Better Plans for Better Places Report

Better Plans for Better Places

How the Sustainable Communities Initiative changed the way the country plans for a prosperous and sustainable future.


The Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) represents the most comprehensive federal support for community and regional planning in recent history. Never before has the federal government provided funding for planning that spans the environmental, social and economic challenges facing our communities. This investment enabled people and organizations in 143 places, representing nearly 40 percent of the US population, to work together – across jurisdictions, sectors, all manner of old divides – in broad and deep coalitions toward ambitious goals of vibrant, healthy, livable communities. These diverse places – urban and rural, regions and neighborhoods, thriving and more challenged – were supported by a team of experienced organizations using innovative techniques to build community capacity in myriad ways. Their results will have lasting impacts for the 145 million residents living in grantee communities and beyond.

SCI Livability Principles

Learn more at the SCI site.

  • Provide more transportation choices.

    Develop safe, reliable, and economical transportation choices to decrease household transportation costs, reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote public health.

  • Promote equitable, affordable housing.

    Expand location- and energy-efficient housing choices for people of all ages, incomes, races, and ethnicities to increase mobility and lower the combined cost of housing and transportation.

  • Enhance economic competitiveness.

    Improve economic competitiveness through reliable and timely access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services and other basic needs by workers, as well as expanded business access to markets.

  • Support existing communities.

    Target federal funding toward existing communities—through strategies like transit-oriented, mixed-use development and land recycling—to increase community revitalization and the efficiency of public works investments and safeguard rural landscapes.

  • Align federal policies & investment.

    Align federal policies and funding to remove barriers to collaboration, leverage funding, and increase the accountability and effectiveness of all levels of government to plan for future growth, including making smart energy choices such as locally generated renewable energy.

  • Value communities & neighborhoods.

    Improve economic competitiveness through reliable and timely access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services and other basic needs by workers, as well as expanded business access to markets.

Each place created a broadly supported vision for the future as well as the plans to move them toward that vision. These plans called for: more walkable, mixed-use, diverse communities; refocused economies by building on local strengths; integrated environmental protection; and more. Equally important are the 143 coalitions that have deeply invested their energy and resources in these plans, and the tens of thousands of Americans who were involved and are now eagerly working to implement them. Some places will see quick success, some have a longer path, and frankly some plans may not come to fruition or be fully realized. But collectively, the cross-cutting impact of these plans will be felt for decades in new public and private investment, strengthened economies, revitalized neighborhoods, a cleaner environment, and more equitable outcomes.

Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

WATCH: Learn how the Oglala Lakota people from the Pine Ridge Reservation worked to develop a vision for a sustainable future in rural South Dakota (12 Minutes).

The Institute for Sustainable Communities believes that the SCI has catalyzed one of the most sustained and widespread integrated approaches to urban, rural, and suburban planning in a generation. At last, communities are threading the pieces together, realizing the opportunities to link their goals and strategies for jobs, housing, transportation, environment, and equity. Most importantly, these plans will change not just the communities that created them, but also fundamentally change the way these and other communities plan for a prosperous and sustainable future.

As Coordinator of the Sustainable Communities Learning Network, we have had a front row seat to the many innovative approaches and practices of these local champions and their communities. We have seen and helped them reinvent the way American communities plan:

Four Major Ways the Sustainable Communities Initiative Changed Planning

Planning organizations created new visions and plans for prosperity that specifically respond to today’s challenges and realities — in many places the first shared approach in at least a generation.

Plan goals and decision-making were built on substantial new data collection and analysis and the supported insights that brings.

These plans and the process are inclusive of diverse stakeholders and community-driven in key new ways.

Plans were built through deep and effective collaboration between traditionally siloed departments, agencies, and organizations.

Background on the Sustainable Communities Initiative

The Sustainable Communities Initiative is a $250 million investment by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities – a groundbreaking interagency collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation as well as active engagement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Two distinct types of planning processes were funded and supported by the SCI. Some communities received grants to engage in regional planning efforts, using robust data to set goals for addressing regional issues while engaging citizens in decision-making roles throughout the planning process.

Regional planning grant recipients created a regional, citizen-driven vision – some for the first time, while more experienced organizations even forged ahead to implement their visions.

Community challenge grants helped recipients engage in neighborhood or local-level planning to promote vibrant neighborhoods close to services and opportunities, affordable housing, and repurposing of older buildings.

In all cases, communities developed a strong collaborative planning process that brought multiple sectors and jurisdictions together into a formal consortium, which then guided the creation of a plan based on a comprehensive shared vision of their community.

Capacity-Building Intermediaries

EFC Network
Envision Utah
Institute for Sustainable Communities

Minnesota Housing Partnership
NADO Research Foundation

Place matters
Policy Link
Smart Growth America

Capacity-building intermediaries – experts in specific fields required for such cutting-edge planning – supported the local consortia in their work, with the Institute for Sustainable Communities acting as the network coordinator.

Compelling New Visions

Defining New Directions for the Future

Our communities, no matter how big or small, how rural or urban, want to thrive and enable their residents to enjoy a high quality of life. The first step is a strongly supported community vision that incorporates goals of prosperity, health, safety, and opportunity.

SCI has enabled communities across the country to create shared visions for a stronger future. American communities are facing 21st century challenges. Across the country, we see communities challenged by shifting demographics, aging infrastructure, and needs for new kinds of infrastructure. At the same time, they are realizing the value of assets that may have been long overlooked, like walkable downtowns and neighborhoods and housing that can support all generations and incomes.

Communities are constantly in flux. They experience periods of prosperity and investment, periods of disruption and challenge, and periods of renewal and reinvention. The communities that are most resilient and able to grow stronger as they endure these changes are those that have clearly articulated visions for where they are headed and then periodically revisit and revise these visions.

Through this initiative, many communities took a comprehensive look at their challenges and developed solutions that work for all populations. The comprehensive visions created with SCI investments in many cases represent an unprecedented level of integration across issue areas. In recent years, many initiatives took on specific issues related to community sustainability: energy efficiency, health equity, food access, water quality, etc. But a comprehensive approach allows communities to see how these issues relate to one another, identify win-win solutions, and see where they must make hard choices between competing priorities.

Spotlight: Memphis
Learn how a vision for greenways in Memphis grew into something more... Show more
Spotlight: Memphis Metro Region’s Mid-south Regional Greenprint

The Memphis metro area is home to approximately 1.2 million residents. Through the Sustainable Communities Initiative, the region embarked on its first comprehensive effort to look across state lines and set out a vision for the area that spans three states (Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi), four counties, and 18 municipalities. Historically, communities and counties within each state had their own planning processes and policies, and some of these were out-of-date. Even Memphis and Shelby County had not done a comprehensive plan update since the 1980s.

The Memphis area plan was motivated by interest in creating a regional greenway network. The goal was to develop a plan that would better connect the tri-state region through a network of greenspace. The work initially focused on recreational and environmental concerns – creating better trail corridors, water quality through improved stormwater management and habitat connectivity– but as stakeholders looked more comprehensively at the benefits of greenways, it became apparent that the vision had to link to all of regions other goals and challenges. “Planning for greenspace was the basis for our regional planning effort, but as we thought about greenspace in a comprehensive way, we found that our work encompassed a broad range of issues – from health to housing, transportation to employment. If we’d take a traditional approach, we probably would have created a nice greenways map, but with the more comprehensive focus we created a plan for connecting our region,” said John Zeanah of Shelby County, who served as project manager.

