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A Guide to Master Planning

A Master Plan is a broad scheme of the master vision and intent but rarely does that translate as a 1:1 representative of the eventual result. Rather the Master Plan is a guide at two primary levels for any project; broad vision (framed by big moves) and the way the completed project feels to the user experience (fine grain, experiential detail). The middle ground is left to the interpretation and evaluation at the onset of each individual phase, giving latitude to adjust for evolving economic and development factors.

Where some planning efforts fail, is neglecting to address these bookends of the vision, providing reference points for the future efforts, where it will transform from concept to reality. Striving for a grand encompassing vision is valid if it is achievable, keeping in mind how it will be “felt” on the ground and experienced by each person. Setting these two brackets and leaving data for the solidification of the middle ground by future parties is the key to success.

Data Gathering

One begins with research, the tabulation of all things variable, viable and possible, related to and influenced by the study area, community, environment, history, and vision. Initially, these inquiries are quite broad, sequentially narrowing with each iteration and exploring possibilities as they reveal themselves to the Team.

Team is the keyword, because it takes a variety of individuals, with varying perspectives, interests, and inputs to best draw out the best potential of any study.

There are a wide variety of options and approaches to gathering data. It is important to note that different vehicles for data will come with implicit biases based on the comfort and familiarity of each demographic. For instance, one of the most easily deployed is an online survey, which can be taken in 10 minutes on a mobile phone; however, not everyone is comfortable with this interface and the bias will start to rear its ugly head in a variety of forms such as:

  1. Access to technology, not everyone has access to a smartphone or home computer.

  2. Comfort with understanding the information, some individuals prefer to give feedback in person, to inquire/better understand the intent of the question being asked.

  3. Inherent mistrust of technology and security of conveying information.

  4. Lack of ability to converse with those taking the survey - Is there a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the question?

Example Survey Results

Due to these and other factors, the best forms of gathering data will span a wide variety of mechanisms for input/discussion/survey, which makes this section of the effort quite time-consuming. Some other options for data gathering are interviews, public poles, open forums, telephone surveys, and paper surveys. The important factor is to consider the amount of time that is required to navigate such a wide variety of sources and then the time to compile the information into a coherent and usable format.

Importantly, this data should live along with the “final” result. This will provide a reference point for those individuals in the future, seeking to ascertain the “why” behind consensus decisions made. The goal of the team is to farm the community for additional information, input, and help decipher a wider vision of consensus…and not to build a vision in a vacuum.

Building Consensus

Determining the Team is the most critical part of any planning effort. Ideas come from all places, perspectives, and experiences, but the one most common characteristic of effective groups is the desire to find success. It stands to reason that if the whole of the Team is determined to find a successful solution, that will indeed be the result.

With a baseline agreement of finding success, the Team is brought together to examine the data and through productive discussion, disagreement, and healthy conflict, formulate an individual definition for what success looks like for each individual project. Often the best results will come out of the conflict points and being forced to make hard decisions on priorities at multiple junctures. These descriptions of a successful solution will materialize in the form of “Guiding Project Statements,” which are a series of bullet points that, when combined, accurately encapsulate the project. The Guiding Project Statements should be repeatedly tested to ensure that they continue to hold up; often these “tests” will result in adjustments to the exact verbiage of the statement, until it clearly conveys the core intent, thus bringing definition to the intangible aspects of consensus.

Some examples of Guiding Project Statements in Master Plan efforts are:

  1. Enhance the streetscape for both vehicular and bicycle trails, ensuring that safety is a top priority.

  2. Encourage a more pedestrian experience by creating a vibrant streetscape experience, pocket parks, and destinations that are easily walkable from public parking.

  3. Focus on the neighborhood experience of the area, with a complementary combination of visible public and private entrances, emphasizing community.

Benchmarks for Success

These benchmarks for success can be just about anything, but they must be clear, quantifiable, and agreed to by the whole of the Team. Once these are set, it’s upon the visionaries to generate concepts that push boundaries, challenge visions, and stretch preconceived emotions about what is possible.

These benchmarks are more clearly defined than the Guiding Project Statements and must be testable with a simple evaluation of yes or no. The process of selecting these individual benchmarks must require a finite number to be selected, challenging those on the Team to choose which handful of core benchmarks will be most important (from their perspective) to the success of the project.

It is exceptionally important to note that these will vary greatly, depending on the Team and the core goals of the project. Master Planning is a blanket term, which may be applied to all varieties of efforts/projects. If the goal is profitable development, then the benchmarks will be VERY different from a non-profit, focused on urban revitalization. It isn’t to say that they won’t have other perspectives in common, but in the end, there can be vastly different measures of success.

Some examples of these benchmarks are as follows:

  1. Provide sufficient housing to replace those units lost from the existing site with an additional 30% of new units in the appropriate market sectors.

  2. Incorporate pedestrian jogging/bike trails with pocket parks and public art opportunities.

  3. Overall profitability on the first phase of the development of 13% in a 3-year period.

  4. Private event venue with a seating capacity of 1,500-2,000 seats and appropriate parking for special events, supplemented by public parking lots.

  5. Attract a private development group to purchase development lots in Phase 2 to offset public infrastructure costs of streetscape redevelopment.

The Vision is Only Clear Right Now

The discussion, validation, and challenge of data must be around the core concept of building a consensus that will hold through years of development, evolution, and public perspective, which will undoubtedly challenge the core vision. The important part to remember is that you will not think of everything, but have solid, clear, and documented reasons for the decisions which are implemented into the master plan document.

The only constant in the world is change, which must be accepted as an axiom. One of the important containers of a master plan study is to execute on a pre-determined timeline and prevent the urge to “revisit” the initial data discovery phase. Inevitably, there will be changes to the perspectives, economic factors, and influences that are established during the data research phase. It is more than likely that some of those underlying assumptions may not be 100% accurate by the time the study concludes, but the decisions were made based on the best information available at the time.

Follow the data, process the vision, and reflect the results as they present themselves. For posterity’s sake, it is preferred to include the addition of an addendum to address any significant revelations which may have occurred since the study began. These should be noted, and acknowledged, citing the timeline of the study and perhaps some interjection of what may/may not have been influenced by the change of conditions.

If the process has been well-conceived, executed, and documented, those Guiding Statements and Benchmarks for Success will still hold true, providing guidance to the stakeholders as the plan moves into action. Upon implementation, the first step is to validate the assumptions, which provides a balance to the initial study and will account for some of the variables changing over time.


“Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos.”

At the conclusion of the Master Planning efforts, it behooves the entirety of the team to debrief and reflect on the process, taking stock of their individual and group changes in perspective, priority, and goals over the duration of the process. Those initial meetings were likely chaotic, challenging, even frustrating, but by reflecting on the outcome, the Team will see the path they have taken and realize that those moments were necessary to determine the way forward. Process, Data, Team, Vision, Criteria, and Compromise…all focused around finding success for the project.

The speed with which all these components fall into place will vary greatly, depending on the complexity of the data, number, and type of decision-makers involved. Experienced Master Plan facilitators will draw out the best of the Team members, quickly bringing those items to the surface which are of primary consequence to the big picture vision, ascertaining the pro/con to the Team, testing the analysis, and adjusting accordingly. Experience shows that these tests are more productive when finding out what is wrong, even more so than what is correct.

Make mistakes, make them quickly and move on to the next iteration, keeping careful track of the degree of success or failure of each test. Patterns will quickly take shape and a Team built on trust, respect, and a common commitment to the project will enable the facilitators to find the fullest potential of any challenging Master Planning effort.

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