Systems Thinking in Planning

How can systems thinking help formulate neighborhood plans?

community planning, ecology, economy, roads and streets


David Witham


Marguerite Anglin, Mami Hara


Brittany Coyle

Imagine a neighborhood that has a reputation for high crime. As the theory goes, crime flourishes in places where people are not. It's only common sense that people avoid high crime areas. As such, the more crime (real or perceived), the less people. With less people, there’s more opportunity for crime.

This is an example of a positive feedback loop. The result is self-perpetuating or exponential growth. However, don't be fooled by the terminology. "Positive" feedback loops do not always result in positive outcomes.

How do you break a feedback loop? In this case, it might help if people felt safer on the street. Achieve this, and the result may be another feedback loop: The safer the street feels, the more people will use it. With more people on the street, the street feels safer.

How do you set in motion the right kind of feedback loops? That’s where a systems approach to planning can be useful. If planning efforts focus only on a limited portion of the overall system, what may seem like a good idea in one context may not be such a good idea in a broader context. For example, a street that is only designed to solve traffic problems may actually cause more problems in other ways—like limiting pedestrian access and activity and thus potentially decreasing safety. Systems Planning is a bit like solving a Rubik's Cube. Solving one side of the cube is not so difficult. The trick is to plan in a way that solves all 6 sides at once.