A Guide to Community Planning Academies

PAS Report 605

By Donna Carney

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Imagine an engaged constituency who appreciates the role of planning and its importance, who understands power networks and how to achieve more equitable development, and who represents trusted partners and advocates at every level of the community.

The community planning academy — a program that educates local community leaders and residents about planning and land-use issues — is an approach for moving toward that vision and creating more authentic public engagement. Planners gain relationships with a more informed and involved constituency, and participants gain a greater understanding of the role of planning and how they can influence positive change in their communities.

PAS Report 605, A Guide to Community Planning Academies, offers readers a step-by-step how-to guide in creating, managing, and growing a community planning academy program. Based on the author's 13 years of experience in creating and directing the Philadelphia Citizens Planning Institute, it offers practical, field-tested advice and lessons learned from a program that has graduated more than 700 "citizen planners."

The report begins by offering tools for setting program goals and determining organizational capacity to launch an academy program. It delves into designing the structure of the program, covering format and administration, application and fees, and venue logistics. It details curriculum development, including how to deliver content in ways that meet a wide range of learning styles, and offers guidance in instructor selection and support. Finally, it emphasized the importance of alumni engagement to build the citizen planner network and metrics and evaluation for continuous improvement.

A community planning academy can be a starting point to transform community engagement itself. This PAS Report offers the guidance planners need to build a program for deep and authentic engagement that empowers and elevates the voices of those previously not at the table.

Executive Summary

Imagine an engaged constituency who appreciates the role of planning and its importance, who understands power networks and how to achieve more equitable development, and who are trusted partners and advocates for planning. This PAS Report presents the community planning academy as an approach for moving toward that vision and creating more authentic public engagement. It is a means to address long-standing inequities in who benefits from and who is represented in planning processes and policy making.

Planning academies have existed for many years as a strategy to educate local leaders about local land-use issues. More recently, the role of the planning academy has expanded from a focus on education to facilitating capacity-building at a neighborhood level. With this shift in perspective, planners gain not just a constituency to help them advocate for policies, but trusted partners in planning at every level of the community. Planning academies can be catalysts for residents to act on behalf of their community. These programs equip them with information, resources, and an understanding of the power networks that affect their lives and their communities.

This PAS Report provides guidance to planners, designers, and nonprofit organizations in designing and managing a successful and sustainable community planning academy and explores its role in the context of the ever-evolving field of public engagement. It uses the Philadelphia Citizens Planning Institute (CPI), a planning academy that the author founded in 2010, as a primary model.


A community planning academy is a program that aims to educate local leaders and residents about local land-use issues. It is typically offered by municipal or county planning agencies or by a nonprofit in partnership with the local planning agency. The general policy rationale for sponsoring a planning academy is to improve and enhance resident engagement in local land-use and urban planning processes and decision-making. The goal is that participants then become more involved and thoughtfully engaged in the development decisions that directly affect them and influence broader community support for citywide planning activities.

The report explains why community planning academies have mutually beneficial outcomes for both planners and participants: planners gain relationships with a more informed and involved constituency, and participants gain a greater understanding of the role of planning and how they can influence positive change in their communities. The relationships that are built between residents and other stakeholders in a planning academy program represent the "long game" in creating a more informed and diverse constituency with whom planners can engage. The investment of time and resources in a well-designed program will pay off, over time, through better representation of all community voices during engagement efforts.


There is necessary groundwork any organization needs to do before designing a community planning academy. For a program to be successful and sustainable over time, it must be based on clearly stated goals and desired outcomes — and the host organization must have sufficient capacity and resources to commit to creating the program.

This PAS Report takes readers through the process of setting program goals, using exercises such as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis and logic modeling. It suggests scanning for related programs — citizen academies, community leadership programs, planning professionals' academies, and youth leadership programs — as a way to strengthen the case for a community planning academy, inform planning academy development, and cross-promote and resource-share among programs.

Though the internal capacity of a sponsoring organization to administer a new community planning academy is key, external support is also important. The report highlights the importance of exploring partnerships and collaborations with other local community-based organizations and coalitions across relevant fields — civics, faith-based, community health, arts and culture — who are working toward policy and structural change and have authentic community leadership goals. It also addresses funding and cost considerations.


Once the sponsoring organization has determined that a community planning academy is needed and is feasible, the next step in the journey is designing the structure of the program — in short, the program's operating manual. This PAS Report discusses how to approach structuring a new community planning academy program or restructuring an existing one. It maps out a discovery process for understanding and engaging with the target audience to learn what kinds of information are most needed, how to reach potential applicants, and what needs to be in place to ensure an inclusive, successful, and sustainable program.

Basic program components include format and administration, application and fees, logistics, alumni engagement, and metrics and evaluation. The report discusses considerations including course format and size; roles and responsibilities for administration, facilitation, and instruction; and application formats, fees, and selection criteria. It addresses logistics, such as developing class materials, choosing a venue that is accessible and affordable, and community-building through sharing meals. And it offers guidance on developing an outreach and communications plan.


Every community planning academy will have its own unique set of goals and objectives. The specific content — the topics to be included — also needs to be tailored to meet those goals. This PAS Report emphasizes the importance of understanding the needs of the target audience and presenting the information to that audience in the most effective ways as essential components of a successful program that will continue to attract interest.

