Process, Data, Maps - The 3 Things that connect Urban Planning and Strategic Planning

Insights from my first three months in Strategic Planning

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Three months ago I joined The Spark Mill team. I remember being nervous on my first day, unsure of what it would be like to be back in consulting but eager to start making connections between my urban planning work and the strategy consulting we do at The Spark Mill. As a graduate student, my last two years have been spent immersing myself in planning theory, learning about urban planning methodologies, and pushing for the experiences of black women in urban environments to ensure they are more visual in the planning profession.  Considering my background in planning, it has been the lens through which I view our work, and I have been able to make a number of connections between the strategy work planners do on daily basis and our work at The Spark Mill.   

1.     THE PROCESS

Whether you are working with a group of residents to design a park, or working with an organization to understand their long-term goals, you can expect the process to be messy. Like urban planning, while certain models can be applied to make the process easier, there is no “one size fits all” approach here at The Spark Mill. Especially when working on plans that will ultimately shape the lives of people.  There are visioning sessions, multiple iterations of a deliverable, and countless opportunities to engage with key stakeholders; much like a comprehensive planning process. While these processes may make stakeholders feel uncomfortable and deal with undesired ambiguity, the process can result in a strategic plan that drives meaningful change within an organization, or in the case of urban planning, become a blueprint for a city that is vibrant and inclusive and meets the needs of all of its residents, especially those that have been marginalized.   

2.     DIGGING INTO THE DATA

Data, both quantitative and qualitative, are important in any strategic process. At The Spark Mill, I have been able to witness how our survey data, interviews from stakeholders, and other client materials allow us to get a holistic sense of an organization. As urban planners, we are constantly encouraged to collect data from various sources, being sure not to over rely on quantitative data in our work, as this can limit the less formal and less technical understanding of how people exist in cities. Strategic consulting is the same – it is important for us to collect information from key client documents as well as to be on the ground engaging with an organization’s stakeholders.

3.     MAPS, MAPS, AND ROAD MAPS (not in GIS) 

Maps provide a depiction of relationships between various elements and can be used to capture themes and create a vision for the future. Geographic Information System, or GIS, is urban planning’s bread and butter and allows us to analyze and show spatial relationships using local and regional data.  At the end of a planning process, GIS can be an effective way to help community members understand the impact of a process spatially in both the present and overtime, much like a strategic planning roadmap which guides an organization’s work into the future. 

While all urban planning requires strategy, it is important for planners to also be aware of the informal processes that residents lead in their communities, processes that may not be driven by formal data and community meetings but are equally important to a community’s fabric. It is also important for consultants to read in between the lines and make connections between the practices we observe from our clients and the information we gather.

I look forward to continuing to use my planning lens in our work at The Spark Mill, especially as we expand deeper into community engagement which requires us to be creative, nuanced, and open to gaining a true and meaningful understanding of real community engagement in order to better help our clients.