Innovation Spotlight: planning NEXT gives communities staying power

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Jamie A. Greene likens successful communities to successful businesses. Both, he says, "share a commitment to regular, rigorous planning."

Through his Columbus consulting practice, planning NEXT, Greene and his staff partner with communities in Ohio and beyond, crafting well-researched plans for the future and guiding community leaders and citizens on how to put the plans into action.

At least 90 percent of planning NEXT's clients are local governments or community-based organizations, says Greene, the firm's principal. "We partner with villages, neighborhoods, cities, regions and communities of all types and sizes to help them become more livable, enduring places."

When Greene established his business in 1997, he says he set out to create a practice focused on moving communities forward. "The community planning profession has a well-deserved reputation of creating plans that end up on shelves," says Greene, who studied architecture at Ohio State University and holds a master's degree in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia. "I wanted to find a better way to make better plans to create better places."

His method, he adds, was to engage community members, placing them at the center of the planning process instead of on the fringe. Greene felt strongly that if plans were going to be implemented, there needed to be broader ownership of the outcomes.

"So, from the very beginning, our focus has been on integrating insightful technical research with deep and meaningful engagement of the people who live and or work in the community," Greene says.

Projects generally fall into two categories: strategic plans and comprehensive plans. A strategic plan often involves a specific vision, taking into account an area's assets and opportunities and then laying the framework to help turn that vision into reality. Comprehensive plans tend to address growth and development, incorporating elements such as land use, economics, transportation and community facilities, Greene says.

Greene and his staff customize each project, developing plans to fit the unique needs and challenges of each community, says Sarah Bongiorno, planning NEXT's project coordinator.

"We get really invested in the community," Bongiorno says. "I think there's a personal approach, partly, I think, due to Jamie's approach and personality. You can feel that authenticity. I think every community appreciates that."

The practice has become known for its "good, robust community engagement," Bongiorno says, and at times that has led to teaming up with bigger firms-and potential competitors-seeking specialized expertise on community projects.

Locally, planning NEXT has collaborated on planning projects with Columbus, Dublin, Grove City, Upper Arlington and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. The firm is currently facilitating "Imagine Westerville," a new comprehensive plan for the city. The planning process offers citizens several opportunities to get involved-online surveys, in-person workshops, an open house and public hearings, for example.

Roughly 30 percent of planning NEXT's work is done in Ohio, but Ohio clients benefit from the firm's national exposure and experience, too, Greene says.

"We have worked in 23 states and the District of Columbia, as well as internationally in places like Abu Dhabi," he says. "Outside of Ohio, our current work takes us to North and South Carolina, Alabama and Indiana. The biggest benefit of out-of-state work is being able to take on more selective assignments that match our passion and talent with the community need."

Two of planning NEXT's client projects-"Plan Cincinnati" and the "East Franklinton Creative Community District Plan"-earned Planning Excellence Awards in 2014 from the American Planning Association.

It had been 30 years since Cincinnati had drafted a comprehensive plan. And though city planners wanted to tackle much of the work themselves, they needed help with the framework, says Katherine Keough-Jurs, Cincinnati's supervising city planner.

"It's a big plan when you're looking at the whole city," Keough-Jurs says. "It's kind of an overwhelming idea of, 'How are we going to get this done?' (Greene) really helped our steering committee set the vision and write the vision, and he helped us look at it in a slightly different way."

At Greene's suggestion, the city divided a list of 12 important elements into themes: compete, connect, live, sustain and collaborate, Keough-Jurs says. "He really helped to guide us to get to that point," she says. "That was the building block of the plan."

The city's planning staff also appreciated that Greene understood their desire to take an active role in the process.

"He just was really excellent to work with in that sense," Keough-Jurs says. "This was something that was really important to us."

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.