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Master Planning: Everything You Need To Know
Wondering how to manage your community’s physical growth in a consistent and deliberate fashion? Here’s how master planning can help.
As a local government leader, you may already have a strategic plan that outlines where your city or town wants to be in the future, as well as the steps it will take to get there. But a strategic plan isn’t the only guidance you’ll need for future growth—a master plan is another valuable resource that can help you more easily get where you want to go.
In this article, we’ll look at master planning in relation to local governments and strategic planning: what it means to have a master plan, the benefits of having one, and ways to approach the planning process.
Table Of Contents:
Chapter 1: What Is Master Planning?
Master planning is a type of urban planning that pertains to the physical development of a city or town over the long term, usually covering a time frame of about 10 to 15 years into the future. It is intended to guide a community’s growth from a high-level perspective, focusing on ways to:
- Preserve a locality’s unique character
- Ensure diversity
- Support investment
- Promote desired change
- Enhance a community’s livability
A master plan format can vary, but is essentially a dynamic long-term planning document that provides a framework for future growth. It helps you think about development. If you are trying to redevelop a downtown area, for example, you need a plan that looks out 10 to 15 years to maintain consistency in growth over time. This includes knowing how and if you’ll redesign or widen roads to avoid building in the path of a new road; rules for new housing developments; and how growth will impact police, schools, and hospitals. If you are a fast-growing area, like Prince William County, Virginia, or Arvada, Colorado—both of which are adding tens of thousands of residents each year—a master plan ensures that you continue to grow and serve the public seamlessly.
Master plans also play a crucial role in building and preserving character. An excellent master plan example that illustrates this idea is that of Savannah, Georgia. If you’ve ever been to Savannah, you know it has a definite sense of place—period architecture, Spanish moss-filled trees, and beautiful squares all contribute to Savannah’s reputation as a place with historic charm. Its master plan (which extends to 2033) outlines a number of priorities, two of which specifically pertain to preserving and extending these character elements in future years. Its plan “encourages more of what we love about Savannah,” and aims to provide decision-makers with a set of design principles going forward.
Just because master planning is done by community leaders doesn’t mean they are the sole contributors. Town development should take the broader community’s desires and values into consideration. A good master plan should pull in ideas from a variety of sources: the public, city council, key stakeholders (like historical, environmental, or cultural groups), private contractors, etc., so future development reflects a multitude of perspectives.
It’s important to remember that master plans are aspirational—they imagine what’s possible and propose a path to achieve those goals. But that doesn’t mean they are set in stone. Circumstances may change as time goes on, and plans may need to be adjusted accordingly. For example, Saint Paul, Minnesota updated its master plan 12 years after creating it to provide more meaningful direction to developers as the government began a new campaign to revitalize the West Side Flats area of the Mississippi riverfront.
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Master Planning Vs. Strategic Planning
Sometimes master planning is confused with strategic planning, because they are both fairly “big-picture” exercises that deal with anticipating and planning for future growth:
Though they are distinctly different concepts, together they help you determine which strategies and actions you should take in both the long and short term to reach your future goals.
Chapter 2: The Benefits Of Master Planning
It’s no surprise that having a blueprint to guide your town’s future growth will pay off in the long run because it:
1. Identifies And Unites Your Short-term And Long-Term Visions
Your strategic plan will identify goals you’re trying to reach in the next three to five years, as well as the projects that need to be done to achieve them. But even if, for example, building two new parking garages brings in more revenue, does it fit in with your town’s vision to be walkable and “greener”? A master plan guarantees consistency and ensures your shorter-term activities protect and preserve the character of your community as envisioned by residents.
2. Attracts Private Sector Investments
Having a master plan is a sign of intelligent community planning at work. Evidence of concrete plans and a deliberate direction for future growth makes investors feel more secure. You’ll also be more likely to attract the kind of investors you want—those with an interest in historical preservation or environmentally friendly development, for example—if they can see their value to the town over the long term.
3. Engages The Local Community
Engaged citizens make for strong, healthy communities. When people play a meaningful role in discussions surrounding the future of their community, they are more likely to support ongoing projects and be satisfied with their outcomes; they also have a deeper understanding of the challenges the town faces. Part of your master plan preparation process should include outreach to community members, which may require some creativity. When Lowell, Massachusetts, leaders were creating a master plan, for example, they created an online “game” for residents encouraging them to think about the future in a fun, interactive way.
4. Helps Prioritize Work Plans
The master planning process should result in a thorough understanding of the community as a whole and its most pressing areas of need. This information should be used to prioritize projects. Community leaders in Savannah, for instance, wanted to support interconnectedness among its neighborhoods by enabling multiple modes of transportation—walking, biking, and public transportation. As a result, one project that made the priority list was to convert on-street parking areas to bike lanes in certain areas.
