The importance of planning for the future

Published 12:17 am Thursday, September 22, 2011

Q. Ok, why do we plan anyway? Does it have any practical value?

A. One answer to the first part of this question is that North Carolina state law allows and encourages communities, counties and regional development agencies to plan. But that’s not a very satisfying answer. Planning does have practical as well as idealistic values. As we look into them, you will begin to understand why the state Legislature thought it wise to authorize local governments to do comprehensive planning.

Q. Idealism aside, what are some of the practical values of comprehensive planning?

A. We all plan at some time in our lives and when we do, it’s usually for one of two basic reasons. One is we want to accomplish something, some goal, be it practical or idealistic. Or we want to avoid or prevent something, such as poverty or getting sick. In planning we use whatever facts we have to help us make our best guess about the future and choose the best and most practicable steps to accomplish our goals.

This same concept is good for cities, towns, and counties, or just about any other organization as well. And that’s why the North Carolina Legislature decided to strongly encourage them to do what are called general or comprehensive plans.

Q. Just who decides what are government goals and desires that are to be planned for? How can you ever get everyone to agree on everything?

A. Unanimous agreement on goals and policies is almost inconceivable.  So, in doing a general plan, you do the best you can to elicit public input. The planning process takes the substance of our values, goals and needs and translates them into the substance of policy. We all need to be heard from in making the process, or we may not be heard from at all.

It is an axiom of planning that public opinion must be sought diligently. Some of the ways you can involve citizens in planning are: speeches before organizations; polls and surveys, both in newspapers and on telephones; appointing citizen committees; and well publicized public meetings and workshops. Planners must always remember to hold meetings at times convenient to citizens, and to ask citizens what they want for their future. After all of this, the staff, commission, special planning committees, and ultimately the city council or county commissioners must decide on which goals, policies, benchmarks and land-use arrangements best embody a consensus of public opinion tempered with good judgment.

Q. Let’s get back to the first question, why plan?

A. There are six generally accepted reasons or justifications for planning:

  • It is a way to prepare for the future. Most of the discussion so far has been on this point. This fits in with one inexorable definition of planning, as “intelligent cooperation with the inevitable.”
  • Planning identifies problems and points the way to solutions. Just taking a systematic, thorough look at the current situation and thinking about the implications for the future, can bring these things to light.
  • It helps us to do first things first. In other words, it provides a rationale for assigning priorities. Should we build more streets before more sewer lines? Should we build a new community center before upgrading fire stations, or vice versa?
  • Through planning, you can come up with sound policies to address growth or decline. Where should new housing go? What’s to become of downtown if we encourage an outlying shopping center? A good plan will suggest answers to perplexing questions.
  • Planning helps to coordinate development projects with one another. In other words, making sure that adequate roads and utilities are in place before the new shopping center or subdivision or business are opened.
  • Planning can educate, involve and inform the public as well as public officials. A soundly reasoned plan, especially one where there has been good public participation, can forestall opposition to implementing what might have been controversial policies or projects or constructing the wrong project. Another aspect of this is that a plan and participating in planning can reveal the potential for change and improvement to a community to those who had never thought of such things before. Planning can be a real eye-opener.

Q. A good plan can really help, but it sure is a lot of work. It’s a good thing that we wouldn’t have to do it again for 20 years or so.

A. WRONG! If you do planning right, once you start, you never stop. Even though the plan that you adopt may be called the plan for 2011-2031, you should continually monitor the situation and amend the plan. Minor amendments can be adopted every year or so, with a thorough revision every five years a good practice. Using a twenty-year plan is a little like walking through the woods with a flashlight on a dark night. The shape of your community twenty years from now is like the dim, shadowy shapes at the far reach of the flashlight bean. Something is there. It looks like something unusual, but as you get closer and the light gets brighter, you see that it’s just a bush. With our community, as we proceed along the time line into the future, things that we once guessed at come into sharper focus, and you have to take the new data and circumstances into account in the plan. So you keep revising the plan to keep the 20-year flashlight beam constantly in front of you so we can have the best plan available for our city.

John Rodman is director of Washington’s Planning and Development Department. This column is in response to Gary Ceres’ Sept. 15 column.