Thursday, May 5, 2011

Planning Departments: Providing Community Services

The relationship between municipal planners and the communities they serve is complex.  To help encourage high quality public service I am providing the following suggestions of key areas of concern, from the perspective of a "typical" citizen, relating to the results and outcomes that people desire from an effective planning department.    
In the most general terms I have seen peoples’ expectations of planning departments being focused most closely on four areas: 
    • providing services in an expeditious manner; 
    • having staff easily accessible to community members; 
    • limiting the amount and complexity of regulations while protecting the community’s interests and assets; and, 
    • providing professional planning and land use guidance for the community to be “successful” without losing its identity to growth.    
While these points are very important, I suggest that a planning department can, and should be expected to provide much more for the community it serves.  The following are ten specific expectations of services and outcomes from an effective planning department that I would add.  There are many more.  Note that in my experience each of these can be achieved without the need for significant increases in staffing or budgets as is often assumed.  
An effective planning department should:

1.  In all of its efforts be focused on securing and improving the overall livability of the community, based on its distinct assets and population (including economic stability; community health; affordability; growth; and sustainability). 

2.  Provide clear, consistent, and substantiated professional planning advice to Council, Planning Commission, committees and the public; which also includes integrating contemporary communication and social media, and visually based presentation materials such as 3D modeling.

3.  Have an organizational culture that reflects the best of the community’s professional norms, such as being personable and friendly and avoiding unnecessary formality or “red tape”.   

4.  Manage the development review system so that it does not unnecessarily encumber quality development and capital investment in the community.

5.  Provide a system of information/education for the public on planning and land use issues, so that they can better understand: what planning is and how it functions; where in “the process” they can be most effective in their participation; and, what is happening with changes and developments in the community.

6.  Maintain and analyze useful statistics (and spatial data) relating to various forms of community information, so that it can be used to support economic development initiatives, existing/prospective businesses, and assessments of needs and levels of service for the municipality. 

7.  Develop meaningful and understandable benchmarks and service measurements for yearly reporting to Council and the public (as opposed to only developing simple tallies of permits processed and fees received as is typical).  This would also be used in developing performance-based budget estimates. 

8.  Offer leadership on long range community perspectives in partnership with key regional stakeholders (such as neighboring towns and County governments, service groups, and business associations).

9.  Have a cohesive and strategic approach to staff training and the use of consultancies that builds existing departmental assets and strengths; as opposed to an ad hoc and project focused approach that is generally more costly, short-lived, and not sensitive to local culture or context. 

10.  Develop productive partnerships with post-secondary educational institutions which can benefit the town for key projects and raises the profile of the community.

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