The more comprehensive approach also brought new partners to the table who likely would not have engaged in greenways planning – groups like the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, and the Memphis Area Transit Authority.

For the Memphis region, greenways became a win-win solution. “We have created a plan that will use greenspace as a leverage to improve neighborhoods that have been disinvested,” said Zeanah. “We are creating a world class recreational network across three states and the Mississippi River. In doing so, we will improve quality of life in such a way that is significantly meaningful for the people who live here now and creates opportunity attract new jobs, residents, businesses to a region that has had stagnant growth. We are investing in some of our best assets – our greenspaces and natural areas – as a way to grow our population and grow our economic base.”

Photo Credit: Lee Bennett: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The visions that have emerged put livability at the center and recognize that we can create places that meet the needs of current and future residents in ways that also enable us to have a healthy environment and a robust economy. At the outset of the SCI program, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities put forth six Livability Principles. As communities worked to develop their visions and plans, they translated these broad principles into their local context/s, underpinning concrete plans and tangible projects.

A common set of themes emerged as communities defined for themselves what it means to become more livable. Concepts like:

Livable places offer easy and diverse ways to access opportunity.

Organizations participating in the initiative moved from a focus on transportation and mobility (the ability to move around) to a focus on accessibility (the ability to access goods, services, and jobs).

Livable places are safe and healthy.

Communities in this initiative came to understand and appreciate all the ways that the built environment and issues of public health and personal  safety are inextricably linked. When people feel safe, know the air is clean, and have access to natural areas, they will walk more, and when healthy food options exist, people will take advantage of them.

Livable places are loved.

Residents love their livable communities because they are unique and special. The visions created through these community-driven processes identify and seek to preserve the historic, natural and cultural assets that represent a unique sense of place.

As community and regional planning organizations have led the development of these plans, they too have developed and recognized ways they need to change and adapt to future conditions. SCI has significantly built the capacity of participating planning agencies, community organizations, cities and regions – at both the individual and the institutional level. The extensive planning efforts provided an opportunity for government and nonprofit staff and community participants to learn about new issues, tools and approaches and to develop new skills. Some of these organizations have changed fundamentally as a result of this initiative: several organizations made the decision to merge and join forces and, in many communities, new organizations came into being to lead the effort forward.

Spotlight: Piedmont Together
Piedmont's final vision has strong support and has inspired the partners to think more concretely about implementation. Show more
Spotlight: Piedmont Together

  • Grantee: Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation
  • Grant: 2010 HUD Regional Planning Grant
  • Award: $1,600,000
  • Link:

The Piedmont Region is located in central North Carolina. The region has a total population of 1.6 million, with 37% of residents living within one of region’s three main cities: High Point, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Historically, several regional organizations have served the region. In 2010, the region received funding through SCI to create their first comprehensive regional plan. The goal was ambitious – to knit together this diverse region and create a shared vision and set of strategies. Even in the course of developing the application, the shared interests of the region came into focus and two area councils of government made the decision to merge into one.

After three and a half years of hard work, the regional vision was presented in March 2014. The final vision has strong support and has inspired the partners to think more concretely about implementation.

While the transportation authority was able to commit one employee to spend 10 hours/week focused on implementation, it was clear that that was not going to move things fast enough. In September 2014, the consortium met to consider the best path forward. They applied for, and received, a small amount of seed funding from a community foundation with which they were able to hire a part-time staff person. Today, Piedmont Together is in the process of forming a new 501c3 that will carry the plan forward. They have completed organizational bylaws, defined a space for them to operate within the region, and are developing a funding strategy.

After attending a Sustainable Communities Leadership Academy workshop and meeting representatives from PolicyLink – one of the capacity-building intermediaries – Piedmont Together began integrating equity into their plan. Piedmont is now one of several regions actively working to create an equity network.

Photo Credit: Brian Stansberry: (CC BY 3.0)

Building such comprehensive visions, managing complex partnerships, and soliciting unprecedented levels of community engagement required the development of new skills, new capacities, and new perspectives. One area where planning organizations reported the greatest learning curve is on the issue of social equity. All members of a community regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic status must have a seat at the planning table. And critically, they must also play a role in implementing that plan – making decisions about changing policies, allocating resources, and otherwise creating change on the ground in their communities.

While previous federal planning efforts have included aspects of social equity, the SCI was the first to put it front and center and to provide tools and technical support to help organizations institutionalize equity into their plans, policies and implementation strategies. Among SCI’s greatest legacies will be the many equity networks that have been created across the United States as a result of this work.

Why These Visions Matter

  • Integrating Goals

    In some cases, the planning process revealed that existing plans and policies had created conflicting goals. The integrated approach allowed SCI communities to tackle these conflicts.
  • Regional Focus on Systems and Connections

    Regional SCI grantees were able to focus on systems and regional connections – watersheds, transportation systems, commuter-sheds and regional housing issues – and identified broader strategies to address systemic problems.
  • Breaking Down Traditional Silos

    Breaking down traditional divisions of land use, transportation, housing development, and economic development resulted in many communities finding win-win solutions.
  • Discovering Efficiencies

    Potential to make more efficient use of limited public funds for infrastructure and services.
  • Fairness and Equity

    Plans better reflect new demographic changes and emphasize equitable outcomes.
  • Path to Economic Success

    Visions highlight the importance of a sustainable community to long-term economic vitality – business and workers want to be in great places.
  • Reflecting New Trends

    Addressing the wants and needs of millennials and aging baby boomers, the desire for local food, the trend toward renewed urbanization, and emerging concerns about health and sustainability in general.
  • Lower Carbon Development

    Visions help demonstrate desire for lower carbon development and reducing vulnerabilities to impacts of climate change.

Community-Driven Planning

Working With Everyone

Conventional community planning takes a top-down approach, with limited citizen input (gained through traditional public hearings) and little or no effort to engage the full range of stakeholders that typically make up a community. However, experience shows that top-down approaches are less effective, less innovative, and often lead to difficulties when it comes time to implement.

The SCI has developed capacity for inclusive and community-driven planning in communities across the country. Moving beyond outreach to true community engagement demanded new capacity, skills and resources. Engagement efforts, whether in the form of online surveys, community charrettes or neighborhood-level meetings, require substantial time and effort from a variety of people; planners need to learn new ways to invite people into the process, while residents need to participate in new and often unfamiliar activities. Bringing under-served populations – who may come with language, trust or other barriers – into the discussion requires cultural competency and strong relationships with community leaders. Other organizations – the usual suspects and beyond – had direct roles in crafting these plans, and will continue to have involvement in implementation. Their involvement has strengthened and honed their capacity in a wide variety of areas. Those improved skill-sets will serve them well both in future planning efforts and the implementation process.

When the City of Austin was awarded a grant for a neighborhood plan in Colony Park, an underserved, predominantly low-income and minority community, the planning process faced significant opposition from community leaders. After a rocky start, Austin and community members worked together to develop a robust plan. Show more
Spotlight: City of Austin

The Colony Park Sustainable Community Pilot had a rocky start. When the City of Austin Neighborhood and Development Office was awarded a community challenge grant for the creation of a neighborhood plan in Colony Park – an underserved, predominantly low-income and minority community – the planning process faced significant opposition from community leaders who felt that the needs of the Colony Park community were not reflected in the grant proposal. The leaders were also skeptical that the planning process or outcomes would be more inclusive than the grant proposal.

