Uncovering JAPA

What Is a Complete Community?

Theories like new urbanism, smart growth, and sustainable development emerged from politically supported practitioners, while the concept of the complete community evolved locally. Unlike the 15-minute city, which faced public opposition, complete communities gained favor among planners. However, scholarly attention to how practitioners discuss complete communities remains limited.

In "Complete Community: Planning Theory From Practice" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 90, No. 2) Jill L. Grant traces the history of the complete community concept in Canada. The study suggests the concept offers positive framings of potentially unpopular outcomes such as densification.

Using and Defining Complete

Grant follows the scholarly tradition of analyzing the discourse regarding what plans and planners articulate about planning work. Planners are not merely consumers of theory or the subjects of theory — they generate theory.

Grant collected English-language documents online from 1975 to 2023, resulting in a convenience sample of 102 plans and policies. While not comprehensive, it covers jurisdictions governing over 75 percent of Canadians. Plans from small-sized and remote areas within larger provinces were added to assess complete community ideas beyond major cities.

Over 80 percent of the reviewed documents explicitly incorporated the concept of complete community or related ideas (e.g., complete neighborhood, center, district, region, or city). Additionally, many plans advocated for complete streets concurrently.

Canadian plans and planning policies focus on intensification, accommodating growth by increasing densities, and mixing land uses in both existing and new-build areas. References to complete communities often align with this priority while pledging sustainability, livability, and enhanced quality of life.

Within Canadian planning, the notion of a complete community signifies a residential environment offering a comprehensive array of functions. This idea shares fundamental principles with various forms of localized completeness, ranging from garden cities to urban villages.

About half of the plans and policies used lists of multiple adjectives to accompany the idea. The most frequently used words in such lists included compact, healthy, sustainable, and vibrant. Less commonly used were inclusive, connected, walkable, livable, urban, safe, transit-supportive, diverse, mixed, and balanced. Words such as affordable, smart, resilient, strong, green, and accessible appeared infrequently.

The documents in the sample occasionally hinted at connections to planning theories, yet plans rarely explicitly acknowledged the theories that dominate the planning literature on practice. For instance, recent documents from Halifax, Guelph, and Vancouver included sparing use of "smart" but not of "smart growth."

The complete community concept's adaptability and emphasis on positive attributes, such as livability and sustainability, make it a compelling and persuasive notion in planning discourse.

Hidden Values

Density initially attracted planners and policymakers due to its perceived neutrality and promise of efficient growth. Over time, it shifted from a tool for efficiency to a political priority, with the government setting targets for population, infill, and housing.

Despite widespread support among planners, proposals to increase density often generated considerable community resistance.

Like "sustainable" or "smart," the coded language of "complete" can conceal values within politically safe or palatable phrasing. Its proponents view the complete community as progressive, while critics might question the framing of intensification in seemingly innocuous terms.

The idealized vision of a good community hides the risks of gentrification, youthification, and declining affordability. It frames community resistance to densification as antisocial or NIMBYism. The complete community may subtly represent a form of neoliberalism in practice.

Contagious Language

The term "complete community" originated in the 1970s in Greater Vancouver alongside regional growth strategies. It has since spread across Canadian communities, adapting to local concerns — labeled as safe amidst crime worries, affordable amid housing shortages, and resilient in the face of climate change.

The term is flexible and adaptable, able to morph to accommodate pressing concerns and local conditions.

Grant's analysis shows the widespread dissemination of the complete community concept, but it fails to fully explain its diffusion. How did small, remote settlements adopt the same concept as large metropolises? Follow-up interviews with practitioners could uncover the mechanisms behind this mobility.

Understanding the language of plans and planners can illuminate the mysterious workings of land use policies and the real politics of contemporary practice. Investigating how practitioners use (or dismiss) theories and premises can help explain the practical obstacles to progressive change.

Top image: Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus

Grant Holub-Moorman is a master's in city and regional planning student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

May 23, 2024

By Grant Holub-Moorman