Neighborhood Plans Build Excitement, Purpose

Last Updated: March 14, 2024

Here's a brief list of times when writing neighborhood plans helps communities:

  • You have significant problems and issues that are not being resolved.
  • Groups or individuals are voicing competing visions for the future, or competing groups that want to mold the neighborhood and control its direction.
  • You are having trouble agreeing on the physical, social, or economic future of the neighborhood, or on a large development proposal.
  • You realize that greater opportunities, such as grant funding or new investment, could flow to your community if you become more organized, systematic, and thorough in your presentation of your assets and issues to internal and external interests.
  • The neighborhood's future looks uncertain because of one or more of the following characteristics: gentrification, a major new development within or on the outskirts of the neighborhood, low income, high crime rate, too little variety in ages of residents, age of the housing stock, housing obsolescence (due to tiny closets, no garage, houses too small, and such), rapidly rising rents when compared to the rest of your metro area, high vacancy rate of residences or commercial buildings, conflict between the long-time residents and in-movers, or significant unresolved blighting influences such as a noisy freeway, ugly factory, or gang activity.
multi-story, mixed-use buildings and parked cars lining a somewhat narrow street in a New Orleans neighborhood

If you need dialogue about a trend you see, or even a slow drift that seems to be headed neither upward or downward, a plan can create new ideas and action agendas if you seize the opportunity.

We want to emphasize right at the beginning of this article that neighborhood plans should not be prepared by just a few leaders, your city's planners or planning commissioners with no input from residents, or the board members only of a neighborhood association.

You need broad involvement because in a democracy, that's what we do. But also, being pragmatic about it, you want to generate many ideas, you can use the insights and information that community members can give you, and you want as many people understanding your plan as possible so that you have the necessary political clout when the plan is threatened. 

Who's Going to Plan?

In truth, neighborhood plans usually are prepared only where there is a strong neighborhood organization already, or where the municipal government has recognized or arbitrarily created a neighborhood boundary for administrative purposes and is promoting the idea of a neighborhood plan for each designated area. Or perhaps a well-run municipality recognizes that change is happening in the area, whether for good or ill.

In fact, if you haven't done so already, figuring out exactly where your borders lie should be the first task in creating your plan.

You need to try to involve all types of residents and others who might have a stake in the community but don't live there, such as businesspersons , congregations, or heads of influential organizations housed in your neighborhood. Doing so is critical to obtaining "buy-in" from those groups.

If you're in a democracy, don't have someone sit in a cubicle and do scholarly neighborhood planning. See what your stakeholders are willing to support. Read our community engagement page if you have trouble visualizing how to get people involved.

You can certainly do some or all of the work yourselves, but the best of neighborhood plans probably will require the help of a professional, which might be a city employee, city planning consultant, university student team, or extension agent.

If you want to do a plan, approach your city government first and ask what resources they can offer. Don't make this request half-baked; there may be a great deal of competition for the efforts of a few professional planners, so prepare ahead to answer why you want a plan and the benefits you anticipate both for yourselves and for your city.

Typical Topics in Neighborhood Plans

Don't let anyone tell you that neighborhood plans have to cover topics X, Y, and Z to be viable. While we think you and the planners should make a very broad scan of conditions and issues, there's no reason that neighborhood plans have to address every conceivable subject.

But the plan must focus on the most important one or ones, or it could end up being useless. In fact, you could write a single-issue neighborhood plan if you want to concentrate on one problem or opportunity.

Neighborhoods should not ignore elephants in the living room.

Since we promised to talk about typical topics, here is a good list that can serve as a starting point in describing existing conditions:

  • Brief history, noting recent trends or seriously interesting past events especially
  • Neighborhood demographics (population characteristics), including a discussion of any needs that these demographics highlight, such as economic inequities among groups, needs for instruction in the predominant language of the wider community, a high or low population of households with children, a large number of senior citizens, and so forth
  • Brief description of typical architectural styles of housing, number of housing units, a  housing condition assessment, and a discussion of affordability of housing based on rents and property values
  • Any housing problems or challenges
  • Commercial establishments types, numbers, and number of employees, and a discussion of any downtown redevelopment or commercial district revitalization that is needed
  • Any gaps in essential shopping and services, and a discussion of potential ways to address those gaps
  • Where neighborhood residents are employed, their journey to work, income levels, employment centers other than the retail and service businesses identified under commercial establishments above, a discussion of any mismatch between neighborhood workers' skills and the jobs available, or a mismatch between your neighborhood's location and the location of jobs for which your residents are qualified
  • Any significant vacant or abandoned buildings, eyesores, or brownfields, together with a discussion of redevelopment potential of each identified site
  • A description of any neighborhood associations or community organizations active in the area, as well as a candid assessment of their interests and capabilities
  • Traffic volumes and issues, traffic calming needs, needs for improvements in street connectivity, genuine parking needs and problems, and conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists
  • Perceived needs for capital improvements, which might include street widening or narrowing, sidewalk installation or maintenance, bicycle facilities, street lighting, investment in public recreation centers or libraries in your neighborhood, utility upgrades, flood prevention facilities, park or open space deficits, and other improvements needed from the public sector
  • A listing and an appreciation of neighborhood assets
  • Discussion of community development corporations, community improvement districts or other special taxing districts, any redundancies or conflicts among these community-based organizations, and non-profits, including places of worship