Now, after extensive work to build trust between city staff and members of the community, a true partnership between the City of Austin and Colony Park community leaders has emerged. A core group of community members meets weekly with city staff and is included in all communications about the project. These community leaders were deeply involved with all facets of the planning and implementation process. They reviewed and commented on all project documentation in initial draft stages, wrote a historical narrative for the existing conditions report based on their expert knowledge of the community, wrote the final public engagement plan, helped to develop the scope of work, and were involved in the selection process for the public engagement and design teams. Ultimately, the design team hired by Austin was not the one that had scored highest on city-designed selection criteria, but the team that had connected best with the community.

The project’s public engagement team attended every event and meeting held in the area throughout the planning process in order to distribute information about the project. The team also created a partnership with a local community college and university, which sent students door-to-door in Colony Park introducing members of the community to the project and conducting a survey to identify community needs. They built relationships and trust by consistently appearing in the community and showing their commitment to a community-driven planning process.

Margarita Decierdo from the Colony Park Neighborhood Association talks about lessons learned from the association’s work with the City of Austin.

The investment of time, energy, and resources required by this process was far beyond anything Austin has previously done, and the outcomes show that the investment has paid off. The City of Austin and members of the community worked together to create a plan that reflects the needs and desires of Colony Park, and it was accepted by the city council with no dissent. City staff and community members are deciding together what ongoing engagement efforts will look like through plan implementation and beyond. In addition, with this demonstrated success, the community is now asking the Neighborhood and Development Office to host conversations with other city departments, and other city departments are reaching out to them for a manual on how to engage with community at the neighborhood level.

Together, the community and city staff have prepared a list of key takeaways from their partnership. City staff states one such takeaway is that while effective engagement critical, it is also a major investment, which needs to be factored into grant proposals by both funders and grant writers. And a final takeaway from Colony Park and the City of Austin is that to do community-driven planning successfully, “be open and willing to be professionally stretched, challenged and personally transformed.”

Fears of resource intensiveness and engagement challenges can make governments and planning organizations shy away from community-driven planning efforts, but the plans developed through these efforts are more productive, more effective, and more likely to succeed. Through SCI, many planning organizations were able to engage in true community-driven planning for the first time.

Spotlight: City of Seattle and Puget Sound Regional Council
Already leaders in equity, these two organizations developed innovative approaches to community engagement. Show more
Spotlight: City of Seattle and Puget Sound Regional Council

In 2008, with the expansion of Seattle’s light rail system into Southeast Seattle and planning for Transit Oriented Development (TOD) around new stations, a strong grassroots movement arose to ensure that vulnerable communities were not displaced by gentrification. Southeast Seattle is a diverse community with many different cultural and language groups (25% white, compared with Seattle’s overall population which is 69% white), but no one majority cultural population.

Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) integrates equity efforts into city government to a degree that is rare in American municipalities. Many of the tactics of engagement as well as the impetus for creating a community-driven planning and implementation process come from RSJI, which developed a toolkit for inclusive outreach and community engagement.

In the spirit of RSJI, came Community Cornerstones. A major innovation of the project was hiring Public Outreach and Engagement Liaisons (POELs) as part of the planning and implementation process. Each of these liaisons was a member of a specific SE Seattle community, knew that culture and the existing community groups, and was trusted in the community. They were also what city staff call ”tri-cultural,” meaning they possessed an understanding of the U.S. context, city government, and the specific cultural group with whom they were liaising.

13 individual liaisons, representing cultural, youth, disability and rental communities, began by engaging individual communities in their own space. Over time, the groups began to meet together and with the city to develop trust and ownership of the planning process. While traditional planning models tend to include only the perspectives of homeowners and the business community, this process brought in more diverse perspectives. From these meetings, POELs identified three primary priorities for anti-displacement activities – stable, affordable family housing near light rail before displacement pressures exist, strong multi-cultural business districts serving the needs of neighborhoods and strong cultural organizations to plan for a shared Multi-Cultural Community Center (MCC).

POELs also helped build trust during the implementation process by engaging with over 100 immigrant and refugee business owners, allowing them to access services and resources previously unused because of lack of trust. This innovative connection of POELs with businesses is now being expanded from this pilot project to become part of the city’s normal model for economic development.

The POEls also helped the city identify people with real leadership and authority within communities, and supported those leaders in forming a coalition to plan for the shared MCC. As this coalition of leaders met, their trust and understanding of shared needs, challenges, and resources grew. This planning process was truly community-driven and modeled power sharing between government and community. The idea for the MCC came from the community, and the city supported (but did not lead) efforts. Importantly, funding to non-governmental groups was through contracts and in payment for their expertise, not in the form of grants.

The planning process built community capacity on three levels: individual leadership, within cultural organizations, and across the coalition. The durable, sustainable coalition that has arisen has been more successful overall by understanding the value of their assets (not just traditional financial assets, but also community connections and collective political power). The coalition ultimately decided not to build a brand-new shared facility yet, but to use the network they have created to conduct a smaller shared capital and development campaign as well as sharing programs and formalizing space-sharing arrangements to meet their needs.

The community-led effort is now almost self-sustaining, and it is clear that trust and ownership were greatly strengthened when the groups realized that they were in charge.

Read the Jan 2015 University of Washington Case Study on Community Cornerstones.


When the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) received the SCI regional grant to support transit-oriented development around their expanding light rail system, they were intentional in designing a planning process that would include a wide variety of stakeholders. The PSRC had only an advisory capacity in the Growing Transit Communities (GTC) project, so that a broader range of stakeholders could be involved in the consortium.

In addition, $450,000 of the total grant was awarded as sub-grants to 43 local organizations to support projects they had chosen to prioritize, which empowered those organizations to take an active role and feel ownership in the planning process. Because many of these small organizations did not have capacity to meet HUD reporting requirements, PSRC hired staff to assist them in providing the required documentation to HUD. Many of these organizations have since been able to obtain funds to continue their work. Several have won HUD grants, possibly because their increased capacity and prior relationship with HUD made their applications more competitive. Others have received funding from foundations who were part of the planning consortium or from jurisdictions that GTC convinced to provide seed capital for specific projects.

Social equity was a central focus and theme of GTC’s planning efforts. Based on feedback from community representatives, the GTC held the first Regional Equity Summit in November 2013, which brought together over 400 community members and local leaders to share strategies and visions for building a more equitable region. During the summit, the GTC announced the creation of a long-term stakeholder body called The Puget Sound Regional Equity Network that would provide expertise and input in planning efforts to ensure that equity remained a central theme in current and future regional planning efforts.

Spotlight: Washington County, OR
Despite many challenges, Washington County’s Aloha-Reedville planning process successfully directed $47 to $52 million to community-identified improvements. The process also produced unexpected opportunities to improve community services. Show more
Spotlight: Washington County, OR

  • Grantee: Washington County, Oregon
  • Project: Aloha-Reedville Study and Livable Community Plan
  • Project Website:
  • Grants: Community Challenge/TIGER 2, and regional Metro Construction Excise Tax (CET)
  • Award: $500,000 HUD, $1,500,000 DOT, Metro CET $442,000

The Aloha-Reedville Community in Washington County, OR is an unincorporated urban area between the cities of Hillsboro and Beaverton with about 50,000 residents. When Washington County received a Community Challenge/TIGER 2 grant to develop a community vision and plan for the future, they were starting work in an area that had no significant planning for decades. Many community members were wary of the process, believing that past projects and countywide planning efforts had neglected the needs and desires of their community.

