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How municipalities can develop comprehensive plans that actually get used

March 13, 2019

By Shai Roos

Strategic foresight is key to creating an actionable plan that shapes your community’s future

I have struggled throughout my career—both during my time as a city staff member and currently as a professional consultant—to understand the reason most comprehensive plans end up as a shelf-decoration in city offices. The comprehensive planning process sets goals and a long-range vision in terms of community development. It’s one of the most important documents that influence a city’s future growth.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind to ensure an actionable comprehensive plan—and make sure  those plans don’t sit on a shelf and collect dust.

While working with the City of Corinth, our team ran a foresight laboratory—consisting of 40 stakeholders with various backgrounds. We spent two days running through scenarios for growth using future trends in four categories—demographics, resources, technology, and governance.

Pick a consultant who examines future trends

While the standard is to rely on projections of the past and present conditions, it’s extremely important to examine future trends and implement strategic foresight. Why? Because a comprehensive plan is a roadmap for a city’s future. It tells a city how to manage growth, anticipate future infrastructure needs, and create municipal budgets that support the future growth and needs of the city. Projecting the past is no longer enough to understand what the city will need in the next 20 years—or even 10 years—in our rapidly changing world. It requires a municipality to address a vastly different set of issues than we have ever seen in the past or the present.

My team uses strategic foresight to create strategic plans and achieve the city’s vision for the future. Strategic foresight takes a hard look at the trends in technology, society, economy, environment, and politics, and poses questions such as: “what is the future likely to look like 10 or 20 years from now?” and “are we ready for these possible futures?”.

For example, while working with the City of Corinth, my team ran a foresight laboratory consisting of 40 stakeholders with various backgrounds. We spent two days with the stakeholders running through scenarios for growth using future trends in four categories: demographics, resources, technology, and governance.

The usual projection of land use and demographics would have led the City to plan for an older Caucasian population with most of the City being large lot single-family housing and highway retail along IH-35. Instead, by using strategic foresight, the stakeholders saw the future trends and created a plan for denser housing types, retail, and entertainment in a mixed-use type development with a central gathering space to appeal to a mix of minorities, young adults, and the retired population. The scenarios also planned for a diverse funding base anticipating the future trend of less federal government support, as well as countering the resource scarcity by collaborating with neighboring cities on big ticket items such as a regional detention. This exercise not only created a realistic plan for the city, but also helped in building consensus on what the future of the City should look like.

For the clients who we have helped use strategic foresight, the plan has always had stakeholders come to a consensus after the reality of future needs really sunk in. It also helps municipalities think about things they hadn’t previously considered. Examining future trends and using strategic foresight are both imperative to building an actionable comprehensive plan.

Future Trend Analysis exercise in the Town of Northlake, Texas: showing the trends that are high impact/high uncertainty in the upper right hand—these trends have the potential to be real game changers for Northlake and were addressed as a priority in the Comprehensive Plan.

Ensure your consultant conducts a public engagement process to discover your community’s ‘why’

When I was introduced to Simon Sinek’s TED Talk about The Golden Circle, I realized that the support and consensus required to implement a comprehensive plan resembled a company selling a product. In his talk, Sinek discusses the importance of starting with ‘why.’ From a customer’s point-of-view, they might ask ‘why should I buy this product?’ Or, in a comprehensive planning scenario, a city worker or resident might ask ‘why should I buy into this idea?’ Both situations felt the same to me. It started with asking that ‘why’ question.

In a typical comprehensive planning process, planners ask ‘what’ future a city wants during public engagement events. Planners then create a plan that tells a city ‘how’ to get there. But, they’re missing the most important element: the ‘why.’ According to Sinek, starting with the ‘why’ creates loyalty to the idea or product and inspires people to act.

Examining future trends and using strategic foresight are both imperative to building an actionable comprehensive plan.

While working with the Town of Northlake, my team and I conducted a public engagement process designed to uncover why stakeholders wanted what they said they wanted for their future community. For example, a group of the stakeholders were adamant about allowing only large lots (minimum five acres). Through our public engagement activities, we determined that the reason people wanted five-acre lots was to maintain the Town’s rural character and a higher quality of life. However, this was creating a lack of density and the Town was not able to attract commercial businesses and other amenities to provide this higher quality of life for its residents. The requirement for five-acre lots also did not guarantee preservation of rural character, which also depends upon roadway section designs. Once we understood the ‘why,’ we were able to show residents ways to preserve rural character while allowing the Town to respond to changing demographics and development patterns.

Make sure your planner aligns your city’s development regulations to your vision

In a typical comprehensive plan, the consultant will give examples of regulations that will need to be changed in order to implement the city’s vision. But really, what it takes to change the regulations isn’t provided as a part of the plan. A consultant’s fees can vary greatly when it comes to regulations, so it’s important to discuss your needs. Do you need a consultant, or can you do this in-house? What should you budget for? What should you keep in mind? What needs to be changed in ordinances? And why?

For example, to implement the Town of Northlake’s vision to preserve rural character we recommended amending the impact fee ordinance in the Town’s subdivision ordinance. This would require higher fees in areas for rural preservation and, as a result, encourage development to occur in areas that were slated for higher density and more suburban development. For each recommendation in the plan, we also provided the Town with costs for hiring consultants versus the time and cost for implementing the recommendation in-house by Town staff.

In the implementation, your planner should point out which sections might need to be changed to align with your vision. What do you need to do? How much money does it take? This understanding gives the planning director something solid to go to the city manager and city council with to explain their budget needs.

While working with the Town of Northlake, we conducted a public engagement process designed to uncover why stakeholders wanted what they said they wanted for their future community. Harvest by Hillwood Development is an example of preserving the small-town, rural feel that stakeholders wanted while allowing density.

An analysis of the municipal budget is key for implementation

What use are these fantastic ideas if there isn’t any budget to implement them? That’s why it’s necessary to create a complete analysis of the city’s municipal budget for the next 5 to 10 years.

You’ll need to look at the market and identify the fiscal impacts of your plan. Typically, we look at how the plan responds to the market conditions, then come up with an economic strategy. But, it’s also key to look at how the plan impacts the fiscal conditions. That way, you can determine what the fiscal impacts of this plan on the community will be.

For example, let’s say a large central park is important to the municipality. But if you put in the park, there might not be any money left for a fire station. Is the park really that important then? This is when we get to the ‘why.’ Why is this park so important? Because the municipality wants a gathering space that the community can really rally behind. At that point, perhaps we can find something that costs less but still achieves the same goal and save enough money for the fire station. It’s all about being realistic about your budget while still achieving your goals.

A comprehensive plan that is future-ready

If you pick the right consultant, you’ll end up with a comprehensive plan that looks toward the future, yet is economically and fiscally implementable now. And, you’ll be able to plan for a realistic and implementable future. With a consultant that uses strategic foresight, you’ll get a plan that is “future proof” in the event of unforeseen disruptions. Learn more about our Urban Planning and Design Team HERE.

  • Shai Roos

    Shai is a municipal planner with two decades of experience helping cities create and implement comprehensive plans and development regulations.

    Contact Shai
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