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Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail.

Google “masterplan” or “master plan” and you will find numerous color renderings of enormous communities that are hand drawn, computer generated, and 3D modeled.  Many are great examples of master plan renderings, but renderings are typically one of many products of a master plan.  For large projects including parks, communities, and campuses, the funding to build 100% of the long term vision is not available on day-one.  The process of procuring land, funding, designing, permitting, bidding, and constructing all of the improvements can take years or even decades.  This post is not long enough to explain all of the intricacies of master planning.  It will, however, cover several important building blocks to a successful development master plan.

Background information

Do your research.  It’s so important to take stock in what you are working with.  Whether this is a fully developed site or a vacant lot, research is incredibly important to understand the current constraints that provide opportunities and limitations to development.  This is also called inventory and analysis.

Look at other planning documents that include this property (if they exist).  Take what you read with a grain of salt and always verify, but don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.  I have worked with communities and universities to create master plans from scratch and, after a little digging, we find droves of reliable information from previous plans that include the property in question.  It’s a fact of life that new people are always being hired at organizations and don’t always know where everything is.  Don’t count out old documentation either.  One man’s trash is another man’s original hand-drawn development plans with utility locations.  Dig for these treasures!  Trust me.

Stakeholder Input

A horse designed by committee is a camel.  I don’t know who said it first, but it’s true.  Planning committees are essential to the process because they right the ship when needed.  When planning for community improvements, that will likely be expensive and drawn out over the course of years, it’s critical to include the community in the decisions.  Be creative with stakeholder input.  The last thing you want is an “open floor discussion” at a meeting with fifty people.  That will go nowhere and you will end up hearing from very few people who are confident enough to speak up.  Engage with stakeholders in creative ways.  Movement and anonymity are key factors for successful engagement.  Get people to move around the room and look at different exhibits and give them brief, anonymous surveys to complete.  Try to limit powerpoint slides.

Concept Development

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Have your consultant start with loose ideas that reflect stakeholder input under the supervision of the planning committee.  It’s best to try and have at least two options for future developments.  For larger master plans with many projects, one working master plan can be appropriate.  These concepts should be introduced to the stakeholders for reactions and additional input.  Again, try to be creative with their engagement.  I usually have scaled templates for different size buildings, parking, sports fields, etc. in my workshop bag.  Templates can assist those who are not skilled at sketching ideas, but have useful insight.  Refine the designs with adjustments that were popular in discussions.  Make sure to check in with the planning committee to ensure these adjustments are realistic and align with general community goals.  Depending on the scope of the master plan, these concepts will be re-evaluated with the community and one will be chosen for the final master plan.  


Rome wasn’t built in a day.  The final master plan reflects the greatest desires for the organization or community and it will take an enormous amount of effort and money to get there.  Projects can be phased based on their cost, immediate need, and prerequisites.  Typically there are three phases to a master plan – Short-, Mid-, and Long-Range.  Phasing should also incorporate estimates for the projects within each phase.  

Final Master Plan Document

Make sure that the final document provides material that actually helps you achieve your goal.  Avoid fluff.  There is nothing wrong with condensing information.  Remember, this is a document that should be read and understood easily.  Also, invest in effective graphic design.  Ugly documents do not convey quality.  You are going to be investing heavily in consultants who will help you study property, generate ideas, and facilitate meetings, sometimes, over the course of months.  It is worth making sure that this process is captured in a final document that is well-written, organized, attractive, and communicative.

The Bottom Line

  • A master plan is only as useful as the sum of its parts.  You should be investing in much more than a flashy rendering.

  • Although master plans come in many forms, most contain one, if not more, of the previously mentioned components.  Tailor your master plan to fit your needs.

  • Hire a consultant who can effectively design a document that is easy to read.  Master plans are just that – Plans.  Always be prepared to update your plan and make sure either you or your consultant can easily do so.