As part of the Aloha-Reedville project, the county contracted a number of community-based organizations (CBOs) to assist in engagement efforts. Engaging these partners helped project staff gather feedback from a much more diverse group of residents and shape a well-rounded plan that considered a wider range of needs than previous planning efforts.

County staff report that contracting with community based organizations could have been even more effective if it had occurred earlier in the process; early connection would have allowed CBOs to help identify project goals and objectives and shape engagement strategies from the start. However, because many advocacy groups in Washington County are small, grassroots organizations, preliminary relationship-building and capacity development would likely have been needed in order to work with any new or existing CBO.

In addition, CBO partners struggled with organizational capacity issues, especially related to providing invoices and expense reports with sufficient documentation to meet HUD requirements. County staff believe larger grants or lump sum payments that do not require itemized invoices from small contractors may be helpful in streamlining this process for future grant work.

The project team also found that the community members being engaged through this project needed basic education to participate in the planning process. The planning process began with a series of roundtables, designed to share tools, gather data, and also develop a set of shared values. The project team quickly found that engagement efforts needed to focus on providing basic education on the role of county government, what planning is, how planning would affect community members’ day-to-day lives, and building relationships.

To build community capacity, the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO), the consortium’s lead advocacy partner, provided individual-level leadership training with direct assistance from Washington County staff and Commissioners. Training was widely advertised through community channels, and advocacy partners also reached out directly to candidates from historically underrepresented communities whom they thought would be especially helpful. Around two dozen community members participated in the training, and several of these have since become involved in community governance.

The county devoted more time than anticipated to capacity-building efforts with both CBOs and the community, but those efforts paid off. Many plan recommendations will require community-led efforts to move forward into implementation. A citizen’s advisory committee, developed to coordinate and advocate for implementation efforts, has decided to continue to meet. The Aloha & Reedville Community Council includes representation by businesses, nonprofits, community groups. They have developed a mission statement and a charter. Besides advocating for plan recommendations, the council wants to take the lead on activity that is outside of the county’s role like business development and strengthening community identity.

The Aloha-Reedville planning process was very successful in directing resources to community-identified improvements, with over $32 million in obligated infrastructure going in over the next five years and another $15-20 million expected to follow. In addition, the process produced unexpected opportunities to improve community services. For example, when Somali community expressed concern about potential profiling, the Sheriff’s Department made a special effort to engage more actively with the community, leading to a much improved relationship between the sheriff’s office and community members.

Community members have also provided significant support for grant applications to fund recommended improvements, in what county staff refer to as “grassroots, grasstops, and partner support.” The new relationships between community and county government—and also across county departments—have greatly improved communications both externally and internally and is likely to make outreach for future planning efforts significantly more effective.

Read the community’s full report here.

These organizations developed tools for engaging underrepresented community members and the many demographic groups across their regions, supported the development of leaders at the neighborhood and local level, and put residents at the center of their planning processes. They built connections with community organizations and neighborhood groups that not only helped them engage citizens, but established lasting partners for implementation and a healthier community overall.

Planning teams recognized that engaging residents is much more than a token/checkbox in the planning process that will have no real impact on plan outcomes. This initiative demonstrated that an effective community-driven planning process results in a stronger final plan, which reflects the needs and desires of all groups in the community, has stronger community buy-in and investment, and is more inclusive and equitable in its execution and outcomes.

Where to From Here?

Gina Bartlett, Senior Mediator from the Consensus Building Institute outlines considerations and processes to get the most out of collaboration.

Why Community Driven Planning Matters

  • More Investment

    Engaging members of diverse communities results in a more inclusive process, more inclusive execution, and final outcomes that better reflect the needs and desires of all residents.
  • Inclusive Execution

    Community-driven plans have stronger community buy-in and investment.
  • More Resources

    Partnerships with community leaders and organizations can provide additional resources to both planning and implementation efforts.

More Spotlights on Community Driven Planning

Spotlight: Chicago
The City of Chicago’s GO TO 2040 relies on local government & communities for planning and implementation. To ensure success, the city created the Local Technical Assistance (LTA) program, which builds local capacity to implement community-created plans. Show more
Spotlight: Chicago

  • Grantee: Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning of Chicago
  • Project: GO TO 2040, Local Technical Assistance Program
  • Project Website:
  • Grant: Regional Planning
  • Award: $4,250,000

When the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) received their regional planning grant, the region had just completed a long-range comprehensive planning process, GO TO 2040. The Sustainable Communities Initiative supported the creation of the Local Technical Assistance (LTA) program, a program which provides local governments and community groups with funding and resources to develop local, place-based planning processes. CMAP provided planning assistance to local communities through the development of new planning resources and coordination with existing technical assistance activities.

While the many local governments in the Chicago region are responsible for land use planning and other planning processes, few have capacity in this area. CMAP estimates that half of the region’s local governments do not have a professional planner on staff. Because the success of GO TO 2040 relies on the alignment of local government planning and implementation projects with the regional comprehensive plan, increasing this local planning capacity is vital. Planning project ideas are generated in the individual communities based on the priorities of those municipalities and community groups, and are chosen in a competitive application process based on their consistency with the goals of GO TO 2040. The flexibility of funding from HUD was crucial in allowing CMAP to choose a broad scope of projects for the LTA program, and has helped to push forward many elements of GO TO 2040 beyond CMAP’s usual focus on transportation and land use. The LTA program includes projects focusing on housing and economic development, water resources, and specific neighborhoods or corridors.

Since the expiration of the grant in January 2014, CMAP has continued the LTA program using alternative sources of funding. As of May 2015, over 100 projects have been completed, with another 50 currently underway. While these statistics are impressive, CMAP’s Director of Local Planning, Bob Dean, emphasizes the importance of looking beyond the numbers to the individual stories of implementation. One of the first completed LTA plans was for a small, unincorporated area that had seen little investment for decades. After completing their plan, they received an implementation grant to put in sidewalks, bus shelters and a community garden. According to Dean, this successful implementation communicated to the community that they are relevant to county government, and showed that local implementation, even on a small scale, can make a discernable impact on people’s lives. To date, CMAP’s role in implementation has been small—mostly aligning community needs with available resources from other external partners—but the proportion of projects with an implementation focus has increased in later rounds of the LTA program.

CMAP’s post-grant evaluation of the LTA program in November 2014 identified local commitment as the most important contributor to plan and implementation success. According to the evaluation report, “the LTA program’s best projects have all been in communities that participated actively in the planning process, while those that turned out less well were typically in communities with lower degrees of ownership and commitment.” The evaluation results showed the importance of a dedicated, local champion and significant partnerships with external organizations for project implementation. Currently, CMAP asks communities to put forward applications for planning projects based on their community’s priorities in order to engender a base level of commitment to the planning goals within each community. However, CMAP has added a local match requirement (on a sliding scale so as not to exclude less-resourced communities) to further encourage community ownership in and commitment to the planning and implementation processes.

