Part of the value city planners bring to our communities is to help create a shared vision for the future development of a city. This vision is often documented in a document called a “general plan” or “comprehensive plan,” which outlines a comprehensive vision, policies and programs for a city or county, and includes a range of topics such as land use, transportation, economic development, public service, open space, and environmental sustainability.
Unfortunately, these important plans often end up on a bookshelf, or hidden away on a website as a PDF, which is nearly impossible to read on a mobile device. And as a result, these documents do not have the impact that they can and should have.
Even 30 years after the introduction of websites, many planning departments do not have a truly web-based repository of their planning documents and work. Websites that merely link to static PDFs, while technically “online” do not take full advantage of the internet’s ability to link and associate information across a wide variety of subjects, or to create an interactive experience that helps visitors discover or find the information they need.
An ePlan solves this problem. An ePlan will increase the reach and usefulness of your general plan, comprehensive plan, specific plan, transportation plan, climate action plan, hazard mitigation plan, open space plan, or any type of planning document.
What is an ePlan?
An ePlan is a web-based version of a planning document, and often includes interactivity that encourages exploration of the document. The letter “e” in ePlan stands for “electronic,” signifying that the plan is digital. ePlans gained popularity with the advent of the Internet, as government agencies began publishing their plans on the Internet to make them easier to access.
In this article, we’ll look at the many benefits of an ePlan over a traditional printed plan or PDF version of a plan.
An ePlan is searchable and filterable
Think about the last time you opened a complex planning document to find information. Did you start reading on page one? Probably not.
Most people do not read a planning document from start to finish. Instead, they will look through the table of contents or an index, or use a search field. As you create your document, include keywords that people will be searching for in the document's text, or use a publishing system that allows you to “tag” content by adding keywords to sections or paragraphs of your document. This helps people find the content or section of your plan they’re looking for.
ePlan content can also be filtered. Think about the last time you shopped online — perhaps on a website like Amazon.com. Amazon allows you to filter your search results by brand or price and displays related products to help you quickly and effectively find what you’re looking for.
A modern ePlan allows search results to be filtered. For example, just as you filter results on Amazon.com, an ePlan might allow filtering of search results by policy, implementation program, chapter, geography or neighborhood, etc., to find the result you’re looking for.
An ePlan is readable on mobile devices
Think about the last time you were searching for information on your smartphone and trying to look through a PDF or at a poorly-designed website. Chances are you gave up.
Half of web traffic to most planning websites comes from mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. For many, their smartphone is their only way to access the web. A modern web design technique called “responsive web design” makes your plan easy to read, navigate, and search on any device, including smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, and large monitors. Responsive web design has quickly become the standard for online publishing.
A modern ePlan is designed to be optimized for mobile devices so that it can be easily read and searched using a smartphone or tablet.
An ePlan is optimized for search engines
Think about the last time you were searching for information from a city. Did you go to the City’s website or use a search engine, like Google or Bing?
About half of the traffic to most websites comes from search engines. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a process that optimizes your planning document, so search engine results include direct links to the correct sections of your document.
Well-designed ePlans use many SEO techniques to improve search results. A few common techniques are to include keywords that people are likely to use to search sections of your document; to publish individual pages on the web for each section (rather than publishing one long document or PDF), and to create a specially-formatted index (usually called sitemap.xml) that can be used by search engines to find and index all of your plan content.
An ePlan optimized for search engines will actually increase the use of your plan by making content in the plan easier to find.
An ePlan is accessible to people with disabilities
People with disabilities may use different assistive devices, such as Braille displays and audio browsers, to access the web. Websites and documents need to be equally accessible to all. This is not just the right thing to do, it is also the law for federal, state, and local government websites.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998 requires all federal agencies that develop and use information technology to ensure “members of the public with disabilities have access to and use of information and data, comparable to that of the ... members of the public without disabilities.” Many states have adopted similar requirements.
A modern ePlan will use a publishing system (often called a content management system, or CMS) that provides templates and modules to help create accessible websites to ensure that the ePlan is accessible to people with disabilities.
An ePlan can be updated
Will your document need to be updated, or changed over time? For example, many comprehensive and general plans have specific implementation programs. Updating the document to show progress on implementation programs, or simply to correct mistakes in the original version can be extremely useful.
Updating, reprinting, and redistributing a document can be an expensive process. With an ePlan, a single word, page, or entire section can be updated within minutes. This change is immediately reflected on the ePlan website.
A modern ePlan will use a publishing system that enables authorized staff to update the plan. Updates can be explicitly tracked, so changes to the document are transparent.
An ePlan can be personalized
Imagine if a user reading about short-term vacation rentals in a planning document could also be presented with related information about rental housing policies, permits, and homestay rentals simultaneously. This would improve the reader's experience by introducing them to other related terms that might better align with what they’re interested in.
A modern ePlan will allow the document’s authors to classify sections or paragraphs of your document and programmatically display content with similar classifications to someone reading the document.
An ePlan is part of a library of documents
Imagine if you could search across all of your city’s or county’s plans to find each occurrence of a particular phrase or word. This is another interesting benefit of using ePlans. As you publish additional ePlans in your digital library, visitors and staff can now search across multiple ePlans, and not be limited to a single plan.
So much time is spent by staff and citizens searching for or requesting information because the relevant details are not organized or stored in an online format. Imagine the staff time that will be saved by having a centralized library of ePlan documents that can be searched in seconds. Constituents who visit your government’s website will be impressed to see a neatly-organized and accessible library of documents.
Ready to publish your ePlan?
When it comes to publishing online, planners are often also charged with figuring out how to create an ePlan. There are a dizzying number of choices to be explored, and none of them are optimized for planning documents.
As the firm that developed Planetizen1, the most visited urban planning website in the U.S., Urban Insight has a background in both technology and urban planning. We’ve worked with government agencies to publish a wide variety of ePlans. One example of which is our work for the County of Ventura.
Contact Urban Insight to explore the best way to start publishing your planning documents as ePlans to enhance user experience and make a greater impact. We will briefly evaluate your planning document and then set up a demo to introduce the most likely options for creating your ePlan.