Master Plans worthwhile if done properly (column)
London Community News
It’s Master Plan season in London.
The transportation master plan has just been tabled; coming next are a downtown master plan and a cultural master plan. Next spring there will be ReThink London, a fancy name for a super land use master plan.
They cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, not to mention inordinate amounts of time and energy by the administrative staff at City Hall and hundreds of citizen volunteers.
So here’s the question to contemplate over the barbecue and beer these long, hot summer nights: Are master plans worth the money and effort?
John Fleming, the city’s planning director who is in charge of the ReThink London exercise, says master plans provide a broad vision for the on-going development of this community. And done properly, with wide citizen involvement, they represent a shared vision too.
Ultimately, though, master plans are filtered through the political process, so in the end they are only as effective as city council allows them to be. And typically that takes a few years to evolve.
The 20-year parks and recreation master plan, adopted by city council in November, 2009, offers a useful example of how effective they can be when everyone is on side, even though it contained some controversial recommendations.
The plan forecasted a gradual shift away from big ticket facilities for sports like hockey and baseball to emphasis gathering spaces such as splash pads, skate parks, basketball courts, biking routes and walking trails. It argued strengthening neighbourhoods should be a key goal of the strategy and that partnerships with community groups or the private sector should be encouraged.
Almost three years later, what’s happening? Quite a lot, says Bill Coxhead, the city’s parks and recreation director who sees master plans as “a guide to better decision making.”
“I hope to go into my managers’ offices and see this plan on their desk, well worn, well thumbed,” Mr. Coxhead says. “With respect to community development, how we’re proceeding with capital construction and the types of programming we develop, it is highly influential.”
Donna Baxter, the department’s manager of program and policy development, was the project manager for the 2009 master plan. “I refer to it all the time,” she says. “I think it remains relevant and very practical.”
Practicality is the key, Mr. Coxhead says. Master plans need to be more than a shopping list of the community’s dreams and aspirations. “You want to have a useful tool so you can implement it. It’s not about the plan; it’s what you do with the plan.
“We have 180 recommendations — a recommendation for just about everything. We recognize that we can’t deliver on all the pieces, nor should we.
But they are on the horizon for how we will recognize them in the future.”
In turn, a department’s priorities are embedded in the city’s long-range capital spending plan. As funds become available, the department always knows what it’s working on next. One result: when a federal-provincial infrastructure plan suddenly offered ‘free’ money to municipalities two years ago, parks and recreation had a list of $35 million worth of projects ready to go ahead.
Everyone agrees master plans aren’t set in concrete. Properly created and managed, though, they are definitely worthwhile.
Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. Email email@example.com.