How to Avoid Master Plans that Collect Dust – Public Participation

by John W. Olson on October 1, 2015

Public participation is a key ingredient for a successful master plan.

Too often, written documents, or master plans tend to accumulate dust without being implemented.  This can be a very frustrating process for the both the governing entity who commissions the master plan process and for the consultant who writes the master plan.  I have noted a few effective ways to avoid this problem.  The first and most important consideration is to involve the public.  If the public is not on board with the master plan, it might as well not be written at all.  The public can be the master plan’s greatest asset, or it’s greatest liability.  My preferred method of public involvement is through the charrette process.

A charrette is “at least four consecutive days that allows three design feedback loops, an open process that includes all interested parties and is focused on producing a feasible plan with minimal rework.”  National Charrette Institute (

The charrette process is a very effective way of involving the public.  It allows interaction and engagement with the architects, planners, landscape architects, etc.  The charrette provides immediate results from feedback from the public.  Too often the public will offer their feedback in a public forum and not hear back from the consultant for months.  This gives the assurance that yes, their input is being heard and often a part of the plan.

The second consideration is to plan far enough ahead that the goals are attainable and feasible.  The plan must reflect the conditions of the community and not just be a designer’s utopian view rubber-stamped on each master plan they produce.  The goals must be attainable and be up by the community.  Every street cannot be a “Main Street” and every structure cannot be LEED Gold.  Attainable goals that meet the needs and desires of the community must be provided.

A third consideration for an effective master plan is to organize it in a clear and concise format where the goals and strategies are clearly documented.  In most instances, they need to be repeated in the document with the concentration of the goals and strategies in an easy to find location.  The document should be written in a way that the end user does not actually need to read the entire document.  I like to use the side caption of a document for major ideas and illustrations.  This is the way that I read a document, by simply skimming it looking for key points.  We shouldn’t create something that we wouldn’t even read.  When the major points are set off, the document becomes much more concise.  As much as planners like me like to think that everyone will read the entire “masterpiece”  front to back, not many will truly read it all.

I have been a part of writing master plans in Nebraska, North Carolina and Colorado and the reason that I keep coming back for more is the satisfaction that I get when I see that a part of the master plan goals and objectives have been implemented.  The biggest fear with master plan documents is that it will be a stagnant document that sits on the shelf, I am pleased that this has not been the case with the plans I have been involved with.

Originally posted 2010-04-25 00:01:52. Republished by Blog Post Promoter


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