Planning Magazine

Planning for Wellbeing Can Transform the Planner — and the Practice

Senchel Matthews shares how embracing 'messiness' can lead to healthier relationships with communities.

Article Hero Image

The Community First! Village offers affordable, permanent supportive housing to formerly unhoused residents of Northeast Austin. Shared elements, like laundry facilities and outdoor spaces, make for a cooperative environment. Photo by Katya Smyth.

What responsibility does the planning community have to repair harms of the past and move toward a more just future? It's a question that kept me up at night early in my career as a city and regional planner. Now, it's my North Star and the driving force behind my work.

My journey to planning was not conventional. Rather than a childhood dream or a career I stumbled upon in college, it was a field I frequently intersected with while working in mental health. I saw firsthand how the design and planning of our cities could limit opportunities and hinder the wellbeing of the teenagers with whom I worked. I also witnessed how under-resourced neighborhoods — with their lack of safe spaces, inadequate public transportation, and limited access to quality education and healthcare — could stifle the dreams and aspirations of entire communities. I saw the need for a built environment that centers wellbeing, as well as the potential for planning to make it a reality.

Senchel Matthews, MCRP, is the associate director of built environment at the Full Frame Initiative.

Senchel Matthews, MCRP, is the associate director of built environment at the Full Frame Initiative.

It wasn't until I began working in communities that I quickly learned how messy planning processes can be.

As planners, we often find ourselves seeking tools to mitigate and rectify the consequences of ignoring wellbeing. For example, think about how city planners developing a new commercial district could inadvertently cause not only economic distress by neglecting to consider the impact on existing small businesses but also take away the places that make a neighborhood special. In my work as a planner, I've seen how traditional planning and government bureaucracy tend to focus on the physical products of planning without realizing the power of planning processes to harm or heal.

What is the result of prioritizing transactions with communities over relationships? In my experience, we create environments that look well-planned on paper but feel disconnected and alienating to residents — particularly residents who lack economic or societal power. I saw frustrated communities and frustrated planners, and I found myself asking, "What could it look like to center communities and their wellbeing in planning decisions?"

My search for a way to practice my craft led me to the Full Frame Initiative, a social change organization working toward a country where everyone has a fair shot at wellbeing. The Full Frame Initiative's systems-change framework provides a universal language and paradigm-shifting mindset that starts with people's inherent drive for wellbeing. It is about being whole, and, to be whole, people must be seen, heard, and included. By shifting power from planners and government systems to communities, the people most impacted by decisions drive the conversation about needs, strengths, solutions, and how change happens from the beginning.

"I've found planning for wellbeing to be game-changing for my planning process."

I've found planning for wellbeing to be game-changing for my planning process, helping me to prioritize community history and insights, protect existing community assets, and view communities as partners throughout the planning process. Cities nationwide are adopting this transformative approach to planning, including Austin, Texas.

As the city kickstarts the process for a large mixed-use development project in East Austin, planners and communities are coming together to design their future in a radically different way. In order to understand the community's unique history, diverse population, and how they have been engaged in the past, planning staff are conducting visits to residents' homes and businesses. These conversations are uncovering the historical impacts of past government projects and ultimately addressing broken promises made by previous administrations. By investing time in building relationships with residents and listening to their insights, the city is laying the foundation for a more sustainable and equitable process and outcome.

It has been heartening to see how many planners not only share my view that our profession can sometimes be the problem rather than the solution but also the opportunity we have to turn that dynamic around. Despite the frustrations and challenges, like you, I remain committed to planning great communities that promote wellbeing.

As planners, we hold immense power to either boost or hinder the wellbeing of entire communities. By prioritizing their needs over transactions, we can be catalysts for sustainable change. I'm excited about the possibilities of planners partnering with communities to design and build with wellbeing in mind.

There's a growing community of planners who share this North Star. Please reach out to get connected to other practitioners who are using wellbeing planning principles.

Senchel Matthews, MCRP, is the associate director of built environment at the Full Frame Initiative.