Sound Community Planning Process Based on Six Steps

Last Updated: March 22, 2023

Many times leaders don't understand the community planning process, but have decided that a plan for the entire community or a neighborhood or small area would be a good idea. This page helps you understand the various stages of forming a plan and perhaps will give you an appreciation of the fact that the plan won't be done overnight and that it's a lot of work.

Please don't expect that the steps will follow neatly one after another; something in step 4 is likely to trigger another look at the first part of the community planning process. We can just about guarantee that some hot issue or crisis will tempt you to become derailed along the way, and that you will see a wonderful potential to jump ahead in our outline because an outstanding opportunity presents its itself. Those things are to be expected.

However, a general understanding of the methodology that planners should use, whether they are citizen planners, your employed professionals, or city planning consultants, will be helpful and reassuring as you move forward in developing a consensus about the future of your community or a part of it.

We would like to begin with the basic idea that you need to consult the citizens of the impacted area first and foremost. Otherwise, you ignore potentially important information that does not necessarily show up when you look at census data and other published sources, and you also run the risk that residents will be able to launch a fairly successful attack on the plan based on the fact that they were not asked for input.

If residents are brought right into the planning process, and even more so if citizens initiate the planning process, you will find that they will become strong defenders of the plan. We have written most of this page in the expectation that it is ordinary residents who are reading it, but we do know there are some leaders and even professionals who look at our site. So we say as strongly as we know how, you need to offer real involvement for residents. 

In fact, if a group historically has been ignored, that is a flashing signal that you need to rethink your methods and figure out some activities that will get that particular group excited. Below are the general steps in formulating a plan.

1. Gather up information, called data, and maps.

The first step in preparing neighborhood plans or any other community planning process is collecting information, including neighborhood demographics.

Find quantified data (pieces of information), such as U.S. Census data (including the various housing, household, and business information the Census Bureau prepares on a schedule other than the Census every 10 years), crime and police report data, business license data, and utilities data if they will share. Utilities might have information on new connections and disconnections that help you determine moving patterns. If you are doing the planning process yourselves without a paid professional, specialize in the data you can collect yourselves.

Volunteers can manage to obtain the Census data, ask City Hall for all relevant data, and gather information from the increasingly common data compilation services on the web, such as City Data for the U.S. and Canada. Volunteers can complete a number of what I call counting projects that are valuable in the community planning process.

For example, it's much more accurate for the group to walk up and down the blocks and count up the number of boarded up buildings on a Saturday morning than it would be to consult any kind of published data. I've known of a neighborhood group that went into the lobby of each apartment building and counted the number of mailboxes with names on them, at a time they were concerned about whether the apartments were occupied.

You can do a survey of park use on your own, if that's relevant, or even count the number of left-turn movements that are causing traffic to back up on a Saturday at a busy intersection. But don't collect data just for the sake of having numbers. Make sure there's a purpose in how you use your volunteers if you're trying do-it-yourself data collection.

Maps are information too. Usually your local government or tax authority will help you by providing certain kinds of maps, but consider inexpensive and free sources that are independent of government too. For example, you could map using balloons or drones if you have a temporary damage or opportunity kind of situation (tornado, oil spill, wildflowers) to map. You can obtain quick, useful maps complete with aerial photos at varying scales using an Internet-based service such as Google Earth. Mapping apps can allow you to zoom in to the proper scale, create  your own maps, and see satellite imagery.

The purpose of all of this marshaling of data is even bigger than making your plan legally defensible and suitable for adoption by your municipality. If you emphasize data that your citizens will find surprising or unusual, you will help them escape from groupthink and start to deal with real problems in a realistic way. For instance, residents might be surprised about the amount of homelessness and disability, how their city stacks up against others in transit friendliness or job creation, or number and frequency of severe storms or wildfires striking your community compared to historic data. 

2. Analyze the planning information you have collected.

You can do this; you do it all the time at your house. You lay out all your bills and all your pay stubs and figure out what it all means to you. It's the same with the community planning process. So you have 72.6% of the homes occupied by owners. What does that mean to you, if anything?

If you're doing the plan yourself, this is the step where you need to consult anyone available to you who understands the dynamics of cities or towns at a professional level. Take a first pass at what information seems significant to you, but then ask knowledgeable people what else they see.

Sometimes it's valuable to group the data into some sort of classification system. Especially if you have a number of businesspeople who are active in your core group driving the plan, a SWOT analysis may be comforting and familiar. This acronym stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

If you've hired professionals who are accustomed to the community planning process, make sure to give them time, funding, and permission to really dwell on this step. You don't want any cookie-cutter recommendations or impulsive decisions on their part about what your information means.

You want them to really think. If you ask questions and receive defensive or long-winded answers, use this key question: "What surprised you the most about our neighborhood?" Here of course substitute whatever size area is appropriate in your own community planning process.

Hopefully this will break down the wall of professionalism a little bit and get the conversation rolling in a productive direction. After all, the community planning process is too much work for you folks to let someone work for you engaging only half a brain.

Other good questions are:

  • If money were no object, what would you recommend we do in our neighborhood? (A good follow-up question is: what one intervention would you recommend that wouldn't cost any money?)
  • If we could change one perception of our neighborhood by the outside world, which one should it be?
  • If you were re-planning our entire city from scratch, what would this neighborhood's specialty be? (Or if you're in a city, try asking what the city's specialty should be within the country or region.)
  • Do you see the economic situation of individual households in this community improving or declining in the next 10 years? Why?
  • If we could get wave a magic wand and get rid of one eyesore in our community, which one would you choose? Why?
  • Who needs to change for our area to be better?

