Tales from a Texas Planning Legend: Planning Improv


One of the stories of the 2019 APA Texas conference in Waco is a tale of two receptions.  It illustrates something I’ve thought for quite a while – that good planners have a lot of the same talents as jazz musicians.

A Night on the Brazos River.  This reception on the banks of the Brazos displayed a lot of the skills we expect from planners.  The site was a great choice given the event’s purpose: give people a chance to socialize and network in a place that is memorable and showcases unique local character. The event was well-organized in terms of logistics, crowd flow and amount of food and drink. The music was by Anthony Garcia of Austin, arranged because of a past personal contact by Mike and Claudia McAnelly.

With those elements in place, the reception also benefitted from good luck! It was a perfect fall Texas evening, with nice warm weather.  I think everyone enjoyed the results.

Creative Waco Cultural District.  This reception was a different side of the story, though not because of a different beginning.  It was equally well-planned in another area showcasing Waco.  An outdoor party on the central block of Austin Avenue, with shops to visit in between eating, drinking and dancing in the street sounds great too!  But this time the unpredictable Texas weather got in the way.  Thursday morning brought a cold front and a forecast for a chilly, rainy evening.

So a different set of planning skills kicked in.  Instead of music in the street, how about music indoors on the stage of the historic Hippodrome? Along with visiting shops up and down the street, why not pop in and out of bars and restaurants too? The conference team, including Doug McDonald, Chance Sparks, Mike and Claudia McAnelly, Sherry Sefko and others, worked quickly to come up with an alternative that still achieved the original objectives but also responded to the new circumstances.  They were able to move the music onto the theater stage and the food and drink inside at several places along the block.  A bus stop near the theater meant it was just a short walk in the cold, wind and drizzle.  After that, people seemed to enjoy the choices at the theater and elsewhere along the block.

A participant’s experience of a conference depends on how well it delivers, both when things go according to plan and when they don’t.  The Waco conference delivered on both counts.  I know I appreciated the results and I believe others did too.

But that’s just what you’d expect from a good event planner, right? What does it have to do with those of us in community planning? That’s where the jazz comes in.

Like any performer, a jazz musician must train and learn the skills of her craft.  She must learn how to sing or play an instrument.  Often, she must also practice working with others as part of a band or ensemble.  The basics of performance are important too – the timing, use of microphones and so forth. Once those skills are mastered, the musician still has to know the music.  Beginning with the classics, a jazz musician learns the notes and nuances of masterpieces like ‘Take Five’ or ‘Night and Day’.  After playing these tunes often enough, the performer instills her own personal styling and character in the performance of these classics.

This is about where we were on Wednesday night – a well-organized and enjoyable performance with distinctive accents from Waco, and from Mike and Claudia’s musician friend.

But it was Thursday’s reception that really reminded me about the similarity between planning and jazz.  Improvisation is a key feature of jazz, more so than in some other musical styles.  In the middle of a piece, one person in the band will play a solo.  It might happen at the same point in the piece and she might begin the solo in the same way each time.  But then it changes depending on what the musician is feeling, how the performance is going, what the audience is like, or other variables.  After that first solo, another musician will follow with his own solo.  Not only will he react to those initial variables, he will also reply to the improvisation of the first musician.  Back and forth, musicians take well-known melodies and rhythms and engage one another to create a performance that is completely unique.

The simple parallel to planning is the improvisation we often do for our workshops, meetings and other events.  Every one of us can tell stories about last-minute schedule mix-ups or changes to these sessions because of weather, illness, facility problems, political decisions or other external factors.  These require the improv of an event planner – quickly making changes that will still allow the same kind of participation and process that was originally intended.

Where the community planner’s connection to jazz really stands out, though, is the improv based on interaction in the moment. Let’s say we’re drafting a housing element for a city comprehensive plan.  We know the data to investigate, the issues that often arise in communities like ours and the options for policies and action tools that can be considered.   We may even have a ‘template’ housing element we’ve used elsewhere that we believe offers a good starting point for this project. That professional analysis and report drafting is our standard performance of a traditional jazz favorite.

