International trends in strategic planning

When I drove down from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado, I was expecting to see a well-ordered city. The town had a beautifully crafted, evidence based, strategic plan – one of the best I’ve come across. Instead, I confronted a dismal, depressing wasteland, with glaring poverty, homelessness, and gangs on street corners. What went wrong?

It was clear to me in the case of Pueblo and numerous cities that empirical, evidence based planning did not have all the answers and had few levers to address many of the real urban problems such as economic disparity, physical and mental ill health, crime, and family dysfunction. In October 2016, Australia became a signatory to the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda that recognises that these are indeed the urban issues that need to be redressed: the effects of poverty, violence, obesity, hunger, discrimination, slums, homelessness and the plight of refugees. The Agenda required nothing less than a new “urban paradigm shift.”

The New Urban Agenda is labelled a “sustainability agenda” and encompasses much more than the traditional notion of sustainability as a green strategy to do with emissions and energy efficiency. The effect is to open up the concept of sustainability to include all manner of urban issues, such as access to housing, pollution, assisting people with disabilities, reduction of obesity, crime, drug abuse, and local issues that threaten the community.

Sustainability as an underlying concept has been used in Australia in many strategies and policies; such as coastal policies, nature conservation, agriculture, transport, and mitigation of greenhouse gases. What is now developing around the world is a wider scope for sustainability to include all of the essential urban problems that are not directly addressed in the formal planning process. These issues have found their way into sustainability strategies in major cities in North America and Europe and have taken the pressure off the formal land use planning process as the means to be able to solve these difficult issues.

The New Urban Agenda suggests that the key to the paradigm shift is vastly increased community participation in all aspects of the wider scope of sustainability. The sentiment that emerges is that these urban problems do not need to rely on top-down plans created by a central authority but rather they are best served by dynamic forums for expression of ideas on an ongoing basis.

A wider sustainability strategy offers many advantages. The first is that it provides an ongoing process of community participation in relation to all urban problems. Rather than limit the community to commenting on a strategic plan in draft form, it engages the community constantly by educating residents, fostering social cohesion and leading to a vision against which a strategic plan can be assessed.

The second advantage has been found to be “user” satisfaction, a sense in the community that a person’s voice will be heard and that the system is interested in their lives. The third is that planning can get on with its task of providing allocations of land use and not be judged as ineffective because of its inability to address some of these real problems.

There is nothing preventing a local government in Australia from creating a sustainability agenda or strategy with this wider scope. The only difficulty is that the mechanisms of full participation and engagement that are in use in all States do not lend themselves to this task. The former planning Minister Brad Hazzard must be commended for recommending a full community participation charter to serve as the backdrop for the unrealised Planning Reform package. This sentiment was carried forward by Minister Stokes through legislative Amendments requiring approved community participation plans and community participation principles developed from the community participation charter that I developed for the Reform Package.

A review I undertook of community participation plans in 80 countries for my forthcoming book suggested to me that the best model for the sustainability strategy is that which is focused on constant involvement of key stakeholders over time, leading to a sense of participatory democracy, and a greater acceptance by government of the importance of community views.

The effectiveness of participation is greatly enhanced by ongoing involvement of the community with wide sustainability issues. Community forums on homelessness, for example, allow the residents to form a view on affordable housing or the need for community facilities that could be required. Sustainability and strategic planning work together: taking pressure off planning to engage with social issues, and providing a precedent or practice for proper community participation.

In terms of the planning process, the advantage of a wide sustainability strategy is to allow a community vision to crystalise over many related issues, such as the expectations of the residents in terms of increased density, community facilities, pedestrian networks, or any issues that arise. When a Strategic Plan is introduced, it will then be in accordance with a community vision developed under the rubric of sustainability. It will also relieve the anxiety of the community that it may not be listened to or cannot stand up to development pressures.

The sustainability strategies are not merely forums for communities to vent their frustrations or concerns about local issues. The Active Neighbourhoods project in Canada, is being used as a test bed for creating practical solutions, such as a “walkability checklist” to increase “livability” and implementing local ideas for inundation caused by the effects of climate change.

What struck me most in observing this shift to a wide, open-ended sustainability agenda was the consequence of building social cohesion among the residents and a profound sense of empowerment. This in turn led to better communications between government and the residents, greater involvement of individuals in other local agencies, such as school boards, reduced alienation and greater concern for the plight of others. These are my observations backed by the emergence of many local programs such as safety houses for those endangered and increased activism against drugs and crime.

There are many sustainability agendas in Australia that mention social issues and community needs. Mackay’s Sustainability Strategy is a good example that includes issues related to “Community and Lifestyle.” The participation of the Australian Government in the New Urban Agenda suggests that sustainability can now be used as a much wider policy structure to open up the challenge of solving the most difficult urban issues, thus informing the strategic planning process with the vision of the community as a continuing process of engagement.

Attention is needed at this time to reallocating broad issues such as “liveability” to a new form of sustainability strategy, beyond merely a green energy efficiency document, and setting up a governance structure for mainstreaming sustainability issues into planning.
This in turn requires a new paradigm of community participation that serves this agenda by providing principles and practices that best practice for eliciting and maintaining a dynamic consensus approach to urban problems.

This is the future in which strategic planning is assisted by an external sustainability strategy and the ongoing process of community participation becomes commonplace and refined.

Article by Leslie Stein is the Senior Advisor: Governance and Strategy at HillPDA. He is Adjunct Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Sydney and has written Comparative Urban Land Use Planning: Best Practice (Sydney UP), a review of the planning systems of 80 countries. He was Chief Counsel for the Sydney Metropolitan Strategy and is also the author of Principles of Planning Law (OUP).

This article originally appeared in New Planner – the journal of the New South Wales planning profession – published by the Planning Institute of Australia. For more information, please visit: