What is planning?

I have been meaning to make a substantive post on TAE for sometime; my apologies to all of the readers here that have been patiently waiting to learn more about the field of planning and what specifically I do. I think it is very interesting the questions that I receive as a planner. I think my field is one of mystery to many people in some ways, which is an irony in itself, because it so closely universally affects everyone.

So what is planning? Maybe the best way to break this down is by saying first off what planning is not. Planning is not a rote organizational tool to make your days more productive or an apparatus by which to lift outdated bureaucracies to more efficient epiphanies. Above all, the planning profession does not include wedding planners or event planners. I actually had someone think I did that once. Planning is more than an organizational tool in which someone thinks about planning out their day or their future. Planning is really the art of managing the processes of change and public facilitation and collaboration. It is also extremely diverse in the fields it is influenced by. Planning is political, legal, economic, social, technical, artistic, theoretical, and environmental.

So how is the vast planning profession manifested in the day to day work of a planner? Well, in planning there are many types of practitioners, similar to medicine, engineering, or law. There are transportation planners, environmental planners, policy planners, advocacy planners, land use planners, urban planners, current planners and long-range planners, to name a few. All of these subsets can be divided into the public sector or the private sector.

I will focus on the municipal side of planning as that is what I do. Typically, planning in a public sector setting includes the current planning and long-range planning subset. The following is a gross simplification of the daily life of a current planner. The current planner, or also known as the “planner of the day,” is a planner who handles all land use related requests from the public. Anytime someone wants to do something that affects urban form, i.e. subdividing land (literally where we get the term “subdivision”), constructing a new shopping center, or rezoning property, the current planner responds.

The current planner’s role is administrative. It involves checking permit applications to ensure that they conform to the Municipal Code provisions, zoning regulations, and the community’s master plan or comprehensive plan. Once everything is checked, the planner offers a recommendation relating to the item in question. This is forwarded in a staff report to the Planning Commission of the city. The Commission reads the report and then casts a vote which, in the case of my community Siloam Springs, is also a recommendation. The Planning Commission’s recommendation is forwarded to the Board of Directors (commonly referred to as the City Council) who makes the final decision on the item through an ordinance or a resolution, depending on the type of item. Every month there are applications made to the Planning Department, which the current planner must review and offer recommendations on. This is the unending development cycle that is part of the planner’s job to regulate and review.

Long-range planning in the municipal setting involves a more in depth look at how things should be. This is the area in which I am more adept to. I like to think about this kind of planning as more like problem solving. People have problems with life in their communities and planners seek out ways to fix these problems. Long-range planners think a lot about the future. They attempt to look at current trends and project needs for the future. These needs and current problems are embedded inside the community’s vision for the future. This vision, future needs, etc. are all housed within plans. Hence, the name planner is associated with the profession; they literally draft and author plans. The plans are essential public policy documents that work to guide future decision making by the elected officials and city staff. This is once again the Planning Commission and the City Council, which, as seen earlier in this blog, are reviewing development. So this brings us full circle. This is why I always say, planning is politics. Planning cannot escape the reach of politics and economics.

The important thing that I like to emphasize when I am talking about my job is that planners do not have as much power as people think they have. We are not a secret order making these plans to control everyone’s lives in the secluded dark corners of dusty offices in City Hall. Planning is far from that. Planning is a public process that involves anyone reading these words who may live in a city or town. That means you! You are the ones who do the planning! How is that? Let me explain.

Planners go to great lengths to harvest public participation. When planners are thinking about the community, they have an ethical obligation to take in the community’s needs and vision into account. This is the life blood of a good comprehensive plan. The vision is basically what the community will be. Will it be big or small? Will it have urban or rural character? It all comes down to the vision. In my community, when we were starting the process of creating a new comprehensive plan, I and some of my colleagues conducted vision sessions. These vision gathering sessions allowed anyone from the general public to take markers and literally draw out their plans for the community. Staff then worked to facilitate the process and ensured that everyone knew what to do and was actively engaged in the process. In the case of Siloam Springs, all of the maps we received were combined together into a master composite map. This composite map was the basis, or foundation, for the 2030 land use map.

I feel I have gone into more detail than I thought I would at the onset of writing this post today! I hope this clears up some of the mystery about what planning involves. Really, it is an interface or membrane between the publics’ needs and the governing entity that regulates the built and natural environment. I hope you have enjoyed this little window I have opened into the world of a planner. I will be posting more on how this relates to urban design and beyond!


3 Responses to What is planning?

  1. pNielsen says:

    That’s quite an introduction *wink*

    I was glad when I looked at the 2030 plan a few months ago that the pedestrian bridges over 412 — something I contributed during the community-wide vision session — were still there. Course, the real question remains: Will the city pony up the money for them, and will there ever be SIDEWALKS to connect them to!?!

  2. B. Rhoads says:

    It is unclear at this time when the funds will be allocated for that project. The City is also working on a sidewalk master plan.

  3. pNielsen says:

    Those thar pesky politiks!

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