Why Planning Matters

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