Strategy vs. Flexibility: how often should general plan be updated?



A settlement’s general plan is a long-term strategic document, a kind of scenario for the long-term development of a village, township or city. The legislation allows local councils to change general plans not more than once every five years. As an exception, it is possible to initiate their early change through local state administrations or the Cabinet of Ministers. But does this meet the practical needs of cities? Not always.

Imagine that some company wants to launch an attractive construction project in the city, but its general plan approved a couple of years ago provides for a completely different functional purpose for the designated place. In such circumstances, the investor will receive a refusal and, they say,  may come in three years,  when they will have the right to update the general plan, or appeal to the RSA. Such difficulties discourage investors. Meanwhile, the community may lose a potential chance to take a small step in its development.

There may be another situation. Local authorities decide that the project is appropriate, but in the light of investment proposals, they will develop a detailed plan of the territory, which is a less important urban planning document specifying the general plan’s provisions instead of making changes to the general plan. After that,the investor will be allowed to start construction works. However, in this case, the detailed plan and the very construction contradict the legislation and discredit the value of the general plan for the settlement.

So how does the municipal administration decide what matters more: legality or progress?

While the cities around the world are actively developing, the moral dilemma of our imaginary settlement suggests that the “five-year plan” for updating general plans is too outdated. This is a rudiment of the Soviet past – it’s time to revise it.

Numerous studies of the urbanization processes prove that three quarters of the world’s population will live in cities in the near future. Modern progressive cities become larger, accumulate more and more money, increase the influence inside the country, and eventually, become full-fledged players of the world economy on an equal footing with other states.

Obviously, in such circumstances, the appropriate spatial planning plays a crucial role for the proper growth of cities. But it is not enough just to develop a general plan, it should be really flexible and dynamic, so that the spatial organization meets the new and emerging business and community needs. At this point it is important to ask about the possibility to establish earlier dates for updating general plans. After all, regular moratoria do not help dynamics.

Conservatives take up the position that a general plan as a strategic document should not be subject to frequent changes, since in this case, local authorities may deviate from the agreed concept, and the settlement will develop chaotically. But let’s consider how often we change our plans. Whether there is a business strategy or a shopping list in a supermarket – it is inevitable that any plans are adjusted and improved. And a city as a living organism should not be an exception.

Do not be afraid to reduce the regulation. The genera plan’s flexibility does not mean a total absence of authority. It is an opportunity to change the details, while still keeping the main vector of long-term development of the settlement. It works, for example, in such a metropolitan city like Berlin.

As part of the Participatory Spatial Planning project, BRDO experts collect the information on the relevance of the current urban planning documentation on the PMAP portal. According to them, 27% of all villages and townships do not have general plans at all, and only 3% of villages have developed new general plans over the last 5 years. Many villages just update the documentation developed in the 70th-80th by their decisions. Village council heads and chiefs explain the situation by the fact that their villages are becoming really deserted, and young people go to cities, and therefore there is no sense to develop new general plans.

When it is needed to build a new facility for the agro-industrial complex in such villages, there is a necessity to make changes to the planning documentation. But, frankly speaking, why to burden the villages with developing new general plans or changes to them for each particular investor? Especially as they are not frequent guests there. In fact, general plans, zoning plans and detailed territory plans have lost their strategic function for most villages, and it would be more appropriate to re-categorize them as documents, which are recommended to be developed. Now it makes sense to impose an obligation to develop the spatial documentation on the united territorial communities, at the level of which there are more chances to develop a strategy and development goals for UTCs.

However, this recipe doesn’t work well for villages and townships located near large cities. The matter is that there are other risks in large cities. If we remove the ban on changing general plans, there really may be a practice when urban planning documents will be changed for every particular construction project. This, in turn, will lead to urban densification and chaotic construction. In Kyiv, there have long been problems related to the construction of high-rise buildings in existing residential areas, green areas or near historic sites. Of course, local residents, historians and environmentalists feel indignant at this fact. Such cases even sometimes lead to mass protests and the destruction of construction sites.

Therefore, if the restriction of making changes to general plans is removed, some preventive measures  should be provided, depending on the size or specificity of settlements. For example, this restriction can be preserved only for the settlements with more than 300-500 thousand of inhabitants or established only historical development areas.

There is the same situation but to a less extent in villages near large settlements. They also suffer from chaotic manor constructions, so the approval of general plans for them is still important to place public amenities, infrastructure and industry facilities and landfills. It makes sense to preserve the obligation to develop general plans for such villages and remove restrictions to change them. However, it is necessary to develop a simple and clear algorithm to determine a list of such rural-type settlements.

In any case, if we leave the problem the way it is, it will continue causing feelings of helplessness to communities. We all need to understand that today the world is changing much faster than before. Without changes in the mentality of the population and the surrounding space, Ukrainian cities and communities will not be able to develop as fast as their more successful European neighbors. And for this purpose, communities should have the right to independently change their spatial schemes and documentation.