LAWRENCE – On a daily basis, local governments across the country make community-changing decisions based on recommendations found in planning staff reports. Research from the University of Kansas shows in the past 40 years, little has been done to make these reports more accessible to decision makers and the public.
The research team studied staff reports from 94 city planning departments across the country, which ranged in size from 2,000 people to more than a million. Regardless of location and size, the researchers found the staff reports were surprisingly similar and largely based on recommendations that came out in 1976.
“We seem to have frozen in time,” said Bonnie Johnson, associate professor of urban planning. “We could be doing more to make these reports more interesting to read, more efficient and useful.”
The research is published in the most recent 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association.
Planning staff reports are written when property owners need to receive a municipal government’s permission to make changes on their land. It can be as minor as building an addition to a home and as significant as allowing a 100-acre gravel pit. Staff reports analyze the effect new development has on traffic, water lines, sewer systems, environmental issues, schools and parks.
Planning commissions and city councils use the information from the reports, along with input from the property owner and the public, to make legally binding decisions.
“If the reports are not easy to read and understand, then there is less chance that local decisions on land use, roads and taxes will be informed and in the public’s best interest,” said Ward Lyles, assistant professor of urban planning. “Clear communication and transparent analysis are essential for participatory democracy.”
To help planners craft better staff reports, researchers envisioned what a 21st century report would look like:
• Staff reports should tell a story. The researchers found the reports that had a narrative were the most compelling to read. The narratives covered what was at issue, how the planner came to the recommendation and why that recommendation was important.
• Use the report to encourage decision makers to think about long-range planning and changing any current regulations. Sometimes local officials are obligated to approve a project they don’t support because the development meets existing regulations and codes.
“If they don’t want to say yes to those kinds of developments in the future, the staff report should note how they could change regulations or redo plans,” Johnson said. “It’s not only a check on the application, but a check on how we as a community are doing and if this kind of development is what we want.”
• Planners should be encouraged to experiment with different ways to share the information. Among the sample staff reports, researchers found just one in four reports included summary techniques such as bullet points or cover sheets. For busy decision makers, finding a way to concisely summarize a report and its recommendation is essential, Johnson said.
• Reports should take advantage of technology. Forty years ago, including maps and photographs in reports was expensive and only done on rare occasions. Today, those features are far easier to add, but the researchers found that only 5 percent of the reports had photographs and just 9 percent included a map of where the land was located within the city.
• Use the report to promote the importance of planning. Staff reports are the main way for city planners to communicate with decision makers about the value of their work.
“By making staff reports basic, no-frills, dense documents, it is no wonder that people don’t understand what we do as planners,” Johnson said.