Do Planners Know Plan Integration Can Improve Local Resilience?

Plan integration is the process by which a community harmonizes its network of plans, policies, and regulatory programs — but it can also be a viable step for incorporating resilience into a planning framework. Consistency across plans with social and environmental resilience in mind is a pathway to implementing equitable measures and creating policy opportunities to address vulnerabilities.

The idea that all plans in a community should be working towards the same goals would appear to be a natural aspect of the planning process. For many planners, the consistency doctrine might come to mind. But communities shouldn't underestimate the work needed to create harmony between plans. Siloed departments and agencies, variations in planning processes, and an overwhelming amount of plans are just a few of the situations that can contribute to inconsistencies.

While it's not a surprise that many communities value resilience, are planners aware of the impact that integrated plans and policies can have on social and environmental conditions in their communities?

The American Planning Association, through an ongoing research partnership with the University of North Carolina's Coastal Resilience Center (CRC), developed a survey and conducted a series of interviews in an attempt to uncover how planners think about plan integration, and what relationship local plan integration efforts may have with building community resilience.

Spatial Tool Boosts Plan Integration for Resilience

Researchers at the CRC are emphasizing the connection between plan integration and local resilience to natural hazards — a strategy that has the potential to transform how planners go about achieving consistency in plans.

The Plan Integration for Resilience Scorecard (PIRS) is a tool and method developed by Philip R. Berke, research professor at UNC's Department of City & Regional Planning and director of the Center for Resilient Communities and Environment, and Jaimie Masterson, AICP, associate director of the Texas Target Communities at Texas A&M University.

PIRS uses a spatial approach to measure how plans and policies conflict within a community, and crucially, identifies where conflicts compromise neighborhood-level resilience. PIRS also has social equity considerations at the forefront, encouraging planners and local officials to focus on taking action in neighborhoods with overlapping social and physical vulnerabilities.

In partnership with the CRC and with funding from the Department of Homeland Security, APA is researching how to better equip, educate, and train planners for integrating plans to build local resilience. To understand how APA can further support planners in this work, it was necessary to first investigate the current state of plan integration in the profession. In other words, to what extent are practicing planners and affiliated professionals engaged in plan integration processes and local resilience initiatives in their communities?

Plan Integration and Resilience Survey

The following results come from an online survey published by APA between September 2–18, 2020, receiving a total of 142 survey respondents. The results suggest that there might be an unintentional disconnect between plan integration and resilience planning (see Selected Survey Results below).

The primary goal of the survey was to measure respondents' general perceptions of the relationship between plan integration processes and community resilience initiatives, as well as to determine specific perceptions of local community capacity and priorities when addressing these topics. The survey also gathered information about potential education and training needs. Finally, the survey briefly assessed the current level of awareness among planners of the Plan Integration for Resilience Scorecard or similar methods.

Selected Survey Results

  • About three out of four (74%) survey respondents strongly agree that plan integration is important for promoting community resilience.
  • A large majority of respondents (80%) have participated or been involved in plan integration, coordination, and alignment efforts.
  • About half of respondents (55%) feel that they reference community resilience initiatives often.
  • The majority of respondents (67%) feel confident in their ability to determine whether plan strategies align with community resilience priorities.
  • 71% of respondents indicated they were not familiar with any methods for analyzing and assessing the impacts of different local plans on community resilience (e.g., PIRS).
  • 33% of respondents indicated that there are not enough plans in their communities, compared to 20% who felt that their communities have too many plans. 40% were satisfied with the number of plans in their community. 7% had no opinion.
  • When rating community priorities and actions, 45% of respondents agree or strongly agree that their communities place a high level of importance on ensuring that plans are aligned and coordinated.
  • Almost half of respondents (46%) agree or strongly agree that their communities prioritize taking active steps to integrate, coordinate, and align plans.
  • Almost half of respondents (46%) believe that their communities prioritize community resilience. Slightly less (40%) of respondents believe their communities prioritize social equity.
  • Only 25% of respondents from smaller communities agreed or strongly agreed that their communities prioritize social equity as a guiding principle or explicit goal in local plans, compared to 52% of respondents from larger communities.

Most respondents believe plan integration has a powerful impact on community resilience. Respondents share these perceptions across different geographies, community sizes, professional backgrounds, and years of experience working in the field.

Because most respondents recognize the connection between plan integration and community resilience, it is possible that other reasons can explain why almost half of the survey respondents indicated that they do not regularly reference local resilience work.

The survey results also reveal that one-third of respondents have little or no confidence in their ability to determine whether plan strategies align with community resilience priorities. Creating resources to train and educate this group would be a potential way to increase plan integration capabilities across the profession.

