by Alan White, AICP, Arapahoe County, Colorado

Anyone old enough to remember using Zipatone, PMS color swatches, Chartpak transfer lettering and a regular electric typewriter to produce a plan document is most likely a retired planner or a very-close-to-retirement planner.  Back in the days when cut and paste literally meant using scissors and tape to produce a document and a big time-saving invention was the Kroy machine, putting together a planning document was a painstaking effort.  Inserting or deleting paragraphs was a major undertaking, and planners never did the typing.  Multiple changes and drafts caused some very tense situations with support staff.  White-out was one of the best inventions ever.  Color maps required the preparation of an overlay for each color so the printer (a person) could make plates for the offset printing press.

My how things have changed since the late 1970s.  My career began as a planner in the trenches producing plans, maps, and special studies.  As my career advanced, I served as a planning director in several jurisdictions.  This meant that I did less and less real planning work and more and more directing, delegating and counseling.  I was recently presented an opportunity to return to the trenches after retirement to be in charge of updating the Comprehensive Plan for Arapahoe County, Colorado.  Since I was caught up on most of my home improvement projects, I decided to jump at this opportunity.

As I began doing research, seeing how other jurisdictions address sustainability and preparing a draft of the updated plan, I concluded that planners today have it easy.  Word processing makes the production of a document a fairly simple task once you re-learn your typing skills from high school.  Insert a table or pie chart?  No problem.  Move a paragraph?  Easy.  There’s not a roll of tape or scissors in sight.  Maps?  Get the GIS department to create one in a matter of hours or minutes, not days.  The inclusion of pictures, diagrams, charts, text boxes and maps all make today’s planning documents highly polished and professional-looking.  These are a far cry from the documents I remember that had maps, of course, a few tables because they were easy to type, and maybe a picture on the front cover.

Research used to mean physically going to the Department of Natural Resources or the water district to get information and hopefully be able to get a map without paying for it.  Or you would make a phone call and wait a week or so for a map to arrive in the mail.  Fax machines had their limitations, not the least of which was everything came out looking like the Dead Sea scrolls.  The library contained hard copies of plans of surrounding jurisdictions if you were lucky and if you were missing one or needed an updated one, you would once again go visit the jurisdiction or make a phone call.  Hopefully, you had purchased the most recent Census of Population and Census of Housing booklets.  I remember these coming out about two years after the Census, so the information was already two years old, and while you were waiting for the new information, you were using information from the last Census.

Now virtually any information you need is at your fingertips in a matter of seconds.  You don’t have to travel anywhere, and most information is free.  With nearly every agency or local government having a website, the Internet has made doing research a snap.  Using the Internet has probably cut my research time to a tenth of the time it would’ve taken in the old days.  The challenge has been avoiding information overload. 

I said earlier that planners today have it easy and that is only partly true.  Some aspects of putting a plan together are definitely easier, but the process of gauging public sentiment and obtaining public comment remain challenging. Although the Internet and social media have made it possible to obtain input from virtually everyone in the community, summarizing input from hundreds or thousands of residents responding to a project website questionnaire is not an easy task, nor is the process of educating the public about the issues facing the community.  And the scope of a comprehensive plan has expanded over the years to include sustainability, resiliency, active and healthy living, mobility and livability.  Addressing these topics takes time, effort and creativity.

I think back to my earlier days when maybe five people showed up to a public workshop on the comprehensive plan.  Of course we had a slide presentation – the kind with film inserted in plastic or cardboard mountings and placed into a carousel and hopefully none were backwards or upside down or got jammed.  We thought we were pretty high-tech.  We took notes or maybe used a flip chart.  Stream or record?  Unheard of.  All there was to do was summarize comments from a few attendees and make a few minor tweaks to the plan before presenting it for adoption. 

We have yet to embark on the public input phase of the plan update process here in Arapahoe County, but we plan to use the Internet and social media to see what residents and business owners are thinking.  The new ways of seeking input may require more attention, but they result in plans that more accurately reflect the goals and desires of the community.  It’s the way things have evolved in the planning world. 

I do miss using Zipatone to make maps.  It was pretty cool stuff.  According to Wikipedia, it is no longer made, but you can buy sheets via the Internet (through Vintage Possessions, of course) or you can use Photoshop to create the same effect.  There’s even a how-to You-Tube video.  How do I know?  I just did the research.

Alan White, AICP, is the Planning Projects Specialist for Arapahoe County, Colorado.

Published in April 2017 in The Western Planner

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