Long-range comprehensive plans are done by all county governments in Georgia thanks to a requirement in the Georgia Planning Act of 1989. Because Georgia’s history with mandatory planning is still quite short, combined with strong property-rights beliefs held bycitizens, plenty are skeptical of the benefits of such planning.
Comprehensive planning incorporates many types of planning such as land use, transportation, environmental, social and regional planning. Planning helps a community envision its future and decide the direction it takes. While the resulting plans look over a long period, comprehensive plans are typically updated and redone every five years.
Such planning could have a number of benefits. Better planning might yield fewer traffic jams or an improved parks system. It can organize land uses so that nobody lives next to a smelly factory, but close to shopping. It can help ensure fire stations end up in the right locations at minimal cost and response time.
What other benefits might good planning produce? A question that does not appear to have been investigated is whether the quality and consistency of local planning has an impact on economic growth.
We recently surveyed professional planners around the state and asked them to rate the long-range comprehensive plans of different counties on a number of features — thoroughness, consistency of implementation and innovation. We then used statistical analysis to see the impact of county planning efforts prior to the year 2000 on job growth between 2000 and 2005.
Not all aspects of planning appear to deliver impacts in easy-to-see economic terms. This is not surprising, since economic development is not specifically the point of planning efforts. However, we do find one very clear result on jobs.
Counties that consistently followed their comprehensive plans saw an average increase in jobs that was 27 percent more over a five-year period than if those counties had ignored their comprehensive plans. This finding means that simply following through on the plan can produce job growth of 5 percent per year above what a county can expect if the plan is stuck on a shelf. This finding holds across the state, in both rural and urban areas.
Our research does not tell us why this happens, but it seems likely that businesses prefer to operate in a predictable environment. A county government that follows its own plan demonstrates to potential employers it can be trusted to deliver.
(It is important to note that there is no guarantee a county’s employment will grow by 5 percent per year just because it sticks to its comprehensive plan. There are other policies counties can take that can hurt or help job growth.)
Some Georgia counties take their long-range planning very seriously. Others produce a plan to satisfy the law and then ignore it until it is time for the mandated update. Our research suggests a big economic payoff in the form of more jobs for counties that stick to their plans.
Jeffrey H. Dorfman is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Georgia. Jennie Allison is a master’s degree student.