Towards a Better Definition of Strategic Planning

The following is a bit of a taster from my forthcoming book on strategic planning methodology.

Here is a current academic definition of strategic planning:

Strategic planning is “a socio-spatial process through which a range of participants in diverse institutional relations and positions come together to design plan-making processes and develop contents and strategies for the management of spatial change; an opportunity for constructing new ideas and processes that can carry them forward; collective efforts to reimagine a city, urban region, or region and to translate the outcome into priorities for area investment, conservation measures
strategic infrastructure investments, and principles of land-use regulation” (Albrechts 2015:511)

Albrechts, L. (2015) Ingredients for a more radical strategic spatial planning, Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 42, 510 – 525

This definition has problems. It describes well the process of strategic planning but not its scope or outcome. What is it that differentiates it from local planning?

At talks I often warm up the audience by asking them what they consider the definition of strategic planning, pick them apart and generally they will converge on a better one.

Often first attempts fail to distinguish the strategic aspect from the local or national, focus on a process not the plan outcomes and miss how a strategy is in pursuit of some goal and might best achieve it against other rejected alternatives. Attempts then turn to what is distinctive about strategic spatial choices.

Lets take an example of a topic that has been controversial in the past. Bicycle racks. Back in the 1970s when the last revision of the Greater London Plan was being prepared the junior planning minister Peter Bottomley wrote a letter decrying the GLC for including matters such as picnic tables and bicycle racks that he didn’t see as being strategic. Looking just at bicycle racks it might be said that the design of bicycle racks is a local matter but the provision and number of cycle parking spaces is a strategic matter as it reflects policies of access and prioritisation across a city.

Turning to sites, where does the differentiator between local and strategic lie and how does this impact on what we mean by strategy, as opposed to the tactical dimensions of regulation?

Let me give you my proposed definition.

A strategic plan allocates where, and when, strategic sites (for development or protection) and strategic infrastructure should, and should not go, as well as the quantum and scale of such sites and infrastructure and overall development.

This definition only gets us half way there as we still need a definition of what differentiates a site and its accompanying infrastructure as strategic. The key point is that its a plan (the 5ws -why, what, where, when and who by) that focuses on one type of development – the strategic.

In terms of ‘strategic’ places we are not talking about aggregating small amounts to an existing place. To be strategic development has to require remodeling of its infrastructure to support a large quantum of additional population, such as new schools, parks, STPs, connector roads, transit etc. Therefore the realm of the strategic is new neighborhoods and new settlements not small additions to existing settlements. Strategic planning deals with whole places not the detailed design of their parts.

Strategic plan may concern its self with the broad pattern of growth and constraint for the residual ‘non strategic’ places, but not the precise location of such non strategic sites within a place. That is the realm of the local, the realm of the neighborhood.

This logically lead to the next questions, how much development to form a strategic place, and how much strategic planning should predetermine the concept planning of place?