Oct. 28, 2021
Planners do a lot for their communities, but that work is often behind the scenes. That means when tight budgets drive decision making and resource allocation, planning departments aren't always at the top of the funding list.
As local governments feel the financial squeeze triggered by the pandemic, how can planners articulate the value of their roles and contributions, particularly as we look to recovery and beyond? A recent APA Learning Circle brought together Atiya Mitchell, planner and associate broker at KW Commercial; Rob Kowalski, FAICP, assistant planning and development director for Champaign, Illinois, and adjunct lecturer in Urban and Regional Planning at University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign; Chad Nabity, AICP planning director for the Hall County Regional Planning Commission in Grand Island, Nebraska, and vice-chair of APA's Divisions Council and a past Chair of APA's Small Town and Rural Planning Division, (STaR); and Keith Marvin, AICP, owner and principal planner for Marvin Planning Consultants in Nebraska and chair of the STaR Division.
With their wide range of experiences and expertise, they discussed ways planners can best highlight the value of the work they do. Here are five practical tips they offered:
1. Keep progress, change, and transparency top of mind
If you have a comprehensive plan, celebrate milestones with your community. Share progress more frequently, too. Reporting even incremental improvements is a great way to get your work in front of community members.
Be flexible, too, as circumstances change. Adjust plans and priorities to be responsive to current events and changes in community needs.
Transparency and honesty are also vital if planners are to be seen as trusted sources who practice what they preach, so be sure to keep a running record of activities, successes, and setbacks — and make as much information public as possible.
2. Tell your planning story on a regular basis
Outcomes of planning processes are the most visible part of the planning process, which makes them easier to explain and celebrate. But don't forget to tell the whole story.
Community members often need help understanding how long it takes to make things happen, including the full breadth of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a planning effort. So even if you weren't there at the beginning, tell the whole story. Educate stakeholders on the process and roles of everyone involved.
3. Take public speaking engagements
Reach out to future leaders of tomorrow and share the importance of planning. Get in front of clubs or organizations that are made up of community members for speaking opportunities. Connect with local radio or local access television to share stories and communicate to a broader audience.
Social media is another great platform to connect with the community. In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, North Carolina, musicians put their comprehensive plan story into song.
Outreach efforts like these put your department in front of more community members, demonstrate your expertise, and draw connections between planning and issues like public health, local foods, equity, and quality of life.
4. Partner with allied organizations familiar in the community.
Collaborating across different disciplines can help you build social capital within your community. Partnering with philanthropic institutions, social service nonprofits, and other allied organizations will help you communicate a set of values that the public recognizes. For example, coalitions around ending homelessness can be tied to your department's affordable housing efforts.
There are other benefits, too. Such partnerships can highlight research that advance planning projects. Allied groups can also magnify the reach of joint-project success stories.
5. Encourage allies to run for office.
Having allies to planning among local elected officials can help carry the value message forward — and directly to those making budget decisions. With that in mind, encourage people who come off the planning commission to go into office. Or have the planning commission reach out to the county board of commissioners.
But don't count existing elected officials out. Keep the communication open with them. Consider taking a more proactive approach by hosting round tables to check in and move conversations about the needs of the community forward.