Plans verus the Planning Process

| 48 Comments

Neuman (1998) warned us that since the 1960s the plan has not occupied the center stage and that more attention has been given to the planning process.  The emphasis on process is not without merit because cities were no longer thought of as simply as artifact to be shaped by physical design but were viewed as a mechanism of interrelated systems. Thus, how to plan, not what to plan, became to occupy planners' imaginations.  Consequently, planners tend to deliberately omit the land use element and the accompanying criteria for maps and diagrams when making plans, and prefer a verbal set of policies organized according to functional systems. Such practices have advantages. For example, they offer geographic flexibility, lead to better understanding of urban cause-effect relationships, and increase planning's legitimacy as they emphasize a participatory or advocacy process. However, such practices also have many shortcomings.

 

Please point out one shortcoming that you deem to be the most critical and discuss why it is the most critical one.

48 Comments

When you fail to show visual representation of how an area should develop or not develop, the “fluff” that fills the written plan can easily be misrepresented. Without a concrete, visual representation of how and where things should go within a planning area, politicians are free to interpret the planning policies as they see fit. More often than not, they might make a mockery of the planners whom toiled over the task of creating the best possible plan with the most public participation. Planners do a disservice to themselves by not including this information because it is perhaps the only way they can keep elected officials and the general public in check while protecting the common good. Thus, the power that planners wield rests, at least in part, in the responsibility of others to follow the plan; the greater detail and “tamper proof” that the plan is (detailed maps, charts, and actual figures), the better the plan and planner.

I think Jason sums it up brilliantly. A good comprehensive plan forms the base upon which stakeholders, disciplines, urban functions, problems, interests, and ideas can be structured. When the images, designs, and maps associated with this foundation are lacking, visions may be misunderstood causing ambiguities that may draw the planning process out. Those involved may have a difficult time residing on a decision if there is no clear goal or common ground to work from.

The ways cities function and relate are significant, however allowing for greater flexibility in the interpretation of plans may not result in the desired outcomes that the plans themselves were intended to achieve. Another issue may be that the power of interpretation can diminish the authority of the plan. For example, a Minneapolis plan designed to eliminate ground level parking may be written in vague language describing relationships between people and the street or store fronts. Without specific maps, diagrams, or language there is no concrete reason to demand changes to a development proposing blank walls and ground level parking.

Sarah Curtner

I agree with the comments above. Absent a visual representation, many different aspects and interpretations of a plan can easily be misconstrued as different people envision different things. Additionally, while planning theories, advocacy efforts, community development initiatives, and other theoretical issues can be difficult to fully translate from one human mind to the next, land use plans (including maps and diagrams) are one of the most concrete ways to represent and relay your message. To omit this from the process would be a detriment to the end result.

This is similar to what others have to stated before but I believe that the greatest benefit of a land use plan is it makes a city take a stance. Land use maps and other maps in comprehensive plans tell the public and the private sector what is planned or zoned for a certain use. This aids the process by making it more transparent and understandable for all involved. Thus, the lines are drawn so to speak. The planning department cannot hide behind vague language and apply it where they want. It is on the map for all to see and they must follow it.

All comments above are solid and need no further explaining. Another example that could be presented is that of the Uptown Small Area Plan. Within the plan, maps, diagrams and other guiding visualizations were included. The plan involved 400+ stakeholders and took 18 months to develop and finalize the 123-page document. However, if visual representations had been omitted, the plan would have been a complete waste of time, money and community resources. The main problem is what Sarah was referring to: power of interpretation can diminish the authority of the plan. When community input and public participation for the plan was taking place, a majority of stakeholders had to first be educated on everything from zoning, variances, Conditional Use Permits and other planning terminology and techniques. The sheer unknown of the planning field to the general public would have exacerbated the plan if visualizing guides were not included. Only having text would have left the entire plan open ended and lead to a vast array of interpretations of the finalize plans and goals. Visual representations are used as a backup if the text of the plan is vague and is being misinterpreted. On the contrary to that, visual representation also holds the city accountable and solidifies the plan and what can and cannot take place.

