skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Poll shows that Americans like planning, after all. But the details are messy.

Kaid Benfield

Posted June 18, 2012

, ,
Share | | |

  poll results (graphic by Stephen Ravenscraft, courtesy of American Planning Association)

If you’re reading this blog, you may know that the American Planning Association last week released the findings of a major public opinion poll showing that “two-thirds of Americans believe their community needs more planning to promote economic recovery,” to lift a phrase from APA’s press release.  That’s good news for those of us who believe a more thoughtful and forward-looking approach is needed to guide issues such as land use, education and economic development to secure a more sustainable future for our cities and towns.

But, in a world where almost two-thirds of Republicans and two-fifths of all voters told pollsters “the government should stay out of Medicare,” what do survey results mean, exactly?  In a poll where community planning was defined as "a process that seeks to engage all members of a community to create more prosperous, convenient, equitable, healthy and attractive places for present and future generations," it is almost inconceivable that anyone would be opposed.  So, is two-thirds a strong number or a weak one?  What if planning had been defined more neutrally as “a process where local government works with citizens to chart future directions for the community’s land use, economic development, and services”?

I like to think that planning still would have claimed a majority of those who expressed an opinion.  In the actual poll, 66 percent said that their communities need planning as defined above; 17 percent said they didn’t know; and only 17 percent actually opposed engaging citizens in the process of creating more prosperous, convenient, equitable, healthy and attractive places.  Discounting the “I don’t know” respondents, city of Troy MI master plan cover (by: Wayne Senville, Planning Commissioners Journal,, creative commons)four-fifths of those who expressed an opinion came out in favor of community process for a better future.  I suspect that, with the adjectives removed from the definition, the portion of “don’t know” respondents would go up, as might the “process is not needed” group.  But I still think most Americans really do believe in community planning and probably wish their community had benefited from more of it in recent decades.

In fact, in another part of the poll, 72 percent of respondents said that the word “planning” has a “very” or “mostly” positive meaning.  Half the respondents indicated that they would like to be involved in community planning, “including majorities of nearly all of the demographic sub-segments.”

A tougher question, perhaps, is whether the poll findings indicate or suggest support for land use measures to reduce environmental harm, protect forests and farmland, make neighborhoods more walkable with shops and services closer to homes, or provide more alternatives to driving – the bundle of measures we generally associate with smart growth and environmental sustainability.  The poll was designed to reveal opinion about planning more as it relates to the economy than as it relates to the environment.  And APA got the results it was hoping for on that issue:  75 percent of respondents agreed that "engaging citizens through local planning is essential to rebuilding local economies, creating jobs and improving people's lives"; job creation was ranked as the highest priority for planners to work on.  The headline for APA’s press release was “Community Planners Essential to Putting America on Road to Economic Recovery.”

That said, the survey did test some attitudes and perceptions more overtly connected with sustainability.  Three-fifths of the respondents want planners to work on clean water, for example.  Intriguingly, more than three-fifths want planners also to work on “neighborhood protection,” but that’s an ambiguous phrase that could suggest resistance to neighborhood change as much as anything else.  I’m not sure that’s a good finding for those of us who believe that change is necessary in many places to secure a healthy future.  My guess, and this is not based on research, is that a majority of people outside of those living in distressed neighborhoods would prefer that change occur somewhere other than close to their homes.  Those residing in troubled places are more open to change, but many of them, too, fear the kinds of change that could disadvantage them.

planning meeting, Carthage, NC (by: NCDOT, creative commons)There are definitely some sobering results for the environmental community.  Given a list of eight “types of leaders to understand and implement change,” environmentalists were ranked seventh, ahead of only “academic experts,” unless you want to include “other” and “none” in your calculus.  (Having spent over three decades working for an environmental organization, and having just joined a university faculty part-time, these findings give me pause.)  Business leaders were tied with neighborhood representatives for first place, earning the confidence of 43 percent of respondents as opposed to 24 percent for environmentalists. 