Then you should present an analysis of the problems and opportunities that your existing conditions show.  The written neighborhood plan then should move to posing alternatives that you considered, and lastly you delineate the plan itself, explaining the rationale behind each choice.

The plan then is presented in some combination of the following forms:

  • Map-based depiction of desirable future land uses, target sites for infill housing, locations for affordable or specialized housing, traffic improvements, bike lane and sidewalk installations, and potential sites for visual amenities such as public art, greenways, or gateway features should nearly always be included.
  • Architectural renderings and sketches of future divisions of right-of-way or other features might be necessary.
  • Last and perhaps most importantly, the plan needs to explain a specific course of action for how the plan will be implemented, what organization will take the lead in each initiative, how much funding will be needed, what laws need to be enacted, the outlines of each program you will need, and what action specific public and private organizations need to take.

The sitemap for this website also may be useful; consult in particular the Neighborhoods and Distressed Neighborhoods spreadsheets linked in the yellow box near the top of that sitemap.

If all of this seems overwhelming, especially if you do not have any access to a city staff planner or to a planning consultant, remember that a short, breezy, and very focused plan that you write yourselves could be very impactful. A crisp one-page plan would knock their socks off, if it's ambitious yet attainable, and clear about who should take what step first, second, and third. I'm not a fan of long-winded plans unless that length really adds value.

A plan outline could be as simple as this:

  1. We have vacant storefronts. We counted eight, and here's a map of where they are.
  2. We have a good nucleus of cute little boutiques. We checked, and we have the income to support that.
  3. We don't want or have room for big box stores in our neighborhood. Here's why.
  4. Therefore we need to fill the eight vacant storefronts with cute little boutiques and eateries.
  5. The people who should accomplish this are the XYZ group.
  6. XYZ has agreed to implement our plan, and they will do so within two years by establishing an "I will if you will" task force, described further on our retail attraction page.
  7. Therefore we need to establish a budget of this amount. We will request this money from the Neighborhood Support office of the city government during their regular autumn funding round.

If you've never faced the fact that the storefronts are vacant, prevent other stores from being as prosperous as they could be, and need to be filled, you will have made significant progress even though you won't win any awards.

We should caution that if one of your primary motivations for undertaking neighborhood planning is that you want to use it to bolster your grant applications, you will need a much more formal and all-inclusive style and substance. However, if your goal is directed primarily at getting your own internal juices flowing, don't underestimate the power of having a real plan that does not just "sit on a shelf."

The Planning Process in a Nutshell

As veterans of this process, of course we have plenty to say about the planning process--so much that we wrote a separate page about the community planning process.

Here let's just list the steps for you, in case you're in a hurry and can't get into that other page right now:

  1. Gather information.
  2. Analyze the data you collected.
  3. Set goals.
  4. Develop alternatives, analyze the advantages and disadvantages of each, and choose among them.
  5. Write down the plan.
  6. Plot implementation strategies.

Of course what we have ignored thus far is that often when you are at step 4 or 5, it becomes apparent that you need more information (back to step 1) or that the community support for your goals (step 3) has fallen apart. So it isn't neat and tidy, but this is a general outline of the progress you can expect.

Isn't your community worth deciding on a revitalization strategy or a thoughtful look at what it will take to keep your community beautiful? Yes, plans are made to be revised when unexpected opportunities arise,  but until then, your neighborhood can make its own luck by writing a simple or elaborate plan and proceeding to follow it. You will need to have a discussion about what revisions to make, if any, every three to five years, depending on how quickly conditions are improving in your neighborhood.

More Resources Relevant to Planning at the Neighborhood Scale

We think the photo links below are especially relevant in most neighborhood planning situations. But as you begin your planning, you may want to check out the complete list of neighborhood interest pages on our site. 

  1. Making and Keeping a Good Community Development
  2. City Planning
  3. › Neighborhood Plans

Join GOOD COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you monthly with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, and rural or small town environments. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.