So, How Do I Make One of Those Cool Master Plans?

As a Planner, a big part of my job is creating plans (shocking, right?). Whether I’m preparing a secondary plan, a master plan, a mobility hub study, etc. the end result is a pretty picture that shows buildings, streets, parks, trails, etc. at varying levels of detail.

When I first started working, the thought of this was very intimidating. I had no idea how to create a master plan. How do I know where the roads go? How tall should the buildings be? How big is a park? What the hell am I doing here?

The good news is (as I quickly found out), if you’re just starting off, you’re probably a long way from preparing these plans by yourself (and you may never). More likely, you’ll be part of a big team, including senior staff, Partners, and sub-consultants, and you’ll have ample opportunity to soak up all the knowledge you possibly can from these talented people. In fact, you could probably spend your first couple of years on the job just listening and learning, but I recommend that you dig in and offer your thoughts right away. It’ll be funner this way, and there’s a great chance that the team will like your ideas and incorporate them into the final plan (and this is awesome).

If you’re worried that your ideas may be wrong….don’t be! The beauty of Planning is that there’s no ‘right’ answer. There are some general rules (more on that below), but even these are not essential during the early stages. Instead, creating a master plan is an incremental process, where many ideas will be tabled, tested, and subsequently dismissed (even those proposed by very experienced Planners). In the end, the best ideas, from all members of the team, will be merged. Or in many cases, a number of plans will be created and further vetted through discussions with the client, stakeholders and the public.

Generally speaking, the process begins by identifying the big opportunities and constraints and adding them to a base map (which will be used as the foundation of your plan). This may include sensitive natural areas, existing neighbourhoods, water bodies, nearby main streets, extreme slopes, etc. This information will not give you the answer, but should begin to steer you in the right direction. For example, if there are nearby main streets that terminate at your site, you probably want to continue them through to create a well connected grid of streets (transit-users and cyclists will thank you… drivers will not, but meh!). Likewise, when aligning streets, you should probably avoid decimating sensitive natural areas. Basically, you’re aiming for a mix of common sense and creativity, while recognizing the things that make your site unique (i.e. is there a ridge with great views? Maybe put a park here to protect them and ensure everyone can enjoy the scenery).

It’s really that simple to create a pretty strong plan. Almost anyone can do it. In fact, throughout your career, you’ll see many laypeople do this while you’re hosting public meetings.

So WTF did I become a Planner for then? Well, because the real fun starts when you need to refine the plan beyond a conceptual level. This is where your training and experience will separate you from that random dude/lady at a public meeting. See, as you refine the plan, you’ll need to consider more technical elements, such as development densities (i.e. commercial vs. Residential), road widths, lot depths, maximum block sizes, neighbourhood size, number and size of parks, school requirements, etc. On top of all this, you’ll likely be dealing with push back at all angles. For example, developers will want houses on both sides of the road (double-loaded). This is most economical for them (they have to pay for the road) but often results in cutting-off public access to natural areas (boooo). Similarly, if you proposed a new kind of street (i.e. woonerf) expect significant push back from municipal engineers, maintenance staff, and emergency services.

Once you have all the pieces, this is where the real fun begins as you’ll need to fit them into one plan like a real life jigsaw puzzle. This is the part where you want to pay real close attention to your colleagues who know what they’re doing. Watching them, and the different methods they use, you’ll gradually build an inventory of rules and techniques that’ll help you understand how all these elements can work together (hint: there is a lot of trial and error).

Don’t worry if this all sounds terrifying. It is a bit, but it all comes pretty naturally over time. As you gain experience (and confidence), you’ll gradually transition to a more active role in the process. Most importantly, you’ll rarely be doing this alone as the best plans come from a strong team where ideas can be vetted, discussed, and refined, and each member can draw on their own strengths.

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