Which Cities Create Comprehensive Plans?

I attended a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) last night where Robert Yaro from the New York Regional Plan Association (RPA) presented about his organization’s intention begin a new plan for the New York region. (See a video). GSD professor Jerold Kayden introduced Robert Yaro. After a brief synopsis of the early history of American city planning, Kayden made the observation that “the notion of a comprehensive plan that would govern a city, let alone a region, occurs far less often than even the law would appear to demand. Cities and towns in the United States are not normally preparing, and keeping up-to-date, plans for the entire city.”

Is this true? If so, it ran counter to my sense that while the implementation of plans lagged behind, planning itself was a lively profession continuing to produce plans nationwide. I thought I would answer the question by looking at two samples: the nation’s 25 largest cities by population, and the 101 municipalities in metropolitan Boston.

Do Big Cities Plan?

I decided to begin by reviewing the top 25 incorporated U.S. cities by 2010 population. For each, I found the website of the city’s planning office, and recorded the date of the most recent general or comprehensive plan if one existed. Although there is some variation (in particular, some do not contain future land use maps but only emphasize general policy and strategy), in no case was there any ambiguity about whether a plan aspired to be comprehensive.

Out of these 25 cities, 23 (or 92%) had a general or comprehensive plan. Four cities are currently preparing new plans or major plan updates. I then calculated the number of years since the plan was approved (plans currently underway were scored at 0 years). For the group, the with an average time since adoption is only 7 years. Ten cities, or 40%, had plans that were underway or approved less than five years ago. Seventeen cities, or 68%, had plans underway or approved less than 10 years ago.

The two cities without plans approved in the last 20 years were Chicago and Boston, however incidentally both metropolitan regions recently completed regional plans.

Cities with plans underway

Plans approved <5 years ago

  • Jacksonville
  • San Antonio
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose

Plans approved 6-10 years ago

  • Baltimore
  • Dallas
  • Houston
  • Indianapolis
  • Nashville
  • Washington, D.C.
Plans approved more than 10 years ago

  • Charlotte (1996)
  • Columbus (1993)
  • Detroit (1992)
  • El Paso (1999)
  • Los Angeles (1995)
  • Memphis (1981)

Cities with no plans in the last 20 years

  • Chicago
  • Boston

Do Smaller Cities and Towns Plan?

If big cities produce plans, what about smaller places like cities and towns? After all, big cities have large, sophisticated planning departments with the resources and capacity to produce comprehensive plans.

Last year I completed a similar survey for the 101 municipalities in the state-designed Boston region served by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. In this case, I reviewed and updated an existing database listing the year of the last master or comprehensive plan.

Muni_ChartAmong this group, 73% had completed plans, with an average time since adoption of 10.2 years. The towns in the Boston metropolitan region vary widely by size. Perhaps the larger cities are planning, but their smaller neighbors are not? Surprisingly, the data show the reverse is true. Among municipalities with populations less than 40,000, 76% had completed plans. Only 59% of towns over 40,000 had plans (including Boston itself). Among the towns that had completed plans, many were within the last 10 years.

Sound and Fury … Signifying Nothing?

A grand theory explaining the purpose and function of these plans has eluded the urban planning field. Although, as Prof. Kayden implied, cities do have legal incentives to create and update plans, this procedural requirement does not explain the lengthy and elaborate processes and plans that are produced.

One naive view holds the role of planning is to design the physical form of the city. Although critics point out many of their proposals are not carried out, those who look carefully find that some of their ideas are eventually implemented (see for example Brent Ryan’s careful analysis of plans in Providence, Rhode Island). However, ideas not proposed in plans are also implemented (including dozens of stadiums, ballparks, and porkbarrel infrastructure projects), lending credence to the political scientists’ focus on power and decisions, not the source of the ideas.

Others have analyzed planning from an economic point of view, arguing planning can increase welfare by providing information to coordinate private land development, or address issues like public goods, externalities, prisoners’ dilemma conditions, and distributional concerns. (See Klosterman 1985)

Finally, contemporary planning theory has stressed the ability of deliberative processes to change individuals’ views and perhaps also institution through “collaborative rationality.” However, this approach can soon stray from the subject of planning — cities and the human and natural systems they encompass. Another strand emphasizes the “wicked” nature of problems addressed by plans, and argues problems like these need to be addressed with a combination of analysis, deliberation, and design.

Planning’s remarkable persistence, extent, and diversity suggests planning activities are serving some purpose. With cities facing great uncertainty and unprecedented problems, it seems more important than ever to untangle the origins and effects of planning to maximize the benefits from this widespread activity.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Rob – Fascinating blog post… India has a similar situation, with lots of plans written, very few implemented, and no clarity about the role of planning in realistically moderating city growth. Thanks for posting!

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