This article is the second in a series about Anchorage’s comprehensive planning effort to revitalize the downtown (Read When Smart Growth Comes to Town by Kristine Bunnell published in December 2016 in The Western Planner)
by Carla Burkhead, Anchorage, Alaska
As planners, you’ve seen results of planning drift: dusty boxes of partially implemented plans, shoved in corners, piled in empty offices. Can drift be stopped? How do you know when a plan separates from its goals? Does drift produce recognizable symptoms? Unfortunately, planning drift is never obvious. Instead, the disappearance of a plan’s connection between goals and outcomes isn’t apparent until a full-fledged failure occurs. One of the goals of Destination Downtown: The Anchorage Downtown Comprehensive Plan (ADP) was to provide more downtown housing. What has occurred instead is the continued razing of viable buildings to create more parking. This subsequently impacts not only the tax base, but it reduces opportunities for housing, and reasonably-priced office and small business commercial spaces. This lack of reinvestment impacts the economy and the community’s state of mind, as the sea of parking lots grows, opportunities for a vibrant downtown diminish with each building lost. The current pace of progress downtown appears slow and looming in contrast to the fast-paced growth and prosperity of the area after rebuilding from the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and the Oil Boom years.
Plan monitoring and evaluation, much like the performance measurement approach used to assess other government activities, can help prevent planning drift. Yet, despite awareness of monitoring and evaluation’s importance, it is often overlooked or even avoided. Why? To avoid justifying implementation costs and results that attract as much bad news as good news (Seasons, 2003). Thus, the challenge remains: How can planners and the communities they serve, incorporate monitoring and evaluation into a plan’s life cycle without adding prohibitive costs or encouraging unhelpful criticism? One solution: A survey-based citizen-feedback mechanism targeting a plan’s stakeholder groups and incorporating the plan’s guiding actions.
In 2007, the Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska determined to use comprehensive planning to revitalize its downtown urban core by adopting the ADP. This comprehensive plan captured the public’s vision of economic revitalization. Ten years after plan adoption, knowledge of the plan’s outcome was both vague and disjointed. Thus, the Anchorage Long-Range Planning Division sought the public’s knowledge and perception of the plan’s implementation. A formal monitoring and evaluation method was not codified into the plan’s machinery; when information was needed, a system of ad-hoc administrative reporting was used. The cost and time to collect, sort, and analyze data created a barrier to decision-making, and potential implementation recommendations. Therefore, with my University of Alaska Anchorage MPA capstone research, and the Long-Range Planning Division as my client, I explored an approach to identify a more accessible form of data acquisition.
The question: How did Anchorage citizens perceive outcomes of the municipality’s comprehensive plan primary strategies addressing land use, transportation, urban design, and programing?
Logically, citizens participating in the survey expressed ownership, thereby, public evaluation of plan outcomes, in part, transformed them from passive consultants to partners.
Two well-established approaches exist to evaluating plan implementation: Measure plan conformance, or measure plan performance (Talen, 1996). The approach used depends on the stage of the plan’s life cycle: For on-going policy, measure conformance. For fully implemented policy, measure performance. For the ADP, I measured conformance–the level at which the plan’s actions were being implemented–this proved the best path to monitor and evaluate. To promote citizen participation, I incorporated an easily accessible citizen-based feedback mechanism: an online survey. To align the survey with the adopted goals of the plan and reduce off-target criticism, I used the plan’s exact wording for the questions and invited, as key participants, stakeholders and citizens of the community identified in the plan’s chapter on implementation. Thus, I created an intrinsic feedback loop for Anchorage citizens to participate in the monitoring and evaluation of their plan.
The most profound citizen perception of ADP implementation was a shallow understanding about the plan’s results; many reported not knowing if the plan was successful or not (113 of 207 respondents [55 percent], compared to 43 of 207 [21 percent], reporting it successful and 51 of 207 [25 percent], reporting it unsuccessful). The results were clear: The current implementation of the ADP drifted between the known and the unknown, with 80 percent responding negatively. Planners now had evidence to support restarting the conversation with the community and municipal administration, and give new focus to the ADP.
The method also yielded further insight to Anchorage planners about its citizenry’s perception of plan outcomes: On average, Anchorage citizens perceived 8 percent of the plan’s action as complete, 33 percent in-progress, 49 percent not yet started and 10 percent eliminated. Citizens assessed key action areas regarding safety and housing, in which the municipality had been expending energy, as not started; they perceived other areas in which the municipality recently had not focused, such as heated sidewalks and seismic upgrades, as complete.
This work is valuable because it shows that a group of citizens taking an on-line survey has the potential to recognize when a plan is dying, thereby, aiding in the process to refocus energy and resurrect the effort. We know neighborhood revitalization can be successful, we’ve seen it before in east coast cities: Many were resurrected at least once using revitalization planning. Detroit’s current revitalization is a remarkable example. Moreover, in “Why Plans Fail” (Gladney, 2016), Calvin Gladney lends support to my findings by articulating how to ensure plan success by reinvigorating the infrastructure of the plan with a more robust capacity to enable, implement and incorporate people into its framework. This is valuable insight for both Anchorage and other communities on the verge of revitalization planning or concerned that they are drifting away during the implementation.
Ultimately, if we agree that including the public in plan making is worthwhile, then why not integrate them into monitoring and evaluating the implementation stage? Keep feedback simple, like the web-based perception survey; evaluate every five years like a scheduled check-up. My research explored one approach to build citizen-based evaluation capacity (focus groups, open-house dialogue sessions or social media approaches offer other methods). The role of the citizen should not end with plan development, but should be woven throughout the infrastructure of the plan. As a result, the planning enterprise will continue to exemplify a government service that promotes civic participation and knowledge – virtues unequivocally necessary to maintain our modern American representative democracy.
Today in Anchorage, an improved understanding to reign in planning drift and use the online survey results to support public investment is leading to favorable results. The Long-Range Planning Division, with technical assistance from Smart Growth America, and a very supportive Mayor, are bringing new housing and mixed-use development located in key downtown catalytic opportunity sites identified by the ADP. It is a very exciting time for downtown Anchorage and more is on the horizon; please keep posted for future articles.
Carla Burkhead is a passionate and involved citizen of Anchorage, Alaska. She recently completed her MPA from the University of Alaska Anchorage and is working hard to promote conversations about citizen engagement in government.
- Gladney, C. (2016). Why Plans Fail. The Annual, 4. Retrieved from http://meetingoftheminds.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/TheAnnual-2016-for-web.pdf
- Seasons, M. (2003). Monitoring and Evaluation in Municipal Planning: Considering the Realities. Journal of the American Planning Association, 69(4), 430–440. http://doi.org/10.1080/01944360308976329
- Talen, E. (1996). After the Plans: Methods to Evaluate the Implementation Success of Plans. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 16(2), 79–91. http://doi.org/10.1177/0739456X9601600201
Published in January 2018