While the process that the plan underwent during creation is very important for the community to understand the decisions that were made I must agree with the above postings that visual representations can get at the core decisions in a easily digestible manner. Additionally, graphics can become a more universal way to communicate the ideas - avoiding "planning lingo" that is not of the public at larges vocabulary. Edvard Tufte said "... inasmuch as certain cognitive tasks and principles are tied to nature's laws, these tasks and principles are indifferent to language, culture, gender, or the particular mode of information that is provided." I take this to mean that some graphics can get past the delivery to the essence of the information in ways that words can not. In addition to visuals assist in explaining the concepts decided upon they can be useful in actually testing the decisions. Mapping and graphics should be used throughout the processes in order to verify and test decisions and assumptions that are being made during the planning process.

It seems that the move towards a process oriented planning method has been positive and is not at all mutually exclusive with conceptual renderings or map making. If anything, this is a failure of those planners who rely too heavily on policy statements and abstract metrics to make an impact. I agree with Catherine that mapping and visualization should be part of every planner's process. These activities ground the process in the physical, and are an important way to test ideas. The ability to translate abstract concepts and goals into a physical framework should be the cornerstone of the planning profession. Planners have seen the benefits of a process oriented approach, because unless the plan or design is based on solid data and policy it will likely fail. Having a clear and thoughtful process for decision making and the ability to communicate those ideas effectively is likely to yield more reliable results.

Land use maps can be a powerful tool for planning and growth development. I find it hard to believe anyone could argue they are not useful. The question notes geographic flexibility as a benefit to planning with a verbal set of policies rather than visual documents. From an environmental and economic standpoint, this would severely limit our ability to quickly identify flood plains, steep slopes, soils best utilized for farming, areas most affected by traffic noise from a highway, etc...Land use maps, I believe, help promote smarter growth that will help save money and the environment.

Adam Wipperfurth

The visual components of planning offer stakeholder groups and participants in the process the opportunity to see their ideas put into a new light. By being forced to integrate their perspective into the "greater scheme" of the community, participants may begin to better understand a wider array of issues that are impacting a community simultaneously. In addition, I feel that the visual presentations serve to move the discourse beyond theoretical and normative goals for the community towards a discussion of the reality of the constraints and opportunities present in the urban landscape.

It sounds very absurd to conduct land use planning without developing maps, charts and graphs. It is like baking a cake without using soda..it could be anything but a cake. The more visually detailed and comprehensive a plan, with all its basic ingredients of maps, graphs, charts, etc, the more actual world it presents. Also, there the planners can restrain the otherwise unbriddled whims of politicians. Just writing out the plan without visual presentations is also less communicative, becausse maps, figures, graphs, communicate more meaning and are easily understandable.

By having visuals and maps in the plan, the plan makes it easier to understand what is meant. Written plans can be construed in many different ways and have many different meanings. But if provided with visual examples and maps, the meaning can be more easily conveyed. If it is more flexibility wanted and needed in a plan, then a plan relying more heavily on written word is needed. If the plan is trying to make a specific point and convey a certain requirement in the plan, then visuals and maps are needed to get the point across and not allow room for interpretation. A plan could even provide multiple visual examples or planning maps to offer more interpretation and leeway. However, in planning, especially land use planning, visuals and maps must be a necessary part of the plan and must be included.

Without maps and visuals, the plan may be less accessible to the public. It is far too easy as it is for planners to get lost in techno-babble and planner speak when articulating ideas for the shaping the built landscape. As the old saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words." Maps and diagrams have a way of crystallizing otherwise highly technical or inaccessible concepts in way that is readily consumable by to the lay audience. This can actually help spur debate and discussion as opposed to watering down or burying planning ideas in an impenetrable soup of technical terms or overly generalized concepts.

Planning processes are often very much about sorting out some of the potential conflicts between stakeholders, and rebuilding the collective stakeholders individual interests around some future condition. Stakeholders may come to agreement on an abstract set of principles to guide development. But many average people need physical representations to understand precisely what a particular course of action will mean in the real world.

There may be several courses to making a policy real on the ground. It is the powerlines drawn on a map that define, as Neuman suggests, "who gets what, when, and how". Without what Neuman calls "powerlines" drawn on a map, it becomes hard to understand the likely political acceptance (or lack thereof) of the way a specific policy is translated into physical form. As a result, a planner who relies simply on policy formation may find the consensus they carefully tried to craft fall apart when it implemented in real world situations.