Furthermore, the sizes of local networks of plans are not acceptable to most respondents. Yet differing concerns divide this group. Meeting the needs of planners with varying community contexts requires an adaptable tool that can accommodate any community's network of plans.

The survey also asked respondents to rate local interagency or interdepartmental coordination in four key areas: capital improvements programming; development review; plan making; and zoning or other regulatory updates. In general, respondents rated coordination for development review the highest and capital improvements programming the lowest. In all areas except plan making, respondents from smaller communities generally rated local coordination higher than respondents from larger communities.

The survey then asked respondents to rate the quality of local efforts to implement resilience policies in four types of plans: comprehensive plans; hazard mitigation or climate adaptation plans; sustainability plans; and neighborhood, district, or corridor plans. In general, respondents rated the quality of efforts in hazard mitigation or climate adaptation plans the highest and in the neighborhood (or similar scale) plans the lowest. Notably, those from smaller communities generally rated the quality of efforts in neighborhood (or similar scale) plans higher than respondents from larger communities.

Similarly, the survey asked respondents to rate the quality of local efforts to implement equity policies in the same four types of plans. Respondents generally rated the quality of efforts to implement equity policies lower than the quality of efforts to implement resilience policies. Across all four plan types, respondents from smaller communities rated the quality of efforts lower than those from larger communities.

Interviews Explore Planning Complexities

Surveys cannot always capture the nuances of the local planning experience. Potential interviewees volunteered through the online survey and leaders from APA Divisions and committees made additional recommendations. APA sorted the pool of potential interviewees into groups that represented multiple geographic regions and community sizes. These selection criteria ensured that interviewees represented a range of professional experiences.

APA selected six interviewees from this pool and conducted phone interviews in late September 2020. Three categories provided the structure for each interview: experience with plan integration, authentic participation in resilience planning, and equitable outcomes in resilience planning.

Interviewees revealed that collaboration is commonly correlated with resource availability. In other words, constraints related to time, information, and funding impeded the collaborative process.

Interviewees also noted that local politics can determine policy conflict resolution, project prioritization, and resilience initiatives progress. Furthermore, even though environmental quality concerns can be a motivator for change on their own, some interviewees' experiences reveal that economic development is a more pressing issue for lower-income neighborhoods.

On the subject of authentic public participation in resilience planning, interviewees discussed the relationship between meaningful stakeholder input and resource availability. Like collaboration, authentic participatory processes and high levels of resilience are both directly connected to resource availability at the community-wide level and the individual resident level.

Planners expressed challenges in securing funding for activities that might help engage lower-income residents, overcome barriers to connecting with people experiencing homelessness, and provide support for smaller or rural communities.

Finally, on the subject of promoting equitable outcomes, interviewees' responses to questions echoed their thoughts from other sections. Prominent themes include policy topics that can be commonly connected with resilience, such as affordable housing, displacement, and sustainability; existing or needed practical tools and metrics, such as assessments and indicators for measuring equity, hazard risk, and community resilience; and the ways that equitable outcomes are promoted in various community and regulatory contexts.

These contexts can include distinct factors that publicize or revitalize resilience initiatives (like media attention after a disaster), federal and state regulations that motivate resilience work and environmental justice work, and the need to validate the importance and authority of planning work in some jurisdictions.

Planners Adapt for Climate Resilience Planning

As climate change continues to persist, planners will need to create and revise policies to make their communities resilient. Some policymakers expect that federal interest in advancing solutions for climate challenges will increase over the next few years. To remain competitive for future funding, planners should review and identify their communities' resilience needs sooner rather than later. The Plan Integration for Resilience Scorecard can be a starting point for communities interested in bringing together their local plan integration processes and community resilience initiatives.

From the survey and interview findings, it is clear that many planners still need ways to creatively present environmental resilience initiatives alongside evergreen community concerns, such as affordable housing and economic development. PIRS is one way to draw concrete connections between the economic benefits of social and physical resilience to natural hazards.

Additionally, some planners continue to lack methods to effectively communicate to elected officials how conflicting policies are negatively impacting their constituents. PIRS visualizes the spatial hotspots of vulnerability, providing necessary evidence to garner political and economic support. Introducing this unique method to planners has the potential to increase the quality of implementation efforts for resilience and equity policies, as well as interagency and interdepartmental coordination.

Top image: Two participants learn about sea level rise through a public awareness campaign in coastal Virginia. Photo by Flickr user Virginia Sea Grant (CC BY-ND 2.0).

About the Author
Alexsandra Gomez is a research associate with APA.

December 18, 2020

By Alexsandra Gomez