Get National Recognition for Your Planning Work

Tips on creating a strong National Planning Award nomination

When did you last see a planning department heralded and not harangued? It is not fiction — it can happen. Charlotte, North Carolina's, department of planning, design, and development was cheered last October after winning APA's 2023 Daniel Burnham National Planning Award for its Charlotte Future 2040 comprehensive plan. Maybe it will be your turn this year! Why should you pursue a national planning award, and what does it take to win this honor?

Being selected to receive a National Planning Award demonstrates your outstanding work that helped improve a community and serves as a model to inspire great work in other places. For many recipients, winning a national award can be a career highlight, building their professional reputation and demonstrating knowledge and skills. Finally, winning a national award can help legitimize important planning work and develop the support and investment needed from stakeholders and key decision-makers to take on the next community-shaping project.

Submitting a Strong Award Nomination

Based on our experience as the outgoing (Ben) and incoming (Emily) chairs of APA's National Planning Awards Jury, pursuing a national planning award often includes three parts. These include the project itself, the results or outcomes of the planning effort, and writing a strong nomination.

Let's take a look at each of these elements.

The Project

Needless to say, winning a national award starts with the project. The competition for a national award is stiff, and projects must be of outstanding caliber. Below we share what helps make a nomination strong for an award-worthy project:

  • Compelling purpose — Does the project address an important need in the community? Is it a difference-maker? Tulsa, Oklahoma, received the 2023 Advancing Diversity and Social Change in Honor of Paul Davidoff Award for a plan to revitalize the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and help the community heal from this event. Not every plan may have a purpose this poignant but find the community reason that helped motivate your project.
  • Thoughtful project design — Is the project structured to address the community's needs in a creative and impactful way? Does it include substantial public involvement to help empower all voices, with a special focus on engaging traditionally underrepresented populations?
  • Innovative methods — Does the project test or develop new planning methods to help build the state of practice and the techniques we use to be effective in our work? For example, APA recognized the County of Kaua'i, Hawai'i, with the 2023 National Planning Award for Resilience and Sustainability for developing and adopting a Sea Level Rise (SLR) Constraint District ordinance and an online viewing tool that identifies suitable development locations based on projected future sea levels. This forward-looking initiative provides an important model for a growing number of communities worldwide.
  • Successful implementation — Was the project carried out successfully, using diligence and insight? This often means making course corrections to address the inevitable bumps in the road along the way to bring the project to a successful conclusion.

The Results

Once the project is completed, it is time to evaluate the results. Key considerations include the following:

  • Project impact — What kind of impact did the project have? Did it materially address the needs identified in the project purpose? What evidence can you provide to demonstrate this? Identifying key performance indicators in the original project design can help ensure this information is available at the end.

The Cody Rouge & Warrendale YOUTH-CENTRIC Neighborhood Framework received the 2023 National Planning Excellence Award. This effort created an innovative intergenerational partnership with city officials, community leaders, and young people on Detroit's far west side. This work made Detroit the first major U.S. city to complete a comprehensive neighborhood plan backed with investments that put youth at the center of planning and making decisions.

  • Lessons learned — Each project provides a chance for us to build our knowledge and improve our technique. What did you learn during your project that will help you and others next time?
  • Transferability — How transferable are the methods and insights from your project to other communities? Is this a one-off project without broad applicability, or could it serve as a model for other communities? APA aims to elevate planning work that has broad applicability, even if this feature is only one aspect of the project. Make sure to describe this potential.
  • Catalytic spark — Great projects accomplish meaningful things and also inspire communities to do more. Sometimes this is the result of overcoming challenges. Other times it comes from showing what is possible to address important needs. Did your project generate a catalytic spark to inspire great work moving forward?

The Nomination

Finally, to win a national planning award, you need to communicate why your project is worthy of recognition. Your nomination is how the jury learns about your planning effort. In preparing to do this, it is helpful to know a little bit about the awards jury.

The jury is composed of volunteer planning professionals appointed each year by the APA president. Jury members come from all parts of the country and have a diversity of experience levels, planning specialties, and backgrounds. This group does its homework, carefully reviewing each — and every — part of the nomination!

Here are some key considerations to help you when preparing your nomination.

  • Find the right awards category — Make sure to read the category descriptions carefully and consult with the APA awards staff if you have any questions. In some cases, the right category might be for an award offered by an APA chapter or division.
  • Tell your story — Often, the most compelling award nominations tell an engaging (and true) story about the project. Correct grammar is important. Key data points that support your narrative are helpful. Supporting graphics and links are valuable. Concise and engaging writing that documents your efforts is essential.
  • Letters of support — Nothing adds legitimacy to an award nomination like enthusiastic and personalized letters of support from a diversity of project participants and members of the client community. Letters are not as persuasive if they only come from the director of the sponsor organization or project consultants or if the same letter is repeated on different letterheads from multiple parties.
  • Highlight what sets your project apart — There are many good projects...what sets apart your project? If you can't answer this question, consider waiting to submit a nomination until you can.

Planning Accolades

As planners, we're always trying to get our elected and appointed leaders to fully understand the importance of planning and the unique insights that we bring to the table. Winning an award helps demonstrate that your planning is making a tangible impact on the lives of those in your community and that your expertise should be a factor in the decisions that elected leaders make.

As Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston said, "This award serves as a reminder that by working together, we can overcome challenges, address disparities, and build a future where every community member's needs are not only heard but prioritized. We're inspired by this recognition to continue our mission of a city that truly serves and uplifts all residents, especially when looking at how we grow and develop as a city."

2023 APA Awards Jury Chair Ben Hitchings, FAICP, presents the Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan to Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Vi Lyles during a city council meeting in November 2023.

2023 APA Awards Jury Chair Ben Hitchings, FAICP, presents the Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan to Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Vi Lyles during a city council meeting in November 2023.

Receiving a National Planning Award is as close to the Oscars as a planner can get. It also is a great way to share your work with your colleagues, get national recognition and even cheers from your elected leaders.

Good luck with your nominations!

Nominations for the 2024 National Planning Awards are accepted June 12 through June 28, 2024.

Learn more about the categories, criteria, and nomination requirements

The 2024 recipients will be announced this October.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - metamorworks

About the authors
Ben Hitchings, FAICP, is the immediate past National Planning Awards Jury Chair and principal of Green Heron Planning. Emily Liu, FAICP, is the current jury chair and is Dallas' director of planning and urban design.

June 11, 2024

By Benjamin Hitchings, FAICP, Yu Liu, FAICP