There can be integration of the criteria developed from the process into the land use map. Land use maps can also be created to offer some flexibility. Floating zones, mixed-use zoning and overlay districts allow areas to plan for more than just your traditional uses. In addition, planning goals may be different for certain neighborhoods, and moving a level above parcel-based land use to the broader neighborhood can allow cities to visually depict targeted city goals for particular neighborhoods.

It may be "old school" but cities still grow in physical space, hence there needs to be some sort of order depicted and guided throughout that physical space. Just having stated policy goals of protecting environmentally sensitive areas or redeveloping brownfields are meaningless without some illustration and identification of where these areas are.

Matt C. sums it up well. An approved comprehensive plan with the accompanying maps of layers of land use is essential. Businesses that would fall into non-conforming uses in future plans can see they aren't being singled out if they want to expand the footprint of their business on a particular site-it doesn't fit the plan. Organizations, neighbors and all stakeholders can visually see the evolution of their input into the process or the results. As mentioned above, physical constraints, open land, watershed issues are all more easily represented with a plan. We are a highly visual society, used to ever increasing levels of sophistication from visual presentations and planners will need to present plans that reflect these preferences.

I agree with others in that visualization is extremely vital to any planning effort. The planning process involves a variety of different stakeholders. Some may be more familiar with planning elements than others. Visualization helps everyone better understand what type of planning effort is being put forth. It can help clear up any misinterpretation and make things more clear for everyone. It can also help planners decide if changes or adjustments need to be made to the plan. While the planning process is extremely important, visual representation in the form of maps and diagrams is necessary for any planning effort.

To me land use planning is about the manipulating the built environment to create social equity and to enhance environmental and community values. I agree with the general argument being made by my classmates. It is nearly impossible for the public to participate without visuals. Pictures and maps tell the story that planners, engineers, and architects may not be able to explain to the general public or even each other. Land use and zoning maps tell the spatial and physical story that is necessary for for informing social and environmental policy related to the built environment.

Individuals can interpret words in many different ways. So without a specific measured visual each individual can define physical boundaries very differently. While one may be able to accomplish this through policy and writing, a picture after all is worth a thousand words.

I agree with Abdul. You can write down the recipe: flour, sugar, soda; bake for 45 minutes at 160. But until you put it all together, nobody knows what the cake will look like. I feel the same way about written planning regulations. It is extremely hard to piece them all together to determine what exactly the built environment is intended to look like. Thus visual documents such as land use maps and (ideally) smart code documents are important in developing a positive vision for the future development of a particular place.

I agree with Abdul. You can write down the recipe: flour, sugar, soda; bake for 45 minutes at 160. But until you put it all together, nobody knows what the cake will look like. I feel the same way about written planning regulations. It is extremely hard to piece them all together to determine what exactly the built environment is intended to look like. Thus visual documents such as land use maps and (ideally) smart code documents are important in developing a positive vision for the future development of a particular place.

Like the posts above, I agree that maps serve as a vital visual aid in planning. Planning does require policy and process, it has to be a democratic process. But planning, by nature, has to do with manipulating the spatial dimension of our environment.

Maps allow us to enhance quantitative and measurable requirements - measurements of distance and space. They allow us to recognize relational aspects to different uses in the town, and create aesthetically pleasing and livable arrangements. We cannot visualize our walking patterns and accessibility by abiding by buffer zones, etc. Finally, maps allow us to envision the systems of a city - its water and sewar, its slope and flow of water, transportation and population flows, demographic patterns.

Without the planning process, the best laid plans wind up sitting on a shelf! In order to implement plans, we have discovered over the years that the community and stakeholders must not only buy into a plan, but feel as if they have ownership of the idea. Without that, if you just propose a plan to a community, even if it is the best thing since sliced bread, you will meet opposition.

Utterly late but oh well! I find that planners now more than ever need to be more critical of details and be exact in their methodology. Often we are lambasted as government wasters, allowing indulged plans to takeover reality and over-build infrastructure. Land use was created for a reason, to recognize the abuse of the market and correct them for the good of the commons. Time and again land use restrictions protect public interests in evolving ways. Whether that be a hog farm next to a home or a skyscraper of condos in a low-density area. We make appropriations that the market squanders.

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