Why Planning Matters

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Mill Creek Valley demolition

In addition to election day, today is World Town Planning Day, a time for us to reflect on the importance of planning in our communities.  Yet it is sentiments like “we don’t plan, we develop”, that are heard rather loudly in the St. Louis metro and our current patterns of development reflect it in the patchwork of development projects and carved up street grids scattered around the region. What kind of message does this send about our commitment to community and good urban form?

Urban Land Institute senior fellow, Ed McMahon put it best in his 2014 TEDx talk, “…do you want the character of your community to shape new development or do you want new development to shape the character of your community?” Planning helps us preserve our community character and identity of place by establishing a roadmap, one informed by the very residents who will benefit most from its implementation.

Planning provides context and analysis for anchoring the community’s vision for the future via a data-centered assessment of conditions on the ground. By guiding residents through a visioning process using data profiles of existing conditions and forecasts of trends, planners can facilitate a discussion that is backed by research and analysis about the community. Residents have the opportunity to respond to evidence-based scenarios that allow them to select preferred alternatives grounded in facts rather than opinions. A well-planned community provides equal access to options for housing, work, rest, and play.

October was Community Planning Month, a time the American Planning Association (APA) sets aside each year to recognize and acknowledge planning achievements around the country. Each year, as a part of this recognition, the organization identifies a series of Great Neighborhoods, Streets, and Places via community nomination. Our own Central West End was recognized as a Great Neighborhood in 2014, Forest Park as a Great Public Space in 2013, Washington Avenue downtown as a Great Street in 2011, and Wydown Boulevard in 2010, indicating a national recognition for the great planning work happening in our region.

Many municipalities in the St. Louis Metro engage in sound planning practices, creating exciting comprehensive plans and guidelines for growth in their respective communities. We have excellent planning talent in and around the Metro. But more often than not we find ourselves chasing developers and development rather than the other way around. The recent, competing proposals to study future MetroLink expansions serve as a stark reminder of how fractured we are as a region and reflect a lack of commitment to local and regional planning.

Perhaps a regional commitment to planning might have helped us develop a more reasoned and unified response to the Rams’ ultimate decision to leave St. Louis or to NGA’s expansion/relocation plans? These challenges remind us that we need more trained planning professionals to assist with creating communities that promote the kind of future for St. Louisans that celebrates our assets while addressing our weaknesses.

Perhaps part of the challenge lies in how planning talent is cultivated in St. Louis. One can find varied outlets for planning education and training, through the state and STL Metro chapters of the APA. Additionally, several universities offer planning education through allied professional programs like architecture, urban design, social work, and public policy/administration yet only one program in the region, the Master of Science in Urban Planning and Development (UPD) at Saint Louis University provides a professional degree in urban planning. Currently housed in the Center for Sustainability, the UPD program was established in 1997 when a committed group of professionals from the local chapter of ULI approached Saint Louis University about establishing a graduate planning program. At the time, no outlet existed to receive a formalized urban planning education in the Metropolitan St. Louis area and local municipalities needed to look outside the region to hire professionally trained planning talent.

The group that approached SLU was interested in establishing a program to train professionals who understood both the planning challenges of the public sector and the development needs of the private sector across the region. The region had been without a traditional planning program since the early-1980s when Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville offered a masters in urban planning within their Geography department. That program closed in 1983. Nationally, the SLU program is the only one of its kind, anchoring a Jesuit-based education within a sustainability framework that engages an interdisciplinary approach to planning education.

In addition to the PAB (Planning Accreditation Board) guided traditional planning curriculum*, courses are drawn from the Sustainability and GIS programs also within the Center, in addition to courses from the business and law schools. Graduates are found across the region in varied positions ranging from local planning agencies and non-profit development corporations to national planning consulting firms and development organizations.

Local planning talent is essential for a couple of important reasons. First, local planning programs provide communities, agencies, and firms with wider access to interns trained in planning techniques like spatial land-use analysis and real estate finance. Attracting outside planning students is challenging when trying to juggle the administrative duties that come with hiring non-local interns. Second, communities and organizations with limited capacity can tap into local university resources through class projects, faculty research, and student capstones to assist with planning activities that might otherwise seem out of reach, often benefiting from emerging trends in research.