Much more encouraging were the results with regard to the characteristics of an “ideal community.”  According to the report, six features emerged as high priority, all consistent with a sustainable communities agenda:

  • Locally owned businesses nearby (mentioned by 55 percent)
  • Being able to stay in the same neighborhood while aging (54 percent)
  • Availability of sidewalks (53 percent)
  • Energy-efficient homes (52 percent)
  • Availability of transit (50 percent)
  • Neighborhood parks (49 percent)

I’m especially glad to see transit and aging in place on that list.  And best of all is that only six percent favored a community with “houses being generally the same size,” which pretty much describes every suburban subdivision built in the last 50 years.

  town square plan, Burtonsville, MD (by: Dan Reed, creative commons)

Even with this part of the poll, though, the news is not all good or even all consistent.  Only about a third would give priority to schools, jobs, or restaurants within walking distance, suggesting that a significant portion of respondents who would like sidewalks may not want to use them to go anywhere in particular.  Indeed, the significant portion of respondents who apparently want businesses “nearby” but not particularly within walking range suggests that many Americans are so comfortable with automobile-oriented lives that purposeful walking simply isn’t seen as realistic or attractive.  It is also somewhat inconsistent that, despite the high rank given to aging in place, only 41 percent would give priority to a “mix of housing choices,” which would enable just that.  Most people simply don’t make the connection.

When it comes to priorities for local planning efforts, job creation ranks first (mentioned by 70 percent), as noted.  Safety (69 percent) and schools (67 percent) were numbers two and three, close behind. Water quality and protecting neighborhoods came in at 62 and 64 percent, respectively.  Roads also ranked high, coming in sixth at 58 percent.

Ranked low on the list of planning priorities were some of the very same things that were ranked high on the “ideal community” list described above.  Bus service, for example, rated only 36 percent, way behind roads; sidewalks fared even worse, at 31 percent; parks were selected as a priority by only 28 percent of those polled. 

  poll results (graphic by Stephen Ravenscraft, courtesy of American Planning Association)

To attempt to reconcile the contradictory findings, I suppose we might conclude that people like the things they listed as part of an ideal community, but don’t especially want planners to spend much time on them, compared to other things.  Respondents definitely didn't view global warming as an issue relevant to community planning: “climate change” was considered a priority by only 20 percent of respondents.

It’s interesting that, in a number of parts of the poll, clean water ranked as a significantly greater concern than clean air.  Among “priorities for local funding,” for example, clean water was selected by 68 percent of respondents, while clean air lagged 19 percentage points behind. 

Although the details are somewhat confounding, I do think that APA – and really, all of us concerned with communities – can be heartened by the findings with regard to planning per se.  Americans like the idea of planning, even if they are far from clear about the goals that planning should serve.  It’s hard to know what to make of the rest, other than that people are very troubled by the condition of the economy, including in their own communities, and that they care a lot about safety and education.  Whether the sustainability agenda can hold on to public support may depend on how well it is aligned – in reality as well as in rhetoric – with those concerns.

Related posts:

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channel.

Share | | |


Lee E.Jun 18 2012 01:12 PM

As you know, I love planners (I am one), and think urban planning is a crucial public function. But this poll, in my view, was unfortunately not worth much. Many of the questions posed were too broad (essentially, ‘do you like apple pie?’); there was little education along the way (so that respondents might understand a bit more about how planning and environmental issues like climate change are related and, by the end of the poll, might even have changed their opinions); and there was no testing of some of the hard public/private trade-offs involved in planning (e.g. conserving working lands vs. maximizing their use for development, or upgrading and densifying urban and suburban neighborhoods vs. preserving them just as they are). (Interesting that you used a “town center” image from a village in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, which is illustrative of how not to design a town center– though the poll results might just as likely support it, as not.)
I wish this poll were informative, but I fear it doesn’t tell us much.

