We have all likely come across master plans, the “placemaker’s” new tool of choice. They mostly take the form of differently colored polygons within a site outline to delineate what uses will be allowed where and how an area of new development (or regeneration scheme) might take shape.

But until recently, master plans have been quite unfashionable. In an age of speculative anything-goes urbanism, development has resisted attempts to grow itself along a “trellis” drawn up by the planners.

It becomes obvious from the quality of some of the “placeless” and incoherent neighborhoods we are creating, that this has led to a crisis of “placemaking,” and has provoked calls for a new era of the “master planner.” Here we look at what master planning means as a process and what challenges it faces for the future.

Master planning as process

At its most basic, a master plan is an instruction manual for how a site, city or even region should be developed in future. While most of us only get to see the final document, the hard work of master planning begins much earlier. This is the stage where the team might be faced with an empty piece of land, or a fragmented neighborhood in need of regeneration. It is at this stage that the quality of output has to be locked in.

Master planning is a fundamentally collaborative approach of creative thinking that calls on a wide range of disciplines — from architects, urban designers, ecologists, engineers, and economists, to name a few. CABE, the U.K.’s former Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, set out the stages for a successful master plan as follows:

Prepare: setting out clear aims and objectives for a place, expressed through a vision, which usually involves resolving conflicts between differing aspirations.

Define: defining requirements in a clear, succinct brief, based on a careful understanding of the place and how it came to be the way it is.

Design: developing the plan through analysis, consultation, testing and refinement.

Implement: phasing the delivery and ensuring quality is safeguarded throughout, as envisioned in the early stages.

Getting the vision right

The vision is the foundation of the master planning process. This is where the “narrative” of a place is teased out and reimagined. Get this right, and you are on the right track. But the question remains of whose vision is to be recreated?

Historically, setting this vision was overwhelmingly a top-down process. One famous example was the plan that created Washington, D.C.’s famous arterial boulevards in 1791 by French engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, now ubiquitously known as the "L’Enfant Plan."

Today, you would struggle to find architects or urban designers naming their plans after themselves. In today’s more humble age, consultation is the name of the game, with the aim of taking on as broad a range of views as possible and creating a vision that meets as many of their aspirations as feasible. If this is left, as it too often is, to a superficial opportunity to scrutinize the finished product, planner should prepare for a pretty unreceptive audience.

Delivering a master plan

While the vision is important, it must also be realistic. The frustration of many a master planner is that too many plans sit as little more than inert colored blocks on the desk of a city planner without ever becoming bricks and mortar or are simply watered down beyond recognition.

The key to avoiding this also lies in getting the very earliest stages right, long before pen is put to paper (or a mouse starts to click on Adobe suite). The delivery partners should be on board as early as possible.

Master planning through the climate crisis

One of the biggest challenges facing master planners in the 21st century is how the practice can respond to the demands of the climate crisis. In the past, the starting point for a master plan might have been the roads, leaving gaps for buildings, with leftover space to be filled in (usually with parking lots). If you were lucky, the components might be interspersed with trees. Today the objectives of such plans are being called into question.

Many now call for landscape-led master plans which looks at “landscape” not as the view from your window, but as the fundamentals of the place and how people live in it. In some ways this has turned the whole master planning process on its head — everything follows from landscape. This is giving landscape architects a seat at the table along with the architects and engineers, and means much greater attention to green infrastructure, and how we better balance the requirements of residents and users and the pressures on the environment. This move could slowly bring a whole new agenda to master planning.

Master planning a ‘natural town’

More far-reaching critiques of ‘business as usual’ master planning have come from those who argue that master planning practices are actually failing to create cities that match up to the performance of some informal cities that grow organically, without outside expert help.

In the new book "Climax City," two urban designers from the U.K. and India argue that urban designers have been trying too hard with their plans, and not leaving enough space for the city to grow on its own, more organic terms as we might see in structurally complex informal settlements globally.

This critique starts from the assumption that the perfect city cannot be “willed into existence” by a utopian architect, and questions the very role of the master planner, certainly as it has been conceived of in the past. It suggests that today’s master plans have to be drawn up with less hubris, striking a more healthy balance between rigidity and flexibility, so that they are able to fix only the absolute essentials of the relationships between buildings and open spaces, without starving new neighborhoods of the room to grow on their own, often unexpected trajectories.

What next?

Master planning is fundamentally a social endeavor, not a technical one. This is why we have to be vigilant against cut-and-paste master plans, that simply apply rules systematically. A good master planner delves into the rich context of the site or city, shaping the “narrative” of the place before even giving a thought to the buildings that might occupy it.

It also means constantly recalibrating objectives to deal with new challenges — the climate crisis foremost among them. Master planning is back, but not as we once knew it.