But then what happens? We start talking to this particular city’s stakeholders and residents.  We find out that a certain housing policy (which we recommend as a really good “best practice”) is associated with a former elected official who’s now in jail for corruption.  Residents in one neighborhood open our eyes to disparities based on major employers fifty years ago, and in another we find a tradition of neighbors helping elderly neighbors with home repairs.  The city’s working relationship with the regional transit provider means unexpected new opportunities (or problems) for housing in mixed use projects near transit stations.  Like musicians responding to their audience, we improvise as we decide where to focus detailed discussions, who to engage next and which planning recommendations might be most appropriate.

Our own improv continues as we play off the improvisations of our bandmates.  If the parks director is planning a citywide trails system, we may change the subdivision requirements so midblock pedestrian connections give everyone easy access to those trails, and we might get the health department to target funding for exercise programs to the people who live closest to each new trail as it opens. Or if the economic development expert on our consultant team says the city’s demographics won’t support the famous national restaurant chain that residents want near their neighborhood, we may instead pursue revitalization of an old shopping center to create sites for smaller, local chef-driven restaurants that become regional as well as neighborhood destinations.  Or we find a non-profit that can operate a community garden and a farmers market that sells local produce and serves a food desert.  All these creative solutions require planners who are good at improvising to make the most of the ideas and perspectives contributed by other team members.

The improv doesn’t end there, though.  It continues as we move into the decision-making process.  Is the mayor advocating housing for young adults who will be the creative force behind new technology?  Has the owner of the largest vacant parcel in town decided it should become a massive new garden apartment complex?  Did the local news media just finish an investigative report on rising home prices in a once-affordable community?  These dynamics can lead to straightforward negotiations and bargaining to reach a majority vote.  But even at this stage, as the draft housing element is being considered, the best planners are still doing improv.  They might use the media report to persuade the property owner and his opponents to support smaller units, but with a design that creates walkable communities and sites for tech businesses and entrepreneurs. That sort of improv does more than just get the housing element approved.  It creates a new dynamic that builds on everyone’s ideas and values and sets the stage for successful implementation.

When I began working in planning, there was still a pretty strong sense that planning was a lot like mapping or some scientific task – there were particular criteria or a standard formula to follow, and then the plan could be drawn up in a way that would work pretty well almost anywhere.  I worked with some people who took the approach that, since they were the ‘experts’, they could deliver finished plans based on these professional skills and they expected the community to accept them because they’d been done by an expert.  Then there were people – usually neighbors or property owners – who took the approach that a city expert (whether on staff or a consultant) would certainly not understand their real needs and objectives.  These folks would often object to a plan if it had been developed in this way.  I think everyone knew that negotiation and compromise might be needed at the end.  But I don’t think there was a sense that the best plan for a particular place and time would be one that resulted from this sort of jazz improv, with one person’s idea building on the interests of another.

In the course of my career, I’ve worked on plans for communities in many parts of Texas and the U.S.  But no two of them are alike, and I think that’s partly because of the improv.  I’ve also come to realize that it’s often the planner who is best suited to lead or manage this improv because of the perspectives and skills we bring.  Over the years, we’ve expanded the opportunities for stakeholder engagement and redesigned planning processes so the community input happens when it can actually make a difference to the project.  That kind of meaningful engagement opens up the possibilities for better improv because it adds more ideas to the mix and invites creativity from a wider range of people.  Then the improv can really get going!

So here’s my concept of a planning improv in 4:4 time:

·         One … bring in the preparation and analytical skills, so you can do a credible performance of the jazz standard.

·         Two … engage people with varied backgrounds, interests and perspectives, so the band has a full range of instruments.

·         Three … design your process with an understanding of how different people can contribute most effectively, so you know when the different artists’ solos will fit best.

·         Four … be ready to change your own work to innovate in response to others, so your solos play off the other musicians’ riffs.

And then, of course, repeat! It’s this creative improv – using your own talents together with those of the community, local staff and consultant team members – that gives each community a planning outcome that’s both a variation on a similar melody and a unique performance that won’t be repeated anywhere else.  And that’s the real masterpiece!

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me by email:  karen@planforaction.com , on Facebook: @StrategicCommunitySolutions; on LinkedIn:  linkedin.com/company/strategic-community-solutions

Karen S. Walz FAICP is the Principal of Strategic Community Solutions LLC.  She is the first Baby Boomer recognized by APA Texas as a “Texas Planning Legend”.



All-star-jazz-band-1944.png.jpg. Caption: Improvisation is at the heart of jazz. Source: Public domain, www.timetoast.com.

Karen Walz headshots 149.jpg. Source: Strategic Community Solutions LLC