Planning Consultants

There are numerous planning consulting firms in the United States, and a substantial minority of all planners are employed by consultants. In general, municipalities with larger planning staffs use consultants primarily for specialized tasks such as environmental studies, traffic studies, planning for specialized facilities such as solid-waste disposal sites, or major urban design work. For municipalities with small or no professional planning staffs, consultants are likely to be retained for basic planning tasks such as the drawing up of master plans and zoning ordinances. In fact, a very substantial percentage of all master plans and zoning ordinances in the United States have been done by planning consultants.

Having work done by a consultant rather than in house has both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage may be the consultant's specialized knowledge and breadth of experience. Another advantage at times may be that a consultant can say things that need to be said but that it is not politically possible for an insider to say. But once the consultant has, in effect, put the ball in play, it may be possible for the subject to attract the attention it needs.

A disadvantage may be that the consultant does not know the municipality very well and so may miss things that someone familiar with the municipality would see. Consultant-community relationships vary. The consultant may proceed as expeditiously as possible—since time is money— and provide the town with a "cookie-cutter" plan or zoning ordinance that draws heavily on work the consultant has done elsewhere and that may not suit this particular municipality well. In other cases the relationship is a long-term one; the consultant comes to know the municipality, its political establishment, and its citizens very well, and, in effect, serves as the municipality's planning department.

Planning consulting can be a highly competitive field. In a major metropolitan area a municipality seeking to hire a planning consultant has a wide choice of firms. As in many consulting businesses, getting the work may be just as hard as carrying it out, and keeping the client over the years may take a fair amount of diplomatic skill, since navigating in the turbulent waters of local politics is not always easy. If there is bad news to deliver (for example, that a municipality's land-use controls are probably not sustainable in court, to cite one example the author has witnessed), it may take a certain amount of finesse to know how to put the matter nicely and also when might be the right or the wrong time to bring the matter up.

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