Master Planning: The Never Ending Story

Waiting five or 10 years to update the campus master plan makes little sense in a technological age. Critical information is being generated continually, and feedback has never been easier to obtain. Yet it is essential for an institution to maintain the long-term vision clearly in focus, even through changing times and conditions. “If you keep the process open, you can make small adjustments along the way as you need them to stay current,” says Dr. Clifford Brock, president of Georgia’s Bainbridge College. “Keep the process organic and evolutionary rather than wait for the five-year updates and the major changes they may bring.”

Rather than focus on a traditional physical master plan, prepared in the traditional manner and updated once or twice a decade, today’s institutions of higher learning are planning in a different way. They see the possibilities of operating campus master planning as an open and continuing process, using the instant communications now available in order to seek participation from all stakeholders.

Continuous Planning: Why and How

Like many large institutions, the University of Alabama (UAB) at Birmingham cannot wait for a five-year, major capital plan update before tackling issues large or small. Instead, their planning process allows for simultaneous revisions at various levels of detail at any time. “We prepare program plans for various sections of the campus as the need arises,” says James A. Garland, associate vice president for Financial Affairs and Administration at UAB. “So the master plan is continually being updated.”

The planning process is an opportunity to test ideas, some immediately, some later. An example is the plan to close one of UAB’s central streets to develop a true academic core for the campus. “The concept had been brought up near the end of our last major update in 1995,” notes UAB planner Jim James. “But the time was not right to deal with it in detail.” Two years later, before they proceeded with plans for major buildings to be located in the area, they brought that idea back to the table as a program plan, three years before the next master plan update was due. Willingness to undertake revisions as needed kept their master plan current to guide critical new investments.

Campus planning is notorious for the numbers of people who want to be involved. “I’ve never seen so much active, positive interest in the campus planning process as we’ve had here in just the past few years,” says Tom Tillman, university planner at Auburn University. “People have come to understand they have to prioritize and invest wisely.” Some institutions are opening up their planning processes, both on and around campus. “The planning process is a wonderful way for the participants to learn about -- and to create -- opportunities for our college and the community,” Brock explains. “You should learn all through the process, not just at the end -- learn, adjust, then move forward a wiser institution. True dialogue is what we’re after as we plan.”

To assure the master plan will be taken seriously, involve the people who will make the implementation decisions from the start, so they can be part of the process of interpreting, sharing and evaluating plans and ideas as well as information. “Continuing, two-way communication is essential to our planning process,” says UAB’s Garland. This includes people from the surrounding neighborhoods: “Online information that could be accessed by the public would be a useful tool in our relations with the community.”

Making It Work

Timing is another critical aspect of planning continuously. “Some parts of our planning process must move very quickly to keep projects on track,” James says of project planning and design at UAB. “It is difficult to schedule a large block of time without resorting to long lead times. Often, some people may have to send representatives.” In such cases, both input and feedback may be incomplete. Online posting of all information critical to the meeting subject -- much more detail than could be included in a typical briefing paper -- allows participants flexibility in reviewing it.

The point is not to get a range of information, but to get important information that might be overlooked, to the detriment of the plan. Asking a broad constituency to share their knowledge and experience can bring ideas about everything from image to wayfinding to landscaping to crosswalk locations. A recent article, “The Custodian: Your New Building Design Consultant” (CP&M, 1/00) drove home the point that valid contributions to planning and design of campus facilities may come from many informed sources.

Brock believes there are benefits to engaging all staff directly rather than having staff representation on the planning committees. “The closer you get to the source, the better will be your information,” he notes. “Just as the more pixels in a screen, the sharper the image. Our students, alumni and neighbors in the community also have an enormous commitment to Bainbridge College, and they have insights you cannot imagine if you don’t ask.” There is one caution that goes along with asking for a wide range of constituent comments: Have a clear idea how to manage and respond to them before you start. Going online to ask for opinions and responses implies to many people that you will respond to them. That can take time, which may be available in a major plan update, but could be in rather short supply when it comes to project planning and design.

Keeping plans open as well as current requires comfort with constituent participation. It also requires open, transparent planning and design processes. To take advantage of technology, today’s institutions of higher learning should know about things such as Web-based extranet systems that can let you take advantage of your own Website for creative, two-way communication useful to the planning process.

