Planning for Places

January 4, 2021

As we kick off the New Year, I have been thinking a lot about how we can better plan for things to come. As a planner, I don’t really love the field of urban planning. I believe too many communities dump too much money on expensive plans that say too much and deliver too little. These plans allow local leaders to claim they have accomplished something, while also having to take any heat for bringing about any necessary change. While the cliche of plans sitting on a shelf collecting dust has grown tiresome, it also exists for a reason. 300 page documents rarely get read. I believe in the concept of planning. We are all more successful when we plan. Every study on the subject shows, people and institutions that plan, foster better outcomes. The problem isn’t with the idea of planning, the problem is in the approach.

In planning we get too bogged down in the details of concepts that no one has necessarily agreed upon yet. Yes, it is important to map out the details of how to execute a healthy land use policy and what an ideal park system would look like, but these details leave out the big picture. The why? Why does it matter? Why do we need to accomplish these things? Why would we bother doing this and how will it improve anything?

These are the questions that need to be first addressed. Policy won’t get changed without passion and planning lacks any passion. If we want to see these changes implemented, we have to help people understand why they matter so much. We have to get them passionately behind the outcomes they will bring about. We can’t just focus on the details, we have to focus on creating a cultural shift. By shifting the culture of a community, the policy details become the minutiae, and 300 page plans become less important. When all of the major institutions in a place, passionately share a collective vision, the details turn into the easy part.

The college, the hospital, the manufacturer, the school system, the foundation, the bank, the insurance agency, the United Way, service clubs, small businesses, big businesses, local government, nonprofits and on and on. Every single one of these institutions in your town has one thing in common. Umm, YOUR TOWN. They are all located in the same place. Seems obvious right? Wouldn’t it also seem obvious that the fates of each one of these institutions is also then tied-up with the health of that place? Apparently not.

The hospital is concerned with its own plan, as is the college and the city and the industrialist and the municipality, the Elks Club and the newspaper and so on. Each of these institutions tackles their planning issues independently, as each one has their own mission, values and concerns. Of course, they have to plan for their own success, but they neglect to realize that the success of each one of these independent institutions is inextricably linked to the success of the place in which they are located.

Signs of Struggle

If the town in which each of these entities is located, is falling apart, then the success ceiling is significantly lower for all of them. Here are the signs that all the institutions in a town are going to struggle.

  • Prevalence of national chains and scarcity of locally owned businesses

  • Lack of social opportunities

  • Vacant and dilapidated buildings

  • Lack of concern for aesthetics

  • People bad-mouth the community

  • Creativity is stifled

  • Poor relationship between voters and elected officials

  • Declining standards

These are all signs of low community self-esteem and general dysfunction. This is the psyche of a place, which means this is the psyche of all the people that make up that place. There is no disconnect between how residents feel and how a town behaves. Remember, a place is simply made up of people and the characteristics of that place are the characteristics of its people.

Think about your town. Are people proud of it or ashamed and defensive? Do they talk about it in the past tense? Do they share positive stories about your town on social media? Do they stop and pick up trash when walking down the street?

Is your town emotionally healthy? 

If not, every single institution in your town is going to struggle to be successful. While the University might have a strategic plan that Zeus himself facilitated, it will still be limited by the patch of earth on which it is located. Because if the town in which that university resides, is full of people that hate it, well good luck. The civic health, or lack thereof, impacts every individual in town and therefore every institution in town.

  • Do you want a workforce that feels socially connected or alone and isolated?

  • Do you want a workforce that has a chance to be physically active and healthy?

  • Do you want a workforce that has roots in town or will jump ship at the first chance to go somewhere better?

  • Can you recruit new people to your organization?

  • Do you worry about what potential employees will see when they first arrive in your town?

  • Will people researching your company find terrible things about your town online?

  • Do any of the bright minds stay in town after graduation?

There are a million ways your organization is affected by the health of the place in which it is located. So while every successful organization must plan for its own well-being it is absolutely imperative that those entities also plan for their place as a whole. Your company’s ability to thrive will always be limited by the place in which you are located, so you better act accordingly.

Plan for your Place

Most institutions do not plan for their place. A few are fortunate enough to have healthy non-profits filling this role, with strong community representation on the board level. Most don’t and they are suffering for it.

There are a number of ways you can go about this, but choose whatever works best for your town. It just needs to get done. You can create a new organization that leads the effort, or reactivate a community organization sitting dormant, most seem to have one or two of these. Create a board consisting of community leaders with the sole purpose of making the town healthier. These board members don’t have to dedicate their lives to this organization, the simple fact is, that when all the big entities start pushing in the same direction, big things begin to happen.

If a new organization isn’t your bag, hire someone to convene an annual planning meeting around the state of your place. I know a guy. Go through
this process once a year and identify what the greatest community struggles are, and how to fix them. No organization necessary–simply an annual planning meeting of all the major institutions to understand and address the problems holding your place back.

Your institution, organization, governmental department or company, will gain so much by working together to ensure you all exist in a healthy, successful, proud place. By dedicating some of your resources to the collective benefit of the place you share, you will all realize a tremendous benefit to your own bottom lines. Just imagine, all of the resources your community currently deploys: the money; the volunteer hours; the donations; the paid staff hours; and directing those towards the common benefit of improving your place. Just think how quickly the look, feel and behavior of your town would begin to transform. In planning for a place, every entity that calls that place home, benefits. And as an added bonus, think how nice it will be to live in a town you love.

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