Back to Back Issues Page
Useful Community Plus
November 19, 2020

In This Issue: Two Kinds of Planning for "After the Pandemic"

November, 2020

Visit us at the Useful Community Development website

We think that after COVID-19 lockdowns are over and the virus has all but disappeared in your community, your community organization or neighborhood association will feel like a fresh start is in order. We think any group that has been seriously disrupted during the pandemic should try a SWOT analysis session or series of sessions to help your group feel focused again.

First, we need to unpack this acronym, which really will help you remember the components. S represents Strengths, W stands for Weaknesses, O means Opportunities, and T reminds you to notice Threats.

A number of years ago before I participated in this kind of exercise in several settings, I doubted that it would produce anything new or useful.

But I am a believer now that I have seen it work to bring detachment and self-awareness to communities. Many have never considered their "threats" before, for example. SWOT analysis, which became popular first in business circles, is considered an element of strategic planning.

If you need to revisit how and why to plan a community SWOT analysis, visit our page on that topic. We're betting that your threats and opportunities have changed in 2020, sometimes significantly. What about restaurant and retail spaces? Are parking and curbside needs different? How about housing affordability and work-at-home implications? Are those virtual meetings worthwhile? These are worth discussing.

We're sorry if the term town or city planning is alienating you. It's just the name of the discipline. The methods and processes apply equally to regions, counties, towns, very small towns, and rural areas that want to work together. Here are some reasons to plan with your residents.

1. A quality planning process creates lasting value in a community, as opposed to a more disorganized process by which a series of developers build a flashy store, strip center, or subdivision that looks great for a few years until it goes out of style. When residents have contemplated their future and anticipated what is likely to happen, they will create a more versatile community that can adapt to changes in lifestyles, preferences, and economic trends.

2. Thoughtful planning tends to result in a wider variety of choices in types of housing, places to play and shop, and options for businesses locating in a community. When a planning and zoning commission and a city council consistently think ahead, they are better able to accommodate sudden shifts such as exponential increases in working from home and shopping online, for example, while still allowing some more conventional lifestyles to thrive.

3. Creating or updating a plan allows citizens, business interests, neighborhood representatives, activists, and civic leaders to come together every few years to understand one another's needs and requirements better. Genuinely open planning processes are among the best ways to allow new potential leaders come to the fore. Sensitive planning can deepen conversations about racial and ethnic equity while building new opportunities for understanding one another’s stories.

While not always harmonious, skillfully facilitated planning with residents allows conflicting needs to be brought out into the open. Better, more truthful arguments can result in a stronger sense of community and unexpected win-win solutions to problems.

It's just that somehow when the government thinks ahead--even your mostly trusted local government--people worry about too much government control. Private property rights are a big deal in the U.S.

After years in the city planning field, those of us who write for the Useful Community Development website think the central question is not "Is planning good?" but rather: "Who plans?"

Developers will be glad to figure out land use and transportation for a little piece of your community, often at the expense of other neighborhoods. A power-crazy leader or bank will be happy to plan a system that protects their own selfish interest. The people who bought real estate first in your neighborhood sometimes guard their own economic interests rather than thinking hard about the future of the entire citizenry.

Someone always plans your community, regardless of its size. The question is who.

To read more of our thoughts on city planning, check out our cover page for that section of the website or the community planning process article.

City planning gone wrong--usually meaning serving only the interests of the powerful and the planners themselves--can do enormous harm. But if a rural county, village, town, suburb, or city approaches a planning project without a pre-determined agenda and makes a wide and sincere attempt to involve all stakeholder groups in a thoughtful and soberly realistic deliberation, the results will focus public and private attention on real challenges and opportunities.

Our next monthly email will be published in December. We're planning to write about bridging divisions and resolving conflicts in neighborhoods, homeowners associations, maybe even societies. Meanwhile, feel free to forward this email to a friend who may be interested, or to reply to this e-mail.

Back to Back Issues Page