I can tell you, your professionals probably won't like these questions, because they aren't accustomed to them. But they are great discussion starters.

Professionals usually take charge, but you can turn the tables and make sure they are thinking. This is a great tactical decision on your part, because usually these people want to do a good job, but the way they or their firm makes money is to repeat similar analysis and the same conclusions over and over again in different locations. It takes less time, and if you're a consultant, time is money.

But you want an engaged, thinking consultant, who is responsive to your needs.

3. Set some tentative community goals.

This is where the community planning process begins to bring folks a real road map for the future. By this point, your community engagement strategy needs to well underway. It's really not important what some outside force thinks the community's goals should be. What real people think means everything. With distrust in government rampant all over the world in 2020, it is essential that ordinary folks and the historically under-represented groups feel that their views are being heard. We won't go into a long discussion of alternative community engagement methods here, but if what you have usually done to involve your residents does not work, try something else until you succeed.

Determine the general goals first before getting bogged down in the details of writing. If you have a consultant, require them to listen to the community long and often, and then ask them to state the goals in the first language that comes to mind, so you can play with the ideas and see if you want to rally behind that goal.

If someone writes goals for you and you don't buy them, it's not going to work. It's hard to see why so many consultants think they can write inspirational goals for others.

To illustrate this, let's try an experiment. Your goals for the next year are:

  1. You will lose 20 pounds.
  2. You will save $500 more than you did this year.
  3. You will watch only C-Span on TV.

Did that work? Are you inspired? Are these now your goals for real? Hmm, I didn't think so.

These sample goals might even have been based on good analysis, because typical Americans need to lose weight, save more money, and watch less junk TV. But they are not goals that you, the decision maker, brought forth, and therefore they are not goals that you feel strongly about pursuing. Even if you agreed with the topics of weight, savings, and television habits as important to your personal plan, you would want to tinker with the exact numbers or television channels, wouldn't you?

So no matter how elegant the plan that I write for you, it won't work unless these are genuinely your goals.

4.Generate community choices and develop alternative scenarios.

The alternatives step is hard for most do-it-yourself groups because by now, you think you know the answers. See if you can discipline yourselves to spend about an hour thinking up alternative ways to reach your goal or goals. Sometimes generating alternatives means entertaining the idea that your goals themselves are suspect; this may be particularly true if you have been pointing to the same goal for 30 years and yet nothing has changed.

If you have a situation where some real alternatives are apparent and you don't know which way to go, spend some effort developing the concepts behind the alternatives into a coherent narrative, and then involve your core group guiding the planning process in a discussion.

If possible, hold a public forum, discussion, open house, or on-line survey where you ask the neighborhood at large to comment on each alternative. Your aim should be a long list of pro's and con's for each alternative.

Discuss and debate, but at some point, choose your direction. If you genuinely can combine two or more desirable alternatives into one, do so.

However, don't jam contradictory ideas together just to make everyone a winner in hopes they will support the community planning process. This may make you more comfortable in the short run, but it will make the plan much less likely to be implementing. At this stage of choosing an alternative, you may alienate some people. But be nice, and like other situations in life, your attitude will mean everything about whether the "losers" stay in the game.

5. Make a written plan!

Solidify it with the description and analysis that led you to these conclusions, a description of the community planning process you followed and who was involved, the alternatives you considered, and why you chose the one you did. If hired professionals or city employees are preparing the plan, they will do this step.

The elegance of plan documents has no correlation with the degree to which neighborhood, small area, or city plans will be helpful or implemented. Dwell on that sentence. We will not repeat it.

Professionals are likely to overdo the style and sacrifice the substance. Don't ever let that happen. Yes, you'd like a nice map or diagram or brochure to show your conclusions from this wonderful community planning process, but don't let the quality of the printed material outweigh the quality of the thinking.

6. Think through the plan implementation and whether it should be divided into phases.

I have to include this, because too many plans just stop after reciting some data and a narrative, map, or rendering of the future. Don't let this happen.

Insist that professionals estimate how much implementing the plan will cost, what ordinances or state laws have to be changed so you can implement the neighborhood plans, what new groups will have to be created and governed in order to bring the plan to pass, and how you can implement the plan step-by-step. If the plan is not clear about who is to take the lead in each component of the plan, and worse yet, if that department or agency disagrees with the plan, it is unlikely that the plan will ever change circumstances.

As you can imagine, these conversations with lead departments, individuals, agencies, or businesses can be quite tricky. Yet you should not shorten this process. If relevant implementing entities are reluctant or refusing to play their role, that means that you have to go back to the drawing board with your plan to determine what else might be done.

If you don't know what to do first the moment the consultant walks away, you don't have a plan, even if there are 400 meticulously assembled pages of argument, drawings, and GIS-generated maps.

Even here, the community planning process is not finished. You need to monitor how the plan is being implemented, updating it periodically, and continuously attempting to advance the plan. Implementation is everything in determining whether neighborhood plans are worth the time and effort, and usually consultant fees, required to prepare them.

So get off this planning page and go elsewhere on this site to figure out how to actually DO things!

Read Further Pages Related to Many Plans

  1. Making and Keeping a Good Community
  2.  ›
  3. Planning
  4.  › Community Planning Process

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