Plans, Guidelines, and Proposals, Oh My!

As a planner, you’ll get to work on so many different types of projects. The cool part is that most of them will require you to collaborate with your (hopefully) great team of co-workers.

When I talk with students, I bring a large stack of documents to show the different types of projects I’ve worked on. This variety is one of the highlights of my job. For every long and in-depth project, there are a bunch of quick projects to keep things fresh. This allows me to jump between projects day-to-day, or throughout the day if I get stuck or need a break. Thankfully, every project has its own unique challenges, and the chance to explore unique and interesting solutions.

The types of projects I most commonly work on include:

  • Master Plans – Master Plans illustrate the vision for a defined area. It may be a large vacant site, an established but growing neighbourhood, a University campus, a waterfront Park – or, a combination of these. Depending on the study, and the scope of the project, a Master Plan will show a number of elements, including new streets, land uses, natural areas, parks and plazas, building locations, stormwater features (and any number of other elements depending on the project). As future development occurs, the municipality or institution will use the Master Plan to provide developers with a clear understanding of the expectations for their site. While developers may vary from the Master Plan for a number of reasons, the onus is on them to demonstrate that they satisfy the intent of the plan.
  • Mobility Hub Studies – Mobility Hub Studies are similar to Master Plans, but focus on areas where a number of modes of transit connect.* The goal of a Mobility Hub Study is to create a Master Plan for the transit station, and surrounding areas, that provides the most seamless integration between all the different modes of transportation. Mobility Hub Studies are often more difficult than typical Master Plans due to inherent physical constraints (i.e. rail corridors, fixed station facilities, noise berms, hydro corridors, etc.). In addition, these studies require consensus among a great number of competing interests including municipalities, various transit authorities, developers, and residents (to name a few).
  • Urban Design Guidelines – Urban Design Guidelines provide design directions that are (ideally) used by architects and developers when preparing a Development Application, and by City Planning staff when reviewing the application. The study area may range in scale from a single block or street, to an entire city. Or, they can focus on a specific aspect of design, such as laneway housing, heritage restoration, public realm (i.e. sidewalks, streets, etc.). Directions may include site planning (i.e. building location, landscaping, access and parking), built form (i.e. height, massing, materials), or both. Design Guidelines will generally have lots of fancy diagrams to make them easy to understand. While helpful, guidelines are not laws, and therefore it’s always preferred that key guidelines (height, setbacks, sidewalk widths) be incorporated into the Zoning Bylaw to give them greater standing.

The above studies are very in-depth, and can last anywhere from 9 months to multiple years depending on their complexity. Projects with a much quicker turn around include:

  • Peer Reviews – My favourite projects. When a municipality is struggling with a Development Application, they hire us to provide our professional opinion. We review drawings, and tell the applicant what they are doing wrong or right. This is usually done for a single site, but can range from a small commercial plaza to a 30-storey downtown building. Peer Reviews can be very challenging (and fun) when you find yourself up against major banks, fast food chains, etc. that are not fond of being told what to do. The beauty of a Peer Review is that it allows me to channel my knowledge at a micro-scale.
  • Planning and Design Rationales – Basically the opposite of a Peer Review, developers hire us to complete a Planning or Design Rationale in support of their development. This is required on large applications, and is most helpful when existing policies are out of date and don’t reflect the current context. Provided we agree with the proposed design, we’ll describe how (in our opinion) it fits with the surrounding context and represents good planning and design.
  • Proposals – Proposals never finish! The majority of our work comes from proposals, and we probably have five on the go at any given time. Potential clients will prepare an RFP (Request for Proposal) which outlines a project, and its requirements (some in much greater detail than others). We’ll then prepare a proposal which outlines our understanding of the issues, our approach, the members of our team, and a proposed timeline and budget. This proposal is scored against all others submitted, and we’re hopefully awarded the project. Proposals are very demanding and usually have a quick deadline which often require you to drop everything else when they come along.

That’s a quick overview of the projects I regularly work on. Within each of these, there’s also lots of variation. For example, a Master Plan for a beachfront Park is completely different than a Master Plan for a university campus, and may require you to learn about dunes, shoreline protection, etc. This is awesome, so dig in if the opportunity arises.

There can also be significant crossover between these documents. For example, many Master Plans have Urban Design Guidelines to ensure the vision is achieved. Similarly, design guidelines are often based on a previously completed Secondary Plan.

In next week’s post, I’ll break these projects down further and look at the typical components of a Planning study.

* Refer to Metrolinx’ The Big Move for a more complete description of a Mobility Hub.

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