been fortunate to have many communities embrace the plan and make its vision a reality. They've invested the time and money in to building the future they want to have rather than accepting their fate.

So, as a planner, how do I address the issue of a failure of implementation? I think it comes down to capacity building in the community. My role should be more than simply an outside expert bringing knowledge and skills to write the plan. I need to engage community leaders and citizens in more than just a few public meetings to let them say their piece. I have to build ownership of the plan and the concern to actually do the work to make the plan reality. That is my challenge as a planner, to leave more behind than just a book, I need to leave behind the capacity in the community to work the plan.

'If planning worked, we'd all be speaking Russian'. Its true, planning isn't enough, working the plan is what will bring success.


  1. Chris -

    thanks for visiting *more., and leaving a comment.

    I completely agree w/ your post. I've noticed the same thing (plans need implementation to work) most recently, but look at it from a different perspective - from the brand or business plan perspective.

    Imagine a community as a business, or as a brand - both require the company's leaders and employees to know who the company is its core, and take that identity (or brand) to the market and communicate that in everything they do. In order for it to be successful, they need to believe it wholeheartedly and be tireless and passionate about getting their message.

    Now, do our plans invigorate the implementors to behave this way? I get excited about the story that my plans tell, but we can't create that energy inside people to carry it on a lot of times. Why? I think it's for one main reason.... a good plan requires people who are already working a job and have lives and obligations to change their habits.

    Now THAT's a hard sell.


  2. Scott,

    Thanks for the comment. You make a great point, it is hard to break people out of their comfort zone to do things differently. I like that idea to build passion and excitement behind the plan. If it creates a strong vision people will be excited to make that vision real.