Photo Credit: Chicago Lakefront by Daniel Schwen: (CC BY-SA 4.0)

New River Valley Planning District Commission used cutting-edge survey methods, participatory budgeting and gamification to create a plan with strong community support. Show more
Spotlight: New River Valley

  • Grantee: New River Valley Planning District (Radford, Virginia)
  • Project: New River Valley Livability Initiative
  • Project Website:
  • Grant: Regional Planning
  • Award: $1,000,000

When the New River Valley Planning District Commission received grant funds, the planning process faced significant and sustained opposition from the community. In the face of that opposition, their primary stakeholder engagement goals focused on establishing legitimacy, building trust, and gaining community investment in the planning process. While they used many “standard” engagement methods—summits, online and paper surveys, community outreach meetings, communications via website—they also explicitly moved beyond standard engagement efforts.

The New River Valley Planning District Commission created a new kind of survey using CrowdGauge software, the NRV Tomorrow Survey. Compared to the standard survey NRV had previously deployed, this survey was more nuanced and contextual. The process of completing the survey developed the participants’ understanding of impacts and co-benefits, and through a “participatory budgeting” section, encouraged participants to rank priorities. While both surveys yielded valuable results, the NRV Tomorrow Survey also fostered meaningful conversations. NRV also built and executed game- and theater/storytelling-based engagement efforts in partnership with Virginia Tech’s Department of Theater and Cinema, Sojourn Theater and SCI capacity-building organization, PlaceMatters.

Carol Davis, Sustainability Manager, Town of Blacksburg, Virginia speaks about methods of nontraditional community engagement.

The innovative engagement methods that NRV used helped to provide context to citizen priorities and identify themes and key tensions within the community. This type of contextual information is especially valuable at the beginning of the planning process, but is often not sought until the planning process is already well under way. When implementing, NRV can use resources, such as community-level problem-solving capacity and the strong partnerships that develop during nonstandard engagement efforts—when citizens are participating, rather than simply being informed.

Cross-Cutting Collaboration

Coordination Across Jurisdictions, Borders and Sectors

Ambitious outcomes – a stronger economy, a healthier environment, and greater social equity – demand strong collaborative efforts across jurisdictions and sectors at the local and regional scale. In conventional planning processes, a single organization, agency or department develops isolated plans for land use, transportation systems, housing and economic development. Regional planning efforts must work across jurisdictions, which can encompass multiple (sometimes hundreds of) municipalities, counties, and, in some cases, even states. Regional planning entities almost universally lack authority to implement policy; thus, each jurisdiction in a region creates their own plans and projects, with little or no coordination with neighboring governments.

Spotlight: St Louis Region
The SCI grant allowed East-West Gateway Council of Governments to focus on creating a strong, broad consortium that had shared goals and could share resources across the region to address those goals. Show more
Spotlight: St Louis Region -- Organizing for Effective Implementation

  • Grantee: East-West Gateway Council of Governments
  • Project: One STL: Many Communities. One Future.
  • Project Website:
  • Grant: Regional Planning
  • Award: $4,687,750

The East-West Gateway Council of Governments (EWGW) provides a forum for local governments from the two states in the St. Louis metro region, Missouri and Illinois, to work together on cross-jurisdictional problems. Despite early EWGW efforts, regional representatives struggled to find common goals and interests, making collaboration efforts difficult to create and sustain. The SCI grant allowed EWGW to focus on creating a strong, broad consortium that had shared goals and could share resources across the region to address those goals, a planning effort that would later become OneSTL.

By creating a broad coalition, the consortium was able to use the expertise of consortium members to take ownership of activities and tasks, ranging from creating a data exchange to partnering on a market study and Transit Oriented Development plan, to development of a Fair Housing Equity Assessment. Active engagement in a task force for municipalities who would be responsible for much of the implementation process ensured that they would have ownership and buy-in in the planning process as well.

Implementation is a key focus for OneSTL, with an implementation committee overseeing other members of the network who are tasked with various implementation projects and activities. The consortium has found this combination of a strong backbone organization and distribution of responsibilities among consortium members to be crucial to success. They are now working to create a series of nested networks to maintain momentum around their collaboration efforts and to carry on implementation work more effectively. Finally, to facilitate funding of plan priorities, they have created an online “Sustainable Project Marketplace” where implementers can post projects and connect to potential funders.

Examples of OneSTL Nested Networks

  • Leadership network: key political champions
  • Technical network: educational institutions and consultants to provide direct technical assistance to local communities
  • Funders network: connecting philanthropy and agency grantmakers with key OneSTL activities and partners
  • Evaluation team: to measure impact and outcomes of OneSTL implementation.

Photo Credit: St. Louis at Night by Daniel Schwen: (CC BY-SA 4.0)

These isolated planning processes, whether conducted within jurisdictional or sectoral silos, can lead to plans that work at cross-purposes with the plans of neighboring local governments or other departments within the same government. Plans often present conflicting priorities and compete for limited funding and resources.

The SCI has facilitated the development of strong planning consortia at the regional and local scales in communities across the country. Some of these consortia emerged from preexisting regional agencies; others were newly minted organizations specifically created to find regional solutions for the first time. Breaking down barriers between sectors, departments and governments to create a collaborative planning effort allows all stakeholders to work together to identify common goals and priorities and to leverage shared resources during both the planning and implementation phases.

The consortia that have emerged allow more effective planning and offer strong foundations for plan implementation. By engaging stakeholders across sectors and jurisdictions in their regions and at the local level, communities were able to identify shared interests, solidify regional identities, map regional connections and resources, build upon existing programs, leverage successes, and set the stage for successful implementation. Inspired by the collective impact model, many communities came to realize that collaboration might actually allow them not just to share (or compete for) existing resources, but to bring in additional resources for their joint efforts.

Spotlight: Knoxville
To be an effective collaborative effort, their regional plan needed to include stakeholders from beyond the immediate Knoxville metro area including stakeholders from both urban and rural parts of the region. Show more
Spotlight: Knoxville - Engaging the Business Community in Implementation

  • Grantee: City of Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Project: PlanET: A Regional Partnership of East Tennessee Communities
  • Project Website:
  • Grant: Regional Planning
  • Award: $4,327,500

The PlanET project has been the first attempt at comprehensive regional planning in East Tennessee. Before the City of Knoxville received this regional planning grant from SCI, regional collaboration efforts focused only on the immediate Knoxville area (Metropolitan Planning Commission), or solely on transportation issues relevant to only urban communities (Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization). To be an effective collaborative effort, a regional plan needed to include cross-sector stakeholders from beyond the immediate Knoxville metro area.

The newly-formed partnership named themselves PlanET to reflect their focus on planning for the entire region of East Tennessee and partners from each of the area’s counties and municipalities, including stakeholders from both urban and rural parts of the region.

A major part of the consortium was the Board of Mayors, which provided fiscal and policy oversight of the planning process. Their inclusion engaged key local leaders and created momentum and commitment throughout the planning process and current implementation phase. A regional Mayor’s Caucus emerged from the board to coordinate and address regional priorities across their municipalities. Another essential aspect to the consortium’s success was the strategic use of faculty and students to accomplish specific planning tasks and objectives, including the development of greenway designs.

While the planning process for PlanET was a collaboration of many stakeholders, implementation of PlanET has been delegated to a nonprofit with a regional focus. PlanET partners have sought to expand that group’s capacity to serve as the backbone organization and find additional leaders in the region to be part of implementation efforts. For PlanET, successful implementation requires a diverse array of community leaders committing to the shared regional goals and visions developed in the plan, and the creation of demonstration projects at the local level.

