Systems Thinking in Design

Planning to make investments matter.

community planning, ecology, economy, roads and streets


David Witham


Marguerite Anglin, Susan Buchanan


Brittany Coyle

A good planning effort sets the criteria for a successful design. It identifies the key strategies that will have the greatest amount of impact. In Part I, we posed the question: "How do you set in motion the right kind of feedback loops?"

Oftentimes the key is in the details. Design can have a profound impact on the way people feel and behave in a space. It is important to account for this. The street must accommodate traffic, but it should also be a place where people want to be. Stormwater management is also an important consideration. On a limited budget, Systems Thinking can help prioritize the most effective strategies that support all of these considerations.

The best strategies are the ones that encourage further investment. In systems terminology, effective investments set in motion positive feedback loops. In some places, the ideal strategy may be planting more trees, better public lighting, renovating building frontages, adding bike lanes or on-street parking, occupying vacant lots, or sometimes simply providing more trash receptacles. The biggest investments are not always the most impactful.

Making the effort to carry a piece of trash to a receptacle is a small investment that everyone can make, but even that may not happen without well-directed investment in effective solutions—in other words, good planning and good design.