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.