In his latest writing on the Equipt to Innovate framework, Steven Bosacker takes inspiration from architect Daniel Burnham, plus the work of cities like New Orleans and Louisville, to discuss how urban areas can tackle their biggest issues by making appropriately big plans.

It is time to “make only big plans,” again. The wise and pragmatic way to do so is to renew our focus on the things that we can control – and do it at scale.

Cities can look again for inspiration to Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect and city planner who, in the early 1900s, sparked over a century of urban innovation when he declared, “Make no small plans, they have no power to stir men’s blood; make only big plans.” Burnham’s encouragement helped to produce many great American cities and his admonition to “make only big plans” simply needs dynamic updating to this century’s set of challenges to keep our cities great for the next one hundred years.

Cities are complex and getting more so every day. Heeding Burnham’s admonition, it follows then, that bigger challenges call for bigger plans. America’s largest cities are gaining in population, breaking records in development permitting, and bustling with newfound diversity and the energy it brings. At the same time, these cities are experiencing unprecedented levels of gun violence, struggling with the financial demands of crumbling infrastructure and underfunded pensions, and grappling with increased racial tensions. No small platter of issues — good and bad — for today’s mayors and public managers.

That we fail the Burhham test is seen in the breadth and depth of most cities’ grand plans that aren’t nearly grand enough to meet these challenges head-on, or to capitalize on the exciting opportunities that changing demographics, new technologies and increasingly engaged communities present. It requires strategic planning infused with foresight and inclusive strategies that are big enough, long-term enough, and responsive enough to tackle what the future delivers; or better yet, bold enough to actually shape the future of our cities.

In addition, residents have to expect enough from their local public officials and community leaders if we’re going to get the cities we all deserve. That requires a renewed level of citizenship to hold accountable those brave enough to serve and sort out urban complexity, and vocally supporting those who do it well.

A city that makes only big plans, then, would act differently than most, with:

  • Leaders who collaborate and set their sights on the future and future generations
  • Beefy goals equal to the greatness of the city being built
  • Coordinated plans across disciplines such as transportation, sustainability, resiliency and education, that are widely supported by stakeholders across the city
  • Constant consideration and inclusiveness of resident viewpoints
  • Collective focus with flexibility to seize important opportunities and respond to unexpected crises

These characteristics define what I call Dynamically Planned, one of seven elements in a framework we developed to benchmark and encourage high-performance government called Equipt to Innovate™.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment of disruption and possibility. Others call it a crisis, which we have been reminded by economists and elected officials alike, is a terrible thing to waste. At the core of this high stakes gambit are our big American cities – multi-billion dollar municipal corporations with tens of thousands of employees – and quite often ranking in the top 10 largest employers in a city. Although very few will “go out of business” if their business plans fail due to bad planning or worse, cities with no plan will most certainly be less competitive and less attractive in this highly connected, mobile and demanding century.

Mayors and managers who boldly lead and transparently demonstrate tangible progress to big goals, on the other hand, will not only earn the public trust, but be rewarded by the energy of lifted livelihoods and the magic that capitalizing on complexity can create.

A few cities have set the pace of what big, bold planning looks like. Consider Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his team’s long-term goals in New Orleans to ensure the sustainability of the city; Mayor Greg Fischer and the new Office of Performance Information & Innovation’s work in Louisville that led to being named the world’s most compassionate city; and Minneapolis’s goals and strategic directions that help drive the agenda for their 2040 comprehensive plan in important ways, including ground-breaking work on racial equity. They are three cities that not only conduct inclusive planning that envisions the city they want to build well into the future, but have rigorous mechanisms to understand performance against goals and transparently report out progress fully and honestly.

The old cliché used to be to “plan your work and work your plan.” The thought was that those who plan do tend to get where they planned to go, and those with no plan got nowhere or to a horribly unintended place. So, if plans help us succeed and stretch to the future we want, we should be certain they include our most ambitious, collective goals.

The New York City-based band, American Authors, got it right in their Top 20 hit from last year:

I’m thinking life’s too short / it’s passing by / So if I’m gonna go at all / Go big or go home.

Or, in our case, let’s go big for the sake of the places we call home.


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