The report addresses how to create and deliver content that acknowledges the importance of lived experience, creates a safe and comfortable learning environment, and leaves the learner feeling capable and respected. It describes a planning academy curriculum comprising traditional core classes that cover planning, zoning and land use, and real estate development, as well as special topic classes covering a wide range of community-relevant content that change each time the academy is offered. The report also describes how incorporating a final project requirement into the curriculum allows participants to apply their newfound learning and program resources to a real-life issue in their community.

How content is taught or presented can make or break a learning experience. The report compares various delivery formats — group presentations and lectures, small-group activities, and self-paced learning. It discusses how to harness auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles, as well as use active learning techniques of "doing" and "observing" as well as reflection time alone or with others.

The facilitators and presenters of a community planning academy are responsible for creating a safe and positive learning environment. This PAS Report details the roles and responsibilities of an effective facilitator who welcomes and encourages attendees to feel safe and respected, regardless of their background or experience. It also offers guidance in selecting and working with presenters that represent diverse perspectives from private, nonprofit, and public sectors who are willing to commit their time and enthusiasm to the program.


It is important to keep past participants of a community planning academy engaged and connected to each other, as well as to the program itself. This PAS Report explains why building a network among each new program cohort and continuing to nurture the wider "citizen planner" network is mutually beneficial for the sponsor and the participants.

The success of a community planning academy program is best measured by what participants do after they leave the course. The report emphasizes the importance of building an alumni engagement infrastructure into the program from the beginning. Engaged alumni will share what they have learned with others in their community and will seek opportunities to contribute to the program, strengthening those networks with their knowledge and experience.

Maintaining these relationships is also beneficial for the sponsoring organization. Planners can leverage the informal and formal networks of the participants in future outreach and engagement activities, making it easier for planners to partner with communities on projects and locate willing host organizations for community meetings.


When creating a community planning academy program, it is important to establish how to measure the success of the program and how to capture those metrics. An effective and enduring program requires meeting goals and objectives and responding to participant suggestions for program improvement. To maintain alumni relationships and loyalty, an attitude of continuous improvement is essential to sustaining the value of the program.

This PAS Report explores the range of evaluation methods — both quantitative and qualitative — that program staff can use in gathering feedback. It covers the use of evaluation forms, surveys, and focus groups during and immediately following the course, as well as across a longer timeframe. It offers examples of metrics for tracking impact and success, as well as guidance on documenting and sharing program outcomes to share with funders and justify continued support by the sponsoring organization.


Contemporary planners are tackling issues of inequity and social justice, making planning more relevant, equitable, and inclusive. As they move toward more inclusive processes to inform their plans, there will be increasing scrutiny on how authentically they are engaging with the public. There are no shortcuts in creating community connections and building trust in an era of increasing mistrust, especially with government entities. This PAS Report makes clear that community planning academies offer an unsurpassed opportunity to build enduring relationships with a more informed and involved constituency, one cohort at a time.

The report also demonstrates that the benefits of a community planning academy go both ways. Planners' work toward building the capacity of residents and their organizations to advocate for themselves begins with learning and practicing cultural competency. The direct and intensive engagement that a community planning academy represents offers opportunities for planners to build these skills. Planners can also employ the connections they build with community members through a planning academy to help other implementing agencies engage with these enthusiastic participants by collaborating on outreach events and sharing resources. In the process, other agencies learn more about planning while learning to co-create with community members.

As this PAS Report makes clear, a community planning academy can be a starting point to transform community engagement itself. This model for deep engagement does not end with the last class but is sustained through a commitment to maintaining those relationships — through communications, activities, and additional opportunities to empower and elevate the voices of those previously not at the table.

About the Author

Donna J. Carney, RA, LEED AP, is the founding director of the Philadelphia Citizens Planning Institute, the education and outreach arm of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. She holds master's degrees in historic preservation from Columbia University, architecture from New Jersey Institute of Technology, and organization management and development from Fielding University, and has a bachelor's degree from Iowa State University College of Design. She is a Certified Charrette Planner (National Charrette Institute) and a registered architect in the state of Pennsylvania. Carney was recognized by the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association in 2014 with its Planning Leadership Award for a Professional Planner.

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Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
Aug. 1, 2023
Adobe PDF

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Chapter 1: The Value of Community Planning Academies
The Challenge of Public Engagement
Defining the Community Planning Academy
Benefits of Community Planning Academies
Key Concepts
About This Report

Chapter 2: Laying the Groundwork
Setting Program Goals
Scanning for Related Programs
Building Program Support

Chapter 3: Creating the Program Structure
Understanding the Stakeholder Landscape
Developing the Program Components
Outreach and Communications

Chapter 4: Curriculum Content and Delivery
Target Audience Expectations
Creating the Content
Designing the Content Delivery
Facilitating the Learning

Chapter 5: Sustaining the Network
Before the Course
During the Course
Beyond the Course

Chapter 6: Evaluation and Metrics
Evaluation Methods

Chapter 7: Getting Started
Getting Creative With Techniques
Technology, Accessibility, and Inclusion
Keys to Success
Deepening the Role of Planning

Appendix A: Community Planning Academy Programs

Appendix B: Sample CPI Materials