Do Americans Really Want More Planning?

An APA poll says yes. But what do those numbers really mean?

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Last week, the American Planning Association released the findings of a major public opinion poll showing that "two-thirds of Americans believe their community needs more planning to promote economic recovery," to lift a phrase from APA’s press release. That’s good news for those of us who believe a more thoughtful and forward-looking approach is needed to guide issues such as land use, education and economic development to secure a more sustainable future for our cities and towns.

But, in a world where almost two-thirds of Republicans and two-fifths of all voters told pollsters "the governments should stay out of Medicare," what do survey results mean, exactly? In a poll where community planning was defined as "a process that seeks to engage all members of a community to create more prosperous, convenient, equitable, healthy and attractive places for present and future generations," it is almost inconceivable that anyone would be opposed. So, is two-thirds a strong number or a weak one? What if planning had been defined more neutrally as “a process where local government works with citizens to chart future directions for the community’s land use, economic development, and services”?

I like to think that planning still would have claimed a majority of those who expressed an opinion. In the actual poll, 66 percent said that their communities need planning as defined above; 17 percent said they didn’t know; and only 17 percent actually opposed engaging citizens in the process of creating more prosperous, convenient, equitable, healthy and attractive places. Discounting the "I don’t know" respondents, four-fifths of those who expressed an opinion came out in favor of community process for a better future.  I suspect that, with the adjectives removed from the definition, the portion of “don’t know” respondents would go up, as might the “process is not needed” group. But I still think most Americans really do believe in community planning and probably wish their community had benefited from more of it in recent decades.

In fact, in another part of the poll, 72 percent of respondents said that the word "planning" has a "very" or "mostly" positive meaning. Half the respondents indicated that they would like to be involved in community planning, "including majorities of nearly all of the demographic sub-segments."

A tougher question, perhaps, is whether the poll findings indicate or suggest support for land use measures to reduce environmental harm, protect forests and farmland, make neighborhoods more walkable with shops and services closer to homes, or provide more alternatives to driving – the bundle of measures we generally associate with smart growth and environmental sustainability. The poll was designed to reveal opinion about planning more as it relates to the economy than as it relates to the environment. And APA got the results it was hoping for on that issue: 75 percent of respondents agreed that "engaging citizens through local planning is essential to rebuilding local economies, creating jobs and improving people's lives"; job creation was ranked as the highest priority for planners to work on. The headline for APA’s press release was "Community Planners Essential to Putting America on Road to Economic Recovery."

That said, the survey did test some attitudes and perceptions more overtly connected with sustainability. Three-fifths of the respondents want planners to work on clean water, for example. Intriguingly, more than three-fifths want planners also to work on "neighborhood protection," but that’s an ambiguous phrase that could suggest resistance to neighborhood change as much as anything else. I’m not sure that’s a good finding for those of us who believe that change is necessary in many places to secure a healthy future. My guess, and this is not based on research, is that a majority of people outside of those living in distressed neighborhoods would prefer that change occur somewhere other than close to their homes. Those residing in troubled places are more open to change, but many of them, too, fear the kinds of change that could disadvantage them.

There are definitely some sobering results for the environmental community. Given a list of eight "types of leaders to understand and implement change," environmentalists were ranked seventh, ahead of only "academic experts," unless you want to include “other” and “none” in your calculus. (Having spent over three decades working for an environmental organization, and having just joined a university faculty part-time, these findings give me pause.) Business leaders were tied with neighborhood representatives for first place, earning the confidence of 43 percent of respondents as opposed to 24 percent for environmentalists. 

Much more encouraging were the results with regard to the characteristics of an “ideal community.” According to the report, six features emerged as high priority, all consistent with a sustainable communities agenda:

  • Locally owned businesses nearby (mentioned by 55 percent)
  • Being able to stay in the same neighborhood while aging (54 percent)
  • Availability of sidewalks (53 percent)
  • Energy-efficient homes (52 percent)
  • Availability of transit (50 percent)
  • Neighborhood parks (49 percent)

I’m especially glad to see transit and aging in place on that list. And best of all is that only six percent favored a community with "houses being generally the same size," which pretty much describes every suburban subdivision built in the last 50 years.

Even with this part of the poll, though, the news is not all good or even all consistent. Only about a third would give priority to schools, jobs, or restaurants within walking distance, suggesting that a significant portion of respondents who would like sidewalks may not want to use them to go anywhere in particular. Indeed, the significant portion of respondents who apparently want businesses "nearby" but not particularly within walking range suggests that many Americans are so comfortable with automobile-oriented lives that purposeful walking simply isn’t seen as realistic or attractive. It is also somewhat inconsistent that, despite the high rank given to aging in place, only 41 percent would give priority to a “mix of housing choices,” which would enable just that.  Most people simply don’t make the connection.

When it comes to priorities for local planning efforts, job creation ranks first (mentioned by 70 percent), as noted. Safety (69 percent) and schools (67 percent) were numbers two and three, close behind. Water quality and protecting neighborhoods came in at 62 and 64 percent, respectively. Roads also ranked high, coming in sixth at 58 percent.

Ranked low on the list of planning priorities were some of the very same things that were ranked high on the “ideal community” list described above. Bus service, for example, rated only 36 percent, way behind roads; sidewalks fared even worse, at 31 percent; parks were selected as a priority by only 28 percent of those polled. 

 To attempt to reconcile the contradictory findings, I suppose we might conclude that people like the things they listed as part of an ideal community, but don’t especially want planners to spend much time on them, compared to other things. Respondents definitely didn't view global warming as an issue relevant to community planning: “climate change” was considered a priority by only 20 percent of respondents.

It’s interesting that, in a number of parts of the poll, clean water ranked as a significantly greater concern than clean air. Among “priorities for local funding,” for example, clean water was selected by 68 percent of respondents, while clean air lagged 19 percentage points behind. 

Although the details are somewhat confounding, I do think that APA – and really, all of us concerned with communities – can be heartened by the findings with regard to planning per se.  Americans like the idea of planning, even if they are far from clear about the goals that planning should serve. It’s hard to know what to make of the rest, other than that people are very troubled by the condition of the economy, including in their own communities, and that they care a lot about safety and education.  Whether the sustainability agenda can hold on to public support may depend on how well it is aligned – in reality as well as in rhetoric – with those concerns.

Photo courtesy Flickr user ncdotcommunications. This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.