Realistic, Relevant Plans Cultivate Vibrant Communities For Your City’s Future

June 4, 2020

By Laura M. Mathis, Executive Director, Middle Georgia Regional Commission

Have you ever heard someone say “I’m not a planner, I’m a doer,” as if to devalue the importance of plan­ning? In my opinion, there is no way to be a “doer” without planning. Everything we do in life requires planning. Routine life chores, such as grocery shopping, almost always results in a stocked pantry, but how it happens can be very different. Some use a list logically organized by the layout of the store, others have a list scribbled on the back of an envelope, while others never have a writ­ten list but know the things they always need. The re­sult of all of these approaches is still the same: grocer­ies get purchased. In many ways, community planning is no different than activities like grocery shopping—it is essential for success, and there is more than one way to do it.

Image of a Georgia city.

At its heart, community planning is a process that helps you understand where you are, defines where you want to go and outlines how to get there. Plan­ning, however, only works if it is relevant to the local government—it needs to fit the issues and opportuni­ties that exist in the community.
In Georgia, cities and counties are required to have a local comprehensive plan. This five-year docu­ment outlines a vision for the community and a work program to accomplish the vision. The comprehensive plan for larger jurisdictions may be more complex with additional elements, such as housing and transporta­tion, but every city, no matter the size, needs a vision and a plan. Many local governments build on their comprehensive plan to develop small area plans, such as urban redevelopment plans or downtown plans, or specialty plans on issues like housing or recreation. Re­gardless of whether planning is required, or voluntary, local elected officials should strive for plans that are re­alistic and relevant to the city’s resources.
Citizens benefit from local governments’ thoughtful study of issues facing their city. Here are just a few from Middle Georgia:
  • The city of Perry identified quality, affordable housing as a community need in its 2011 Comprehensive Plan and has steadily used data from a citywide housing assessment to develop a Revitalization Area Strategy focused on five distinct neighborhoods. As a result of planning, the city has successfully redeveloped houses and critical infrastructure, established a joint Land Bank with Houston County and invested in other communi­ty assets such as parks to improve the quality of life for Perry’s citizens.
  • In 2017, leadership in the city of Irwinton recognized that years of disinvestment had taken its toll on an area known locally as West Irwinton. Characterized by nar­row single-lane streets, dilapidated houses and failing water and stormwater infrastructure, the city devel­oped an Urban Redevelopment Plan that resulted in the city successfully pursuing grant funds to improve houses, replace water lines and address drainage in a low-income neighborhood.
  • Macon-Bibb County adopted its first Urban Redevel­opment Plan in 2012. This plan, amended throughout the years, has been the foundation of Macon-Bibb County’s unprecedented efforts to address blight throughout Macon-Bibb. Macon-Bibb has also stra­tegically used the Urban Redevelopment Plan to in­centivize economic investment through the state’s Opportunity Zone Program, foster the creation and im­plementation of Tax Allocation Districts, and support numerous housing redevelopment projects, especially through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.
Time is of the essence.

Just as important as being relevant and addressing a need or desired vision, planning does not have to be lengthy or costly for a local government. Planning should take as long as needed to obtain input from these stakeholders, but if a planning process takes too long, the city may lose momentum and commitment from stakeholders. We’re talking months, not years. Be­cause remember, planning is about doing—it’s about progress. One of the best examples in Middle Georgia is the city of Forsyth. Since 2016, Forsyth has met in a full-day session to prioritize major projects and initia­tives for the year ahead. These annual discussions call upon the Comprehensive Plan, Infrastructure Needs Assessments and other documents to guide the city’s process. As a result of these sessions, the city estab­lished an Economic Development position, acquired and developed land for recreation, identified areas for annexation and prioritized capital projects, including a new city hall and water system improvements.
Each of these examples included leadership from elected officials, dedicated staff and professionals who are subject matter experts, and input from citizens who would be impacted by the plans and projects. Thankful­ly, none of these communities were on their own in the planning process. Every city in Georgia has an import­ant resource available to assist in community planning initiatives: your Regional Commission. Two of our core missions are developing and implementing your plans. In addition to assisting with the development of local comprehensive plans, Regional Commissions are avail­able to assist towns and cities with strategic planning, urban redevelopment plans, housing assessments and strategies, bicycle and pedestrian plans, transit plans, wayfinding plans, recreation plans and disaster plan­ning. We are here as partners to local governments, helping city leaders craft and implement their vision for a thriving, vibrant community.

This article appears in the May/June 2020 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.

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