Most planning departments do not want a plan that will just sit on the shelf, but when a community rejects a plan, it is likely not due to the plan itself, but whether the community has been properly prepared to accept the plan.

I spoke with Charles Buki of CZB Consulting about the very compelling subject of how to approach the most complex and “brutal” challenges in city planning, cases when a city is struggling and is faced with the choice of whether to work on challenges that the city can make progress on or working on the challenges that need the most help. What do planners do when smart and fair are in contradiction to each other?

There’s very little overlap between the smart and fair decision
— Charles Buki

What Charles most vitally addressed in our conversation is that it’s not about the “experts”, the planners, designing the smart solution that will lead their city into the light, but it is the role of the planner to design the apparatus that enables communities to gradually discover the reality of the situation and make the tough decisions together that will chart them a path forward.

The experts may know what the plan should be early on in the project, but it takes a while for the community to get ready to accept the plan.

If the planner designs the perfect plan but the community is not prepared to accept that plan, then the plan will do nothing to help that community.

Charles says that pacing and sequence is critical in preparing communities to hear that they have a problem. For good planning, pacing and timing takes time. He explains planners “could write a plan in weeks but [communities] can’t absorb it until they spend time with them”.

The method that helps communities absorb these conversations is scenario development. Charles presents communities with multiple rounds of increasingly difficult scenarios that are designed to help communities get there gradually. The ambition is to use these rounds to narrow their focus until the “issues that are just beneath the surface begin to ripen and come forward”.

You can’t shame communities into these spaces
— Charles Buki

Charles designs his scenarios to put communities to a decision about what they are willing to give up in order to get jobs, higher property values, and in many cases a way forward out of a difficult situation.

Charles also advocated that large public meetings are the spaces to work through these types of difficult decisions.

1/10th of the room can take all of the air out of the room
— Charles Buki

Charles breaks these larger meetings into lots of small meetings where they can be arranged by interest or “solar system” around a problem. They follow a standard format of trying to figure out what is working and what is not.

This structured approach to complex civic decisions is what IdeaMapr is built on. The “Ideas” in IdeaMapr can be used as scenarios that outline what choices and consequences may look like. The Budgeting tool can be used to set these scenarios up as tradeoffs that communities can interact and experiment with to think through what is important to them.

In IdeaMapr we have also taken this approach of breaking people out of the larger group environment by providing an online space for people to view, interact, and give feedback on these scenarios by taking them out of the large public meetings where people can be biased by what someone else says. In IdeaMapr people can view the facts and give their feedback without interruption or group bias.  

What is exciting about what Charles is saying is that collaboration between communities and their governments is not only the fair thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do.

Working with the public through these increasingly difficult scenarios prepares both communities and their government to face these conversations when the plan is adopted.