Urbanist, Jane Jacobs once argued that urbanism’s greatest virtue is its people. In her work,** she calls for a return to the local, to the streets where we all live, work, rest, and play. When we come together around these common spaces, we care about the future. It is in this area where perhaps, we can remember what unites us rather than what divides us, also a valuable idea to consider as we make our way to the polls on this Election day.

*While the program is not yet accredited by PAB, plans are in place to apply for accreditation within the next two years. Also of note, accreditation will be retroactive to the launch of the program in 1997.

** most notably The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Press. 1961.


This post is the first in what is a planned collaboration between the Master of Science in Urban Planning and Development program at St. Louis University and nextSTL.com. The effort aims to utilize the planning talent and expertise within the program to highlight, address, and examine our city’s planning challenges.  – Alex, editor

*top image is of the Mill Creek Valley during demolition, now part of the SLU Frost Campus, chosen by the editor

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  • gmichaud

    I think what I am trying to say is that St Louis is a difficult environment to attract and retain design professionals.
    You have to look no further than the auto only garage being built in Grand Center by Fox Associates for questionable activities. The garage comes after design professionals along with the public came up with Great Street recommendations for commercial and apartments along streets in Grand Center with garage parking behind. Fox Associates completely ignored those recommendations.
    The City of London would have immediately determined which recommendations should be adopted as part of the Local Plan. Or more likely an important area like Grand Center would have already been subject to proactive planning discussions and decisions about parking, commercial and housing issues that any developer would need to meet.
    What’s worse is the process for the approval of this garage is insular, self serving and opaque. The garage was announced that the permits where applied for at the same time and then the leaderless Board of Aldermen with their aldermanic courtesy has the gall to give a parking garage a million dollars of public money. All of this is done to avoid public scrutiny. It’s outrageous.
    This kind of environment is not going to attract talented urban designers and planners.
    Actually I think there is a potential grant here. I think support can be gotten for an online building of a St. Louis City Local Plan. The City of London Local Plan can be used to cut and paste, to modify and so on, along with other Local Plans as reference.
    That and the grant should cover the idea of an ideal website format to allow for public participation as well as inform the public what is going on. I want to emphasize the goal of the final Local Plan is that it should be ready for adoption. I think with a few students to stabilize the input a plan could be ready in less than a year.
    Please understand these Local Plans, such as the City of London, are not some rigid formulation, but flexible guides to what the city should become.
    And Instead of a National Planning Policy Framework there is an opportunity for a Regional St. Louis Planning Policy Framework, but mostly I am talking about the City of St. Louis right now.
    Debate and discussion can attract planners to St. Louis, that along with a viable policy implementation process.an insider, back room decision making process or to transform into a city that values planning and public participation.
    I think a doctoral program at SLU is a wonderful idea. I only hope St. Louis can supply rigorous discussions on planning to help encourage students, professionals and residents that their efforts are meaningful.

  • gmichaud

    I don’t doubt it will be an excellent and much needed program, but what is worse is the complete ignorance of the average person about the built environment. Up to high school it is probably 90 even close to a hundred percent of students who learn zero about the built environment. In college it improves, maybe slightly, in part because of students pursuing those studies, but even in college I would guess at least 80 to 90 percent of students graduate without learning a thing about the environment they live in every day.
    I have been discussing London and Helsinki planning the Richard Bose post about Subsidizing Utilities that is from Oct 24.
    A major problem is not planning but the implementation of planning.
    Also communication and public participation. Public participation is seriously lacking in St. Louis. Look at the websites of the Cities of London and Helsinki as examples of findings centralized planning info.
    (lclick at the publications link)
    (click on planning policy link)
    These websites bring planning questions and discussions to a central location for the public to view and consider. Compare these websites to St. Louis City or SLDC.
    If it was not for Nextstl and the work Alex does I wouldn’t know a fraction of what is going on. Nextstl is the de facto St. Louis City Planning site.
    Planning has to have a process where efforts are implemented, the City of London spells out a clear methodology with its Local Plan (Also see the National Planning Policy Framework). St. Louis is far, far behind.