The regional chamber of commerce and PlanET have now coordinated efforts, reframing the implementation effort as ET Competes to reflect that partnership. Moving forward, the PlanET consortium hopes the partnership with the chamber will strengthen their connection with the business community. In addition to PlanET’s efforts to stand up a backbone organization, the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization has committed to maintaining and updating the ET Index, an online outcome and impact measurement tool as well as and other regional tools developed by PlanET, so that local government policymakers receive continued support during the implementation of programs aligned with PlanET’s regional objectives.

Photo Credit: Knoxville, Tennessee and the Sun Sphere by J. Stephen Conn: (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Collaboration is hard and time-consuming, but when the process is inclusive and stakeholders have buy-in, it can significantly increase regional and community-level capacity for both planning and implementation.

As consortia have been developed and engaged in planning efforts across communities and regions, communities have identified some strategies for creating and maintaining a strong and effective consortium during both planning and implementation.

Why Collaboration Matters

  • No Plan is an Island

    By breaking down traditional departmental and government silos, communities avoid the problem of isolated plans working at cross-purposes.
  • Less Waste

    Pooling resources and tackling shared challenges increases efficiencies and improves economies of scale.
  • Easier Asks

    Presenting a unified front means that grant-making organizations and governments have more streamlined and effective ways to furnish resources.
  • Growing the Pie

    It not only allows sharing of existing resources and reduces competition for limited funding and other resources for planning and implementation activities, but may actually bring in more resources to partners involved in the collaboration to execute their pieces of the shared plan.

More Spotlights on Collaboration

Spotlight: Lane County
Potential partners felt like they had to choose between collaboration or providing essential services. Lane County found another way. Show more
Spotlight: Lane County - Bringing Partners to the Table

  • Grantee: Lane Council of Governments
  • Project: Lane Livability Consortium
  • Project Website:
  • Grant: Regional Planning
  • Award: $1,450,000

The goal of Lane Council of Governments planning effort was to coordinate and augment existing plans across the region. These plans were distributed across different agencies and local governments, so finding support and moving forward on coordination efforts required buy-in from partners across the region. That buy-in was difficult to achieve at the beginning of the project due to a lack of outreach during the grant proposal stage of the process; partners were not eager to come to the table.

Lane Council of Governments realized that a major barrier to effective partnership was that agencies and organizations lacked the resources needed for collaboration, and so were forced to choose between joining the consortium or providing essential services. To respond to this challenge, the consortium, now named the Lane Livability Consortium, restructured to distribute funding to consortium members. This distributed funding allowed the consortium to bring a wide range of stakeholders to the table, including those who were under-resourced or doubtful about the value of collaboration.

The consortium started with a baseline assessment of existing plans in the region to identify missing or miscommunicated planning linkages. This assessment went beyond simply collecting existing plans; the consortium conducted in-depth interviews across agencies and workshops on all plans. They strategically used a graduate student team from the University of Oregon to assist in collecting information. Engaging the university not only provided needed resources for the effort, but allowed a neutral third-party assessment of the current state of collaboration that helped to diffuse any defensiveness that individual agencies and partners might feel about the existing state of their collaboration efforts.

The consortium’s planning efforts have already had some very tangible impacts. They prepared an EPA brownfields assessment grant, which has led to a number of redevelopment opportunities, and their work on economic clusters – with its inclusion of business sector stakeholders – helped partners understand how to support clusters and the business sector, leading to many cross-sector opportunities.

As collaboration continues, consortium members are constantly developing a greater understanding of existing silos and how to work across jurisdictions and sectors. There is a strengthened network of connections among consortium members, who have identified shared issues and goals and now have the familiarity with partner organizations to get results.

Maintaining the current level of collaboration will be a challenge when there is not dedicated staff, funding, or external commitments to drive progress. However, Lane Council of Governments has been designated as the core organization for post-grant collaboration efforts, and they have a structure in place within the COG to continue the collaboration.

Photo Credit: Currin Bridge, Cottage Grove, OR by Sandy Horvath-Dori(CC BY 2.0)

Spotlight: Chittenden County
The Chittenden-area consortium reached agreement on transportation planning issues that had been contentious for decades. Show more
Spotlight: Chittenden County - Aligning Multiple Regional Entities

  • Grantee: Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission
  • Project: ECOS Project
  • Project Website:
  • Grant: Regional Planning
  • Award: $995,000

When Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission received its regional planning grant, the region had a separate Regional Planning Commission (RPC), Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and Regional Development Corporation (RDC), all developing separate plans on different five-year cycles.

Collaboration efforts began with an agreement between the three organizations to have a shared planning process. The agreement involved federal and state agencies, and demonstrated a level of commitment, both of which helped foster critical partnerships with local agencies and organizations.

As early as the grant proposal stage, the consortium brought non-traditional partners into the process. These partners included the region’s hospital, health departments and universities, most of whom had not participated in planning processes before. This investment of time to look beyond traditional partners and identify shared goals allowed the RPC to create a strong coalition whose members had real ownership in the planning process.

The introduction of the collective impact model further strengthened collaboration efforts. The collective impact model encouraged the consortium to develop shared goals and measurements, designate a backbone organization, and assign consortium members responsibility for individual pieces of the plan. While the final plan included individual goals, the focus of implementation was on singular strategies and actions that address multiple goals.

One significant accomplishment of the consortium was a new agreement on transportation planning – a historically contentious issue in the area. By bringing partners from all stakeholder groups together at the table from the beginning, the consortium was able to get everyone on board with the final plans, even groups that had been opposed in the past. By giving everyone a voice, they gained trust in the shared ownership of the planning process and showed that they were facilitating the planning process, not dictating outcomes.

By the end of the grant, the RPC and MPO had merged. The merger started before the grant, but was facilitated, and likely accelerated by, the organizations’ efforts to coordinate planning cycles and the building of trust and recognition of shared goals that resulted from participation in the collaboration process.

Photo Credit: Church Street, Burlington, Vermont by redjar(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Spotlight: Hartford-Springfield Knowledge Corridor
Regional organizations began working across a bi-state divide that did not reflect shared challenges and goals of the two states. Show more
Spotlight: Hartford-Springfield -- Collaboration Across State Lines

When three regional planning organizations from Connecticut and Massachusetts came together to apply for an SCI grant in 2011, they did so with the recognition that the region would benefit from more work across the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, since their common goals and challenges do not stop at the state line.

The Capitol Region Council of Governments (CT), the Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Commission (MA), and the Central Connecticut Planning Agencies, collaborated in a planning effort that would later be branded New England’s Sustainable Knowledge Corridor. The Consortium built on existing regional and bi-state collaboration efforts like the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership (HSEP), a loose network of regional planning councils, educational institutions and business groups focused on the economic strength for the region.

More than thirty organizations across the region were included in the consortium, including regional planning organizations, municipal governments, state agencies, educational and research institutions, advocacy groups and housing and community development organizations. The inclusion of stakeholders from all sectors and from across the region was striking, as was the breadth of topic areas being addressed, ranging far beyond the economic focus of pre-existing collaborative efforts to an agenda that included housing, transportation and environmental issues.

According to planning staff, working together on bi-state strategies was crucial, since many of the region’s issues span municipal and state boundaries. Both states recognized that presenting a united plan and voice to federal and state agencies on issues like New England corridor transportation planning was the only way to accomplish large scale goals.

In order to ensure effective implementation of their plan, the consortium worked throughout the planning process to secure continual funding. The consortium also developed six local plans for municipalities and designed implementation projects to be absorbed into the budgets of local governments and other partner organizations tasked to carry out specific implementation items. This kept the consortium’s region-wide planning applicable to local problems in each state.

