May 27, 2014 at 9:42 am CDT

How do you plan a city, especially one as huge, dense and diverse as New York? Further, how do you plan a region that includes such a city? As the Regional Planning Association prepares to draft its 4 th regional plan, it’s taking an unusual step: It’s thinking like a marketer.

The New York Region

It’s easy to plan based on what you know from personal and anecdotal experience. It’s increasingly easy to plan based on analysis of data. Spending time in spreadsheets only tells you part of the story. It’s even worse to plan based on what you hear at community meetings – because the people with the loudest voices are not necessarily representative of the whole, and they’re likely there in the first place because they have their own agenda. Sometimes those folks are called NIMBYs because, while they might want change, they want it Not in My Back Yard. I’ve also heard some called CAVES – Citizens Against Virtually Everything. It’s understandable. Even if you knew, for instance, that thousands of commuters each day would benefit from a project, would you still be in favor if tearing down your home was part of the plan to make it happen?

That’s an extreme example, but you see the point.

Instead, what the RPA has done is what marketers have historically done and what Web developers are increasingly doing. They’re creating user stories and focusing on the customer. In order to understand how to serve your customer, or in this case, your residents, you must get to know them. Marketers often use consumer segmentation tools like Esri’s Tapestry to define groups of people. They give them cute names like “Laptops and Lattes” and create short descriptions of how they behave, live and shop. Data can then be layered through these frameworks to help marketers tailor their products and messages.

Similarly, Web developers will create user stories and try to think of all the possible reasons why someone would come to a website and all the possible things they would expect and want to do there. Then they prioritize those stories and use them as a development checklist to make sure they’re building the right tools in the right way.

Finding 10 representative New Yorkers is a challenge, so the RPA has used data to create them instead. Rather than using segmentations, they’ve made it even more personal and developed 10 avatars to represent different types of New Yorkers. Again, it’s all based on data. Taken as a whole, they represent diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, age, economic conditions, transit needs, employment status and family status. Read through the descriptions if you have a moment. They’re really rather fascinating.

Now, Jim in Manhattan and Ava in Brooklyn aren’t going to be able to come to the microphone at an open community meeting – they don’t really exist. But by personifying them, planners will be able to keep them in mind as they’re going about their work. They’ll be able to think about their various circumstances and motivations in a way that can be highly illustrative.

Hopefully that will lead to a plan that works for all 10 and doesn’t just favor those who yell the loudest or donate the most.

This was originally posted on, home of the Top 100 Best Places to Live rankings. Copyright Journal Communications Inc. Reprinted with permission.