There has been a bit of an argument in my office regarding ‘master plans’ and ‘master planning.’ Are they the same? Is it one word or two? How do we bring about world peace with a master plan?

Well, in my job, I do a lot of master plans. After all, I work for a city council, so it’s almost expected we do a lot of them for many, many things. Master plans can be useful things, but they need a dose of pragmatism, a sprinkle of vision, wads of engagement and a prescription for reality.

Firstly though, the word ‘master plan’? Is it one word or two (i.e. ‘masterplan’ or ‘master plan’)?

Secondly is it a verb, noun or an adjective (an action, thing or describing word)?

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, and fortunately for me, it is two words, and it is a noun, so no argument there. The process of creating a master plan (not masterplanning, it doesn’t have an entry in the dictionary) has in effect, the same outcome – to create ‘a comprehensive plan, often lacking details on individual items, but providing an overall picture.’

Look up ‘plan’ and the description includes all the words you might hear in this space.

So why are master plans created?

Master plans are as much about a process of sorting stuff out in a spatial or process sense, as planning a product. They reflect a point in time and usually broad aspirations as much as guiding outcomes and things we can deliver. Many argue they are good for delivery, and indeed this can be a feature of a good master plan. We can also use the process to plan a process for anything: a wedding, a city, winning a tender, planning a space, buying something, and countless other examples.

In the public sector, they are arguably political and democratic documents, reflective of a need for broader planning and strategy of a place, reflecting policies of one or all tiers of government. Elected officials require master plans to shape policy and strategy, engage voters, change minds, create investment, and deal with land in government ownership. Essentially, they are about generating a better city/suburb/town/place based on opportunity.

In the private sector, they facilitate expenditure efficiently, guide shareholders and stakeholders, stage investment, and create certainty of outcomes.

In the hands of people who can guide and develop the process, they are very useful and effective documents. They provide the basis of talking to people, sounding out ideas, capturing comments and opinions, and providing aspirations. Good master plans are easy to read, largely graphic based, provide information and reflect the aspirations of an area.

For example, a master plan for a major precinct in any of our cities explores the possibilities for a site and posits a future and outcomes. One of the most critical elements of a master plan is the understanding of the site.

A good master plan analyses the site best and worst properties and usually landscape architects are the most skilled in doing this essential task. A site’s aspect, views, lay of the land, existing features, built form, vistas, materials, uses and so on are all mapped and explained as the starting point for guiding the development of the site.

Scenarios are the key to a good master plan. A transparent yet design-led master plan, with good data, evidence, analysis and discussion can yield relatively good results and better outcomes. Understanding the voluminous needs of those affected by a master plan is critical, as are the outcomes of the authors. These need to be clear, understood, valued, agreed and delivered upon. How will a street look? What is the impact on me? Will I benefit or lose out? Can I still use something? Is there opportunity to listen to my needs?

A bad or poorly conceived master plan however, in the hands of those less experienced, ill-prepared, defiant, obstinate or incompetent can be disastrous. They can be replaced quickly, criticized, dumped, lead to major controversy, lose value or become toxic politically.

To a ratepayer, taxpayer, resident, visitor, layperson, someone who doesn’t come across master plans or just plain cynic, I plead: these are the pages of a democratic, elected society.If used properly, they can provide the things we respectfully desire.

These are the tools of the elected, a method of engaging the masses, a way of evolving our society. They are not perfect, and whilst most of them manage to somewhat plead achievement of perfection, they are a way of allowing ‘orderly’ development.

As with all ideas and expression, take it all very lightly and ask what you can do for your local master plan and what it can do for you. Here’s a little secret – the power of the written word, in an A4 format, with a respectful font (Arial works best), return address and hand signed signature, with a reasoned argument, always elicits a response from elected people. It is known fact. This (relatively) primitive exercise still requires a response.

I believe the process of listening, responding, developing ideas, asking for advice, and developing something concrete is a sound and valuable process for expending public or private funds.

So get active, respond, attend workshops, vocalise your views and shape your local master plans.

They are not always a demonstration of a fait acompli.

However, as so beautifully espoused in the landmark ABCTV series 'Utopia’, all you need for a master plan is a (very) loose idea, a logo, and a website.

  • A good article Daniel. As a Planner whose past career has involved both local government planning and private sector development planning for generally larger scale communities, I have usually applied the term 'master plan' and 'master planning' to, mostly larger and multi-use, projects under the control of private or public sector entities who have control of, or authority for, the ultimate development of the total area of the land being 'master planned', with the primary intent of the physical implementation of such 'master planned' projects in a programmed and coordinated manner. This differs from the nature of a planning scheme that, while outlining desired broad land use purposes for the Planning Scheme area, and related control and constraint provisions, covers a wide range of properties under a multitude of ownerships and interests as to what such parties may wish to do with any particular land within the Planning Scheme area- if anything at all. What such multiple parties are ultimately able do with any such land is of course subject to the provisions of the Planning Scheme but there is no widespread unified intention to necessarily implement a 'master plan'.

    • Thanks Roy – I tend to agree, as a Landscape Architect in this space for over 15 years, and often as the lead master planning consultant, the client and consultant often have competing yet equal agendas. What a balance eh? Add 2-3 levels of government and they are quote often contested ground pitted against development plans and other 'master plans'.

      As long as it does something…the master plan can be useful. It is groan-worthy quite often when they are sold as the panacea for all things solvable – and are used in that way.

Bizprac (expire May 30 2018)