5. Enables Clear And Consistent Decision-Making
The existence of a master plan provides a reference point for various town boards and committees in their decision-making processes. When everyone is working from the same set of “rules,” a town is more likely to develop in a predictable and orderly fashion.
Chapter 3: The Master Plan Preparation Process
Below is an outline of the general steps for developing and implementing a master plan.
1. Engage the community.
The first step in master planning is to ask the public about their vision for the community’s future. As noted above, securing public support for your plan is crucial to achieving it. To reach the broadest possible audience—and encourage everyone to participate—set up a variety of ways residents can provide input. A combination of several methods is best, including:
- Online surveys
- Public “visioning” meetings
- Telephone surveys
- Direct mail surveys
- Request for text message responses
- Open house event
- Creative methods (like Lowell’s online games and snapshot contests)
Ask questions that will prompt readers to reflect on the town’s character as well as their thoughts on the future, such as:
- What are the town’s strengths?
- What are its shortcomings?
- What concerns do you have with regard to future development?
- What types of development should the town encourage/discourage?
- How can the town support you and the specific interests of your group or community?
- Complete this phrase: “In the future, I want my town to be…”
The goal of this step is to create community-supported vision statements, goals, and objectives that will help guide the development of your master plan.
2. Gather and analyze the relevant data.
You’ll next need to gather data that might influence the priorities and projects identified in the master plan. Data around your town’s financials, facility operations, condition of assets, population forecasts, land use, capital improvement projects, and stakeholder needs is typically used in the planning process and serves as the foundation for the document you produce. Thus, accuracy is important.
Governments that are using performance management software like ClearPoint have a leg up in this area. The software is capable of pulling in data automatically from other compatible sources across all government departments; when any source data is changed, ClearPoint is updated automatically. No more chasing down multiple individuals responsible for various sets of data. ClearPoint essentially serves as a hub for all your data streams, so you can stay on top of the most current data relevant to your plan.
The goal of this step is to understand the state of your town and identify possible future conditions that might drive the need for specific changes.
3. Identify and narrow down your options.
Using what you have learned about the town’s current state, future projections, land maps, and community input, consider a variety of development scenarios. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of each, and how you can best use your current land and resources to encourage your preferred type of growth. To eliminate options, you may want to develop a set of criteria to measure each scenario against.
4. Prepare a strategy for moving forward.
Once you’ve chosen a particular development scenario, you’ll need to come up with a strategy as to how, when, and by whom the recommendations of the plan should be implemented. As board and committee members in all functional areas consider proposed projects in the months and years ahead, how will you ensure that development aligns with your goals and drives progress forward in the intended way?
Try listing out the main guiding principles of development identified in your master plan and prioritizing them. For instance, is accessibility more or less important than sustainability? Additionally, you could develop a list of criteria against which each proposed project could be measured, again assigning weights. Is it more important to fill existing gaps or address community preferences? The parks and recreation master planning team in Palo Alto, California, incorporated these techniques into its master plan; you can read more about it here.
Using software makes it easier for all your teams to evaluate and prioritize projects. ClearPoint is unique in that it gives users the ability to tie individual projects happening across your government with high-level master plan objectives. You can set it up to:
- Link projects with goals (even link a single project to different goals in different departments)
- See how and why projects are evaluated
- Measure and automatically evaluate projects according to specific scoring rules
- Visualize project performance in auto-generated reports
No matter your specific master plan format or evaluation criteria, you can see how your efforts are aligned across all your government departments with ClearPoint.
5. Manage and track the performance of your projects and programs.
Just like government strategic planning, master planning isn’t a “one and done” activity. You need to track the plan’s progress over time to make sure you’re heading in the right direction. Establish a set of KPIs against which to measure performance, as well as a reporting system to help with analysis and decision-making. You’ll also want a way to report on progress to your constituents, to keep them apprised of milestones reached or changes made.
Reporting can be time-intensive—a problem that software can help solve. ClearPoint simplifies and automates 70% of the reporting process, so you’re not wasting time on manual reporting tasks. To make reporting easier and more efficient, ClearPoint lets you:
- Automatically upload and sync data from various sources to include in your report
- Set criteria that automatically evaluates the status of any KPI and displays it as an easy-to-understand red, amber, or green indicator
- Manipulate and view your data in unlimited ways for different audiences
- Include quantitative and qualitative data describing progress
- Create visualizations like custom charts to present data in an appealing, easily digestible format
- Generate summary reports to pull lots of information into one place for easier sharing and interpretation
- Design community dashboards that show residents at a glance how new developments are contributing to long-term goals, and how current projects are progressing
Whether you want it to or not, your community is likely to continue to grow in the years ahead. It’s smart to embrace a strategic approach to development in the form of both master planning and strategic planning, that will take you in the direction you want to go. At ClearPoint, we’ve helped numerous local governments navigate the complexities of future planning (several of which, like Germantown, Tennessee, have become award winners)—and we’d love to help you, too! Reach out anytime to talk with us, or see how our software works.