“Putting physical plans online is a boon for planning. It provides a way to get information to people who need it as a part of the process,” Brock says. “SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) is pressuring all of us to tie our budgets, facilities planning and services together into an integrated system. Linking it together in this way will provide a big piece of bringing the physical aspects forward in the process.”

Gaining the On-line Edge

Traditional, print-based planning simply does not translate directly to the Internet. Web-based planning and design management requires a fundamentally different approach. It is simply wishful thinking to post planning policies and diagrams -- even the campus plan maps -- on the campus Website and hope for meaningful participation. Decide instead who may have access to what information, when it should be made available, and what kinds of interaction you desire, to get the benefits of the continuous feedback, interaction and opportunities available with a truly open process.

Collaboration via the Internet allows the most recent ideas, plans and program documents to be posted on the Website, with instant e-mail notification to all participants. Those who need to respond quickly have the opportunity to do so, whether onsite, in the office or out of town. In the same way, meetings can be scheduled, meeting minutes and project management changes posted and participants notified.

Using the Internet as a communications medium, systems like ProjectNet, operated by Cephren, Inc., provide instant, on-demand, secure online communication for all team members, using a standard Web browser. It gives everyone access to current information -- everyone is working from the same page, anytime, anywhere. Centralized project communication is the essence of these systems, as it is with other such Internet-based support services, such as Bidcom, and Cubus. Though they are designed for use with major architecture, engineering and construction projects, they can also be used to tame and streamline complex planning processes.

One advantage to online posting of campus planning information is that all responses are channeled directly to a single reception point, rather than being collected by an intermediary, and perhaps filtered before they are passed along. Another advantage is that you know the e-mail address of the sender, enabling you to request clarification. Participants have the ability not only to comment in writing, but also to redline proposed plans from their own point of view.

Getting broad -- and focused -- technical and user response is essential, and online systems enable people to participate at whatever level is appropriate to their needs. Regarding online redlining of plans, UAB’s James notes, “This could help bring to light issues not otherwise apparent, even to seemingly knowledgeable people. An example is the old storm sewer we discovered later in the process than we would have liked. It might have been avoided had we posted the project online and asked everyone to review it for potential conflicts.”

With these online project management systems, the university or its prime consultant pays a startup fee and a monthly fee to connect the entire planning team. Each member receives a password to gain access to the Website devoted to the project. Cephren, for example, provides support during the project, but the management team itself is responsible for site content and operations. The project administrator can determine how much of the site any user can access -- all the way from those who may author project documents, to those who simply may have access to a public general information site.

Graphic illustrations are invaluable when communicating complex ideas that are outside another person’s area of expertise. For colleges and universities, user input is critical. However, few of these people are used to dealing with the planning and design of the physical space essential to their jobs. As a result, words and numbers alone simply do not convey spatial concepts and solutions adequately. It requires actual spatial information -- pictures, sketches, models -- all of which may be displayed, interactively, online.

“You cannot assure that what you put online -- plans, policies, visions -- will be fully and completely understood by everyone,” explains Auburn University planner Laura McDonald. “You still need group feedback from traditional meetings, focus groups, presentations and question and answer sessions.” That requires time for reflective thought before responding. “The more rapid the feedback the better the process,” Brock advises. “Posting information like this on our Website will give back the time that would have been taken up by printing, binding and mailing.”

Bainbridge College wants to hear from their alumni directly rather than just have representatives involved in the planning process. “Our alumni are excited about getting a current, continuing facilities vision for our campus,” Brock says. “It’s helping us keep them part of our college family. Posting our plans and key supporting information on our Website is just one more aspect of keeping people informed and actively involved.”

Brock notes that the traditional physical master planning process -- just like any other complex process -- has been too paper-bound: “Today, whether it’s planning, budgeting or programming, we all expect immediacy, and we cannot wait for 200-page reports to be printed, bound and mailed,” he points out. “We e-mailed our SACS accreditation self-study and then posted it on our Website. We want and expect response. That’s how we’re going to learn from the process.”

In sum: The truly useful campus plan is one that is up to date and helps lead the way into the future. The way to assure that is to plan continuously and interactively. The campus master plan can then serve as a whole and accurate tool for decision making, as well as a means to build and maintain continual support of the university’s vision.

Darrell Meyer, FAICP, is professor and Chair Emeritus of the Graduate Program in Planning at Auburn University’s College of Architecture. He also serves as director of Planning Services at KPS Group, Inc., in Birmingham, Ala. He may be reached at [email protected]