The ownership and accountability of consortium members will help them to achieve implementation goals in the completed plan, as well as help them to overcome a major challenge of regional planning efforts – regional organizations’ lack of authority to make real policy changes at the local level.

Photo Credit: Connecticut State Capitol by jglazer75(CC BY 2.0)

Data-Centered Understanding

Collecting and Sharing Data for Better Decision-Making

A vital stage of any planning process is the collection and analysis of new data about a community or region, which is necessary to understand both the current state of affairs and the trends that will shape future growth. However, many communities lack the capacity to collect and analyze complex data on their own. Even when good data is available, it is often fragmented, siloed, or has limited public distribution, making it very difficult to develop a comprehensive picture of a community or region.

But thanks to the investments of the SCI and the support of the capacity-building intermediaries, communities across the country have collected and used data in the course of planning efforts, and local leaders will be able to integrate those practices into their planning process and daily activity going forward. With the help of new digital tools, innovative ideas, and more resources, communities have benefited in numerous ways from stronger data.

Communities’ burgeoning use of data extends beyond a one-off project. The skills, knowledge, and understanding developed by integrating use of data into the planning process will continue to pay dividends, as individuals bring these skills to new projects and positions. Data collected will serve as a baseline to measure progress, track indicators and foster transparency. This baseline information gives communities the tools needed to accurately measure progress of initiatives and make appropriate course corrections if it becomes apparent that part of a plan is not working. Real-time monitoring of indicators saves communities time and money. Many of the communities have already outlined indicators to track or released progress reports, and will continue this type of analytical tracking into the future.

Better data allows communities to create future plans based on current economic, environmental or demographic conditions. Immigration, internal migration, and economic trends have transformed communities at breakneck speed. Even as these demographic sea changes took place – often resulting in important cultural and economic shifts – communities found themselves making decisions based on the conditions of the past rather than the future because of out-of-date information. New demographic information and better ways of visualizing it bring these changes to light, ensuring that plans and actions reflect the population as it will be, not just as it was.

Spotlight: Rhode Island
Rhode Island used data visualization to drive their conversations about equity resulting in an executive order on diversity and equal opportunity. Show more
Spotlight: Rhode Island’s Equity Profile

Clear and compelling presentation can be the difference between a rigorous, data-dense report that gets ignored and one that makes a tangible impact. Rhode Island’s Equity Profile demonstrates that information presented in the right way can tell a compelling story and change the conversation in powerful ways.

Project leaders at the Rhode Island Division of Planning received funding from HUD to update the state’s guide plan, especially in elements related to housing and economic development. One of the project leaders’ goals was to have a planning process and outcomes that were representative of Rhode Island’s population, both now and in the future. To this end, the Division of Planning teamed up with SCI capacity-building organization PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at the University of Southern California to create An Equity Profile of Rhode Island.

PolicyLink produced similar profiles for other SCI grantees around the country, including the Piedmont Triad Region in North Carolina, Southeast Florida, and Kansas City. These profiles are built on large amounts of demographic and economic data from a variety of public and private sources, including the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey.

The equity profile told the story of a state undergoing dramatic change. It showed that in 2010, 36% of the state’s population under 18 were people of color – four times greater than the over-64 population. The profile also reported that the state would continue to become increasingly non-white, with 100% of the recent population growth coming from people of color. However, the benefits of economic growth were currently concentrated among the state’s white population. Rhode Islanders of color were more likely to be unemployed and earn lower average wages, even when they had the same levels of education as white workers. The profile’s authors argued that this uneven economic growth put the state’s future at risk.

And people listened. Described as an “incredible internal resource” by Laura Sullivan, the CDBG Disaster Recovery Program Manager at the Rhode Island Division of Planning, the profile spurred a new focus on equity at the division and gave them the hard data needed to make this case in the housing and economic development plans. The profile eventually made its way to the office of Governor Lincoln Chafee, who quoted the document in his State of the State address and issued an executive order on diversity and equal opportunity. Governor Chafee’s order encouraged all state agencies to develop a diversity baseline of their current hires in order to track future improvements, commissioned a report on diversity in state government, and added diversity liaisons to each department. The executive order also established the Rhode Island Office of Diversity, Equity, and Opportunity, which was tasked with increasing diversity among state employees and contractors. These efforts are continuing under the new administration of Governor Gina Raimondo.

Rhode Island’s Equity Profile “told an important story that hadn’t been told before,” according to Jeff Davis, Principal Planner at the Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program, and it did so in a very concise, aesthetic way. The presentation of information kept the profile from becoming just another report on the pile.

Photo Credit: Provconstruction by Loodog(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even when no new data is collected, analyzing existing data in new ways can tell important stories about economic opportunity and how it is achieved. These data sets can also present a management challenge, as they can rapidly become so large that analysis or coordination becomes difficult.

To collaborate efficiently, communities needed to share their fragmented information – critical to the development of a successful plan – with partners and the general public. Prior to this initiative, information was cordoned off by jurisdiction, agency, and various databases. Some regional organizations solved this issue by creating centralized clearinghouses for information about their regions. Previously siloed data could be combined and compared, empowering planners to develop truly comprehensive solutions to their regions’ challenges. Data warehousing also increases transparency and community involvement, as academics, public interest organizations, and members of the public can readily access and analyze data for their own purposes.

Spotlight: Southeast Florida
A data warehouse played a key role in scenario modeling and transportation planning by knitting together information from a historically fragmented policy landscape. Show more
Spotlight: Southeast Florida

  • Grantee: South Florida Regional Planning Council
  • Grant: Regional Planning
  • Award: $4,250,000
  • Link:

In 2010, the Southeast Florida Regional Partnership (SFRP) received a Sustainable Communities Initiative grant to develop an ambitious 50-year strategic plan for the seven Florida counties of Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River. These resources have been used to develop the Seven50: Southeast Florida Prosperity Plan. This Prosperity Plan reflects regional agreement around priority investments in key areas of importance to Southeast Florida’s future. With broad public input, these issues have coalesced into a coherent strategy and investment plan in support of the future sustainability and economic prosperity of our communities and region.

While collaborative efforts were underway in Southeast Florida prior to the Seven50 process, generally speaking the scope of these efforts tended to be defined by a particular focus issue or geography. There were few tools to look at the connections and relationships across jurisdictions and issue areas. Through the efforts of the SFRP, planning and coordination across the region was elevated to a new level in an effort as regional leaders took a step back to view and better understand the interconnectivity of the region and how apparently “local” issues fit into, and shape, the larger region.

A major barrier to regional planning was the very fragmented policy landscape the SFRP was seeking to change. For example, spatial data about the region’s geography, population, transportation, housing, economy, and environment was scattered across scores of municipal and county government databases. If the Seven50 planners wanted to see how sea level rise would affect property values, they would have to reach out to over 120 local governments in order to get a complete picture. Southeast Florida’s aspirations and challenges transcended borders, and so SFRP decided that their spatial data should as well.

As part of the Seven 50: Southeast Florida Prosperity Plan development process, project consultants and planners created the Scenario Planning Analytical Resources Core (SPARC) — known colloquially as the Data Warehouse. The planners realized that other places around the country had one-stop shops for Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, but Southeast Florida did not. The Data Warehouse brings together GIS data from across the region into one open source database. It is cloud-based, allowing anyone – planners from other governments, academics and the public – access through a web browser. Users can make their own custom maps and queries right in the browser, giving basic GIS capabilities without the need for expensive proprietary software. Custom maps can be saved and shared between users, or exported and integrated with other mapping software.

