LAWRENCE — Is there a document more taken for granted than a planning and zoning staff report? Obviously, they're important as local government planners, elected officials and citizens daily rely on them to make decisions about the future of their communities.
Conservatively, planning staff members across the country produce an estimated 36,000 of these reports per year as local government bodies seek to handle development and other changes, said Bonnie Johnson, University of Kansas associate professor of urban planning.
However, these documents that are intricate to the process have become so insulated over time that their formats have barely changed over 40 years, Johnson and Ward Lyles, KU assistant professor of urban planning, found in a study published last year in the Journal of the American Planning Association.
"These reports are difficult to write because you have these multiple audiences that can be anywhere from someone who knows a lot about planning to a citizen off the street who knows nothing to a planning commission who knows a little bit," said Johnson, who has worked as a planning staff member and served as a planning commissioner as well.
Now Johnson, with the help of KU's alumni in the planning field and the KU Writing Center, has identified five strategies that could help planning staff members create more well-balanced, understandable and empowering staff reports.
Planning magazine, which is published by the American Planning Association, included Johnson's article with the tips in its March issue as part of a series on the essential tools of the trade:
1. Make the cover page count.
"Let's be honest, it may be all some commissioners have time to read," Johnson said.
She advocates for a cover page that includes a quick overview of the case, the most essential information and what would give the audience what they would need to make an informed decision, such as an executive summary, a small map, quick evaluations using standard criteria, the reason for the request and a staff recommendation.
2. Strategically use visuals and design.
"Planners get into the mode of doing staff reports the way they've always done them, and much of the format dates back to before word processing and inserting photos was impossible or expensive," Johnson said.
In her study, only 5 percent of the reports used photographs, and less than half included a site map. Some planners, like Marie Darling, a senior planner in Plymouth, Minnesota, and KU urban planning alumna, use graphics because she discovered a picture can save a lot of words. Boxes with bullet points and breakout information can also help people find key information quickly, Johnson said.
3. Know your audience.
"It is best to realize someone isn't reading it from the beginning to the end," Johnson said.
Brian Pedrotti, a KU alumnus and senior planner for San Luis Obispo County, told Johnson he thinks about writing for his best friend. He also thinks people use the reports like they would a website where they “click around” looking for something specific. Johnson said the structure of the document can include that cover page with the highlights, a table of contents, then more detailed background information further into the report.
Terese Thonus, director of the KU Writing Center and associate professor of English by courtesy, recommends writing the report in different layers with those various audiences in mind who all might have different levels of interest.
"Planning documents are not just for a couple of people," Thonus said. "Members of the public, planners and even lawyers and judges might end up reading them at various stages."
4. Have someone else read it before distributing.
"It's best to do some usability testing," Johnson said.
Thonus said having an outside person provide feedback on writing is similar to how staff members at the writing center advise undergraduates and graduate students with their papers and projects.
"You want to make sure it's going to work for someone who is not a specialist in this area," she said. "That's an essential practice for a communicator at any level."
Johnson said it can be difficult given time constraints but that this practice will likely help in the long run once the report begins to catch the public eye.
5. Educate instead of just stating the facts.
"It's the idea of empowering people with a bit of information they can use over and over again into the future," Johnson said.
Some planners might feel uneasy about this one because they see their job as providing information while appointed or elected officials make policy decisions. However, she said it's important to remember that with these reports they are in fact creating a historical record, so it can be valuable to make sure their audience is aware of the larger context. This can be anything from explaining how the staff came to its recommendation to providing explanations of what happens if something is approved and what happens if it is not.
Johnson and Brian Ohm, professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are scheduled to make a presentation on "Leading with Staff Reports" on May 8 in New York as part of the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference.
Photo: A walkway in New York with some construction work on the skyline in the background. Image via WikiCommons.