Surprise! Americans think planning is a good idea!


The American Planning Association has just released the results of a major survey designed to understand how Americans feel about planning and the economy. Why? It’s no secret that planning budgets have taken a hit lately everywhere. APA wants to know if planning is considered to have any value at all to the average joe or jane.

In the survey, 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.”

If you think this sounds like the Sustain Southern Maine goals, you’re right.

Comments from the survey were interesting:

  • Fully 79% of Americans agreed that their communities could benefit from planning as defined above.
  • Or, if defined as, “Things work better with a plan,” a whopping 92% agree.
  • 14% believe that market forces alone will improve the economy and create jobs. But 66% believe that market forces plus community planning are needed.
  • More than half said they wanted to participate in community planning in person, online, or on the phone. (Wow!)

Even more interesting is the breakdown in terms of political affiliation and type of community (urban, suburban, rural, small town).  Interesting because the difference in viewpoints on planning is not that great. Yes, Republicans are less interested in planning, and so are those in rural areas. But it is a difference of maybe ten percentage points, not 30 percentage points.

For example, in the question about market forces and planning (one of the most controversial), it’s true that 22% of Republicans and 23% of rural residents believe that only market forces are needed to improve the economy. And that the other respondents compare at 6%  (Democrats) and 13% (urban dwellers). But that still leaves a rather huge majority that believes both are needed for economic recovery.

Hmmm. So maybe we’re not quite as polarized as some would have us believe. And this is really, really good news, because planning depends on coming together for discussion, collaboration and to some extent, compromise.  A divided America, or even a divided Southern Maine, means we can’t move forward. And it is clear from this survey that, indeed, we can.

What is also clear is that Americans want their planning efforts to focus on economic growth. No surprise there, especially since almost half believe their communities have gotten worse in the past five years. But it’s also clear that they want to focus on the big picture.

High priorities for local planning efforts are:

  1. Job creation (70%)
  2. Safety (69%)
  3. Schools (67%)
  4. Protecting neighborhoods (64%)
  5. Water quality (62%)
  6. Roads (58%)

Lower but still high priorities (49%-44%) include job training, renewable energy, air quality and revitalizing neighborhoods.

And what do Americans want in their ideal community? Here the results ARE surprising, especially the top two

  • Locally owned businesses nearby
  • The ability to age in place (i.e., stay in their own homes)
  • Sidewalks
  • Energy-efficient homes
  • Transit
  • Neighborhood parks

Overall, there are many good lessons to be learned here. One is that many of the items near and dear to planners’ hearts – open space, local train service, bikeways, walking trails, even fighting sprawl – scored very low in terms of priority. This may mean that while these are desirable to some, they just cannot compete with the bigger picture of economic, security and cost-related issues that rose to the top.

For those wondering how well this survey matches Southern Maine residents’ views, survey respondents were matched to the national 2010 US Census demographic profile for age, income, race and geographic distribution. It was an online survey, part of the Harris Interactive online panel designed so that it can be used by Fortune 500 corporations, non-profit associations and political clients as an alternative to telephone polling, as fewer than 75% of Americans have a landline these days.

To see the whole survey, click here: Planning In America: Perceptions and Priorities. And let us know what you think by taking our survey on what makes an ideal community.

By Carol Morris, Sustain Southern Maine Team Member