The Data Warehouse has been an asset to the Seven50 process, allowing the consultant team to easily conduct region-wide spatial analysis. The tool played a key role in scenario modeling and transportation planning. It helped to elevate the conversation to the regional level, demonstrating for the first time the interconnectedness of the seven-county region.

Since its creation, people from across the region have used the Data Warehouse to create their own maps for a wide variety of purposes. Some have used it to calculate travel time on hurricane evacuation routes across all seven counties. A Florida International University PhD candidate used the Warehouse to conduct an analysis of food deserts. One user even created a map showing homes for sale that were close to bus stops in what appeared to be a search for transit-accessible housing. The Data Warehouse has been, and continues to be, a powerful asset for the entire Southeast Florida community, helping its leaders and residents better understand the seven counties as a single interdependent region.

A new, regional data collaborative is being organized by the South Florida Regional Planning Council. The Southeast Florida DataCommon collaborative seeks to create a regional data sharing and learning environment that will, among other things, support the efforts of individual organizations seeking to access and utilize better data to enhance transportation, health, and children services program outcomes. By working together, sharing data, and serving as a support network across issue areas, they will be able to work smarter, enhance decision making, and create more equitable, opportunity-filled, and prosperous communities. It is envisioned that information contained within the Data Warehouse will be incorporated into the DataCommon.

Photo Credit: Mouth of the Miami River by Marc Averete(CC BY 3.0)

Some communities have used crowdsourcing to supplement or update their current data resources. Crowdsourcing data involves recruiting the general public in the data collection process, using smartphones or even simple pen and paper to record and share information about their neighborhoods. This kind of data collection, because it involves such a large number of data collectors, can inform much more targeted, neighborhood-scale action. Crowdsourcing also has the ancillary benefit of bringing new groups, often youth, into planning. These often-overlooked participants bring new perspectives into the process, making it more likely that their interests will be reflected in the final plan. Furthermore, the plan itself becomes more likely to succeed as more members of the community participate, gain buy-in, and become invested in its success.

Spotlight: Denver
Denver used cutting-edge crowdsourcing tools to increase walkability in their city. Show more
Spotlight: Crowdsourcing Data Collection in Denver with WALKscope

The Sustainable Communities Initiative is about more than just funding; it also has facilitated impactful, intelligent, and effective technical assistance for grantees. One particular example of this assistance has been WALKscope Denver, an innovative web-based tool that crowdsources data collection about pedestrian infrastructure. WALKscope was developed by a partnership between capacity-building organization PlaceMatters and Walk Denver, with funding from Mile High Connects. The tool allows anyone to collect data using a free mobile app and their phone’s GPS capabilities. Data collected through the app then becomes available to the public on the WALKscope website, where users can view, manipulate, and analyze the wealth of information about the pedestrian experience within the Denver area.

WALKscope is particularly remarkable because it facilitates the collection of a wide range of data. Not only can users identify crosswalks, intersections, traffic controls, and make pedestrian counts, but they can also include qualitative data such as the condition of sidewalks, adequate lighting, or even how safe they feel in a particular spot. The result is a very detailed spatial representation of how easy or hard it is for pedestrians to get around.

The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), an SCI grantee, has seen the value in WALKscope and has been making this tool available to partners across the region. One such partner is the West Colfax Business Improvement District (BID), who has been trying to make West Colfax Avenue safer for pedestrians to cross. West Colfax Avenue is a major arterial state highway in western Denver, and forms the backbone of the West Colfax neighborhood. In an effort to improve the walkability of the street, the BID organized “walk audits” of the area, in which local planning students and West Colfax residents were recruited to canvass the neighborhood, entering spatial data about the pedestrian experience into the WALKscope app on their phones.

Thanks to the effective application of technology (and the footwork of planning students), the walk audits were a success. Approximately 1,500 data points were collected and automatically marked on the map. Because the data was digitized from the start, rather than having to be transcribed from paper surveys, the BID was able to handle much more data than they would have been able to collect and manage on their own. The result was an easy-to-use but very high-resolution picture of walkability on West Colfax, complete with photographs of intersections, pedestrian obstacles, and amenities. The West Colfax BID plans to use this information to recommend specific infrastructure improvements designed to benefit pedestrians.

WALKscope is only the beginning; PlaceMatters, with the continued support of DRCOG, will be creating a “First and Final Mile Toolkit” that will facilitate this kind of data collection for cycling, transit, and perhaps even bikeshare and carshare infrastructure.

Why Data Matters

  • Paradigm Shifts

    New insights and critical changes to the status quo come from examination of previously uncaptured data.
  • Deeper Understanding

    Better data collection and visualization help communities improve understanding of trends and shifts in their populations and environment.
  • Transparency and Participation

    Transparency and centralization of data allows for greater participation from citizens and partners as well as discovery of unexplored connections between systems.
  • Increased Citizen Input

    Novel methods of data collection allow communities to base decisions on input from a more diverse group of stakeholders, including historically underserved populations.
  • Tracking Progress

    Baseline metrics allow communities to demonstrate measurable progress to stakeholders, as well as to reconfigure plan inputs to maximize results.


The Legacy of the SCI

The SCI investments, while modest compared to other federal programs affecting urban development, represent the largest investment in planning in generations. To win this highly competitive support, communities were called upon to integrate equity, inclusivity, and collaboration into the fabric of their planning process while simultaneously pushing planning as a practice to a higher standard. The outcomes of the resulting plans had to improve their places across a number of areas – housing, transportation, environmental protection, economic development – and be shared by all residents and stakeholders. That is a tall order, regardless of whether you are a large thriving region, a low-wealth rural area, or a small city trying to find a new economic reason for being.

John Robert Smith
Surviving the Storm

WATCH: Former Mayor of Meridian Mississippi and current Policy Advisor at Smart Growth America, John Robert Smith talk about how he transformed his town to create a more resilient place (32 minutes).

The resulting locally-driven efforts showed that the elements of sustainable communities apply from regional and neighborhood scale, to large metropolises and rural places. In each of these 143 places, plans and local planning advanced, and the practice of planning reached new standards for quality, collaboration, and engagement. The results go well beyond a new vision and plan as these efforts yield changes on the ground – new buildings, transportation systems, and other infrastructure. Just as important, the networks, relationships, and capacity to collaborate built with these grants has fundamentally improved the ability of these communities to transform themselves, whether they are implementing the plans created under this initiative, creating an ambitious plan for climate resilience, or dealing with future economic uncertainties.

This work did not just transform individual communities and broader planning practice. It embodies a realignment of federal priorities to a focus on place-based initiatives, and for the Partnership agencies and these communities changed the way levels of government communicate and collaborate for the better. The SCI can be a touchstone for how other agencies could approach their programs in the future. The successes of participating communities shows that federal programs not only can include aspirational goals in their grant programs, but that they should; because grantees will not just meet those goals, but they will be inspired by them.

We have outlined four deeply interconnected game-changing aspects of planning and plans that resulted from the SCI. Our hope and expectation for the future is that these themes will reach other communities, as the success stories created in SCI communities reach broader audiences, and other communities see the strong work and resulting positive changes. So inspired, communities across America can draw on new practice, techniques, data, and ambitions to improve the social, physical, and economic health of their region and our nation as a whole.