Planning Without Plans


Such local rules are important, but they should focus on what is in fact specific to a place. Local rules should not rehash the generic requirements of walkability, and they must not violate these requirements—just as local plans cannot violate the building code.

If rules do focus narrowly on idiosyncratic local preferences, they will be much easier to manage. One could add and delete rules individually without worrying that a single change will undermine how homes, shops, and streets interact, since these basics are already covered by walkability regulations. This would free planners to make changes as needed without an all-encompassing plan review.

If a community wants to create guidelines for local porches, this should not require the regalia of a 10-year community plan, hundreds of hours of consultation, and long lists of goals and actions. A public meeting should suffice. 

Plan to Fix Problems, Not to Manage Growth

In everyday life, people usually say “I need a plan” if something has gone wrong. Plans should play a similar role in cities. If a community is today defined by large gray parking lots, and it wants to become walkable, it may need a plan to get from here to there. 

However, if a community already has small blocks, local shops, safe sidewalks, and street life, it doesn’t need a plan. At this stage, enabling growth should be a matter of standard operating procedure. 

Planners should of course make ongoing investments in streets, parks, bike lanes, and transit, but none of this requires plans, either—unless the system is currently broken in some way. Instead, according to the Strong Towns approach, planners should identify specific pain points and make small, incremental improvements in collaboration with residents. This methodology focuses on fixing visible problems, not on envisioning a distant future.

Farmers don’t need a plan to take care of apple trees. They need a schedule, routines, and methodology. Planners should support walkable growth with a similar level of professionalism and regularity. They should treat plans as a tool for fixing aberrant conditions, not for managing normal life.

If we really want to support diversity, we should establish a simple set of general rules that enable communities to grow by their own logic. In most places, we should stop planning. Instead, we should support the basic needs of growth, and help communities develop organically.  

This focus on fundamentals will enable far greater complexity than planners can dictate in official policy. Even better, it will require much less work. Planning could become a job planners can actually accomplish within their limited time and budget.

And that’s essential, because if planning is a bigger job than planners can do, the public’s health suffers and greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise. It is our responsibility as planners to design a process that is sufficiently cost-effective to implement in cities large and small. We simply cannot afford to spend years designing a massive 10-year comprehensive plan for each and every community.

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