Matt LubicJun 18 2012 07:20 PM

Oh goody! Another poll showing the level of interest in sustainable communities. More talk and more resources, time and money invested in more talk. Has it ever occurred to anyone (including you Mr. Benfield and all you good people reading this blog) that if only 2% of all the funds expended world-wide on endless talk about "Sustainable Communities" were instead used to FINANCE sustainable communities, we'd actually see some of them get built.

But no, the goal seems more to keep the conversation flowing (and the salaries coming to the conversationalists, the bloggers, the writers, the speakers, the planners, etc. etc. etc. and, yes, guys like you Mr. Benfield) than to actually funding sustainability projects of any and all kinds.

I know of a wonderful project that met every single goal that's ever been mentioned in any conversation anyone's ever had and was ready to go five years ago but is still sitting there sterile for lack of financing; it's called Verde Village and it's in Ashland, Oregon. Go Google it if you're really interested.

So... I'm not going to add anything more to all this blather. I've heard enough. I'm going to go rob a bank or sue somebody and see if there isn't some way to get this project off the drawing board.

If I've said anything here anyone finds insulting, well, I'm sorry. But I'm even more sorry to see that the on-going interest is in talking about the walking. After all, it is more comfortable on the couch than on on your feet.

Jim NoonanJun 18 2012 08:53 PM

I understand your concerns (and Lee's) with the results of this survey and the lack of depth in the questions. I look with some bemusement at the desire of everyone in public life and academia to focus on opinion polls, etc. What does the 'will of the people'mean'? We have an administration that with some justification touts its support for the Arab Spring, the latest manifestation of which is the election of a government in Egypt that wants to roll back any rights for women. But whatever...

On a more constructive note, there are positive aspects of this poll. One is the support for local level planning regardless of political affiliation. I think most local government officials want to do what is right for their communities. Ideologies only take effect as these same officials 'graduate' to statewide or national office, at which time they simultaneously (and I refer to both parties) seem to leave common sense behind. Yet another reason that I believe that planning should best be left to local level (not state or regional) governments.

One more thing regarding sustainability. The tea party folks have left any sense of reality behind. On the other hand, the sustainability folks treat every public decision as though a 'wrong' decision will bring the apocolypse. Reality as always is somewhere (there is a wide range here) in between.

I have my own (possibly warped) view of these things. I think that, over time, the marketplace is tending towards what we call sustainable communities. If we can save professional planners from themselves, and de-politicize, the process by focusing on local issues (walkability, good design) I think we will, over time, move in the right direction. I think sustainability (and community conservation) is a conservative philosophy (I told you it was a potentially warped view). So take heart. Maybe everyone is talking about the same things, ultimately, and we are just being rediverted by arguements over other (less relevant) issues!

Kaid @ NRDCJun 19 2012 12:08 PM

Lee and Jim: Very good points by both of you, one cautious and one more optimistic, perhaps, but both well taken.

Matt: I'm not sure about your angry tone, but I couldn't agree more that we need much more funding for sustainable communities work. I am involved right now in two on-the-ground projects in Boston and Los Angeles, both of which desperately need financial support and investment to succeed. My colleagues and I are working as hard as we can to find the dollars for these and similar projects - and, as you allude, it isn't easy.

There are projects all over the country that need more money. That's one reason I was so happy to report the success of the ArtPlace program, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and a number of private sources. The amazing sustainability work being done in Denver's South Lincoln neighborhood has also been very well supported with funding, as have most of the examples I write about. One reason I want to give them favorable publicity is to attract more resources to the cause.

The good news is that there has never been as much good work done for sustainable communities and development. The bad news is that so much more is needed, and there isn't enough money to go around. To blame those of us who are working to increase the funding support you correctly point out is needed is seriously counterproductive to your goals..

LHJun 19 2012 12:56 PM

Just to add to what Kaid says above...

While some things require big money, many more of them are about using existing funds in a better way. All municipalities have open meetings of councils, trustees, zoning commissioners, etc. Use this process to steer development in a desirable way.

Relying on other people to give you money probably isn't a winning strategy.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In