Town Planning in a Nutshell – It’s Sort of Like the Game Sim City…

"What is town planning and what does a town planner do?"

“Do you know the game Sim City?”


“Well it’s a little bit like that.”

This is my usual response to the inevitable question after stating what my profession is when meeting someone new. Their next question usually goes something like “So, planned any new towns lately?”

Most people know the game Sim City and although it is an oversimplification, I find that it provides a nice representation of town planning (and maybe make it sound fun?). If you have ever played Sim City, you’ll know right away that it involves the creation of cities from bare terrain. In order for your city to grow and prosper, you must appropriately implement zoning and provide infrastructure (e.g. roads, railway lines & airports); services (e.g. water and electricity); and community facilities (e.g. museums and stadiums). From this reference point, it becomes easy to convey what town planning is and what town planners do by describing how it differs from the game, because in reality, it’s a lot more complicated than the game. What one person can do in the game as the ‘player’ is actually distributed among many players (stakeholders and regulators) in the real world: between politicians, public servants in State government departments, Local governments, the community and interest groups, infrastructure providers, developers and a range of specialist consultants whose expertise are required for development projects. Everyone has their specific role in the planning system and the system is governed by many layers of legislation, regulations, policies and plans that are constantly changing whether because of political motivation, new information or advances in technology or our ever evolving economies and way of life.

So if you have ever wondered: “what exactly does a town planner do?” Then continue reading. The purpose of this blog is to provide a high-level overview of the roles and responsibilities of town planners in the various parts of the planning system in Queensland (our home State).

To begin, the town planning profession is known by several names, all of which aim to describe what we do collectively. These include: urban planning; urban and regional planning; land use planning; statutory planning, city planning and more. The names differ around the world but the roles are fundamentally the same.

Unlike the game Sim City, a single person does not plan a city but rather the urban form develops from the interplay between government, the community and property developers. The planning system’s framework in any given jurisdiction is usually governed by a piece of legislation that in essence provides the rules for all the players and the different activities that may be undertaken in the town planning realm ( the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 in Queensland). This includes things like: requiring local governments to create a planning instrument (called a ‘planning scheme’); how development applications are to be assessed (called ‘IDAS’ – integrated development assessment system); and how planning & environment appeals and other court proceedings are to occur. Local governments create planning schemes in response to the State legislation, which are drafted by planners and developed through significant community consultation and stakeholder engagement. The intent of this process is to be very inclusive and transparent so that the instrument reflects the needs and desires of the population and implements best practice planning policies that have been developed over time. These planning instruments become the assessment criteria for any prospective development within the jurisdiction of that local government. Therefore town planning (in particular development assessment) is objective, not subjective, contrary to many people’s thoughts. Development proponents need to demonstrate compliance with the planning scheme for their proposal in order to obtain development approval and often utilise the services of specialist town planning consultants (such as Clegg Town Planning) and consultants from a range of other disciplines (such as traffic/acoustic/civil engineers, architects, urban economists, surveyors, landscape architects, etc) in the preparation of their development application. The local government (Council) planners assess development applications against the planning scheme and in accordance with the rules of the overarching legislation. There can be varying levels of agreement and disagreement between the Council planners and the consultant planners representing their client that necessitates negotiation and compromise until both sides arrive at an acceptable outcome. That is: Council is satisfied that the planning scheme is not detrimentally compromised (since it reflects what the community wants) and the development proponent accepts the outcome, considering the various constraints and limitations.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of the statutory town planning roles.

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning encompasses policy, legislation and plan making which is undertaken by State and local governments. Strategic planners employed by the State are responsible for reviewing the town planning legislation and associated regulation, other planning instruments such as the State Planning Policy which seeks to protect state interests, and regional plans which seek to protect regional interests. Strategic planners working for local government are responsible for preparing the local government’s planning scheme and associated planning scheme policies. In their preparation of the planning scheme, they must consider allocation and distribution of different land uses such as residential, commercial, community uses and industrial. They also need to consider existing and proposed transport routes, commercial nodes, open space and the capacity for each zoning designation for future development during the life of the planning scheme (typically 7-10 years). Throughout the development of the planning scheme and other planning instruments, there are several legislated stages requiring community consultation because as mentioned earlier, the planning instruments are intended to be a reflection of the needs and desires of the population over which they have jurisdiction.

Development Assessment

A large part of town planning sits in the development assessment/statutory planning realm. This encompasses private town planning consultants (such as Clegg Town Planning) that assist development proponents, landowners and community organisations with the preparation of development applications and peer review of development applications. On the other side of the fence, public servant town planners employed by the State and local governments assess development applications against the requirements of statutory planning instruments (e.g. planning scheme, state planning policy, etc). Development assessment is primarily performed by local Government but is also undertaken by State government departments through the State Assessment and Referral Agency (SARA) as referral agency for a development application with Council (or standalone assessment manager where the application does not trigger assessment against the local government's planning scheme) in instances where State interests are involved, such as: a site adjoining a State-controlled Road and the access arrangement is to be changed, or if the development results in additional traffic flows to the State-controlled road; clearing native vegetation; undertaking works within a waterway; etc. A range of development types typically require development approval from the local government. These can range from minor extensions to a house where it is heritage listed or affected by a planning scheme overlay, to a subdivision that creates additional lots, to a new apartment building, a shopping centre, a marina, an industrial warehouse or factory, racetrack or sports venue, or cattle sale-yards to name a few. Clegg Town Planning has successfully completed projects for all of these land uses.

So… Now that you know a little more of what town planners do, don’t ask us if we’ve planned any new towns lately, but instead ask us if we can help obtain development approval for your property project or if we can act on your behalf to help ensure the development proposal in your neighbourhood delivers the best outcomes for your community. 

If you wish to learn more about planning in Queensland, visit the Department of Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning's website