Whose Plan?

The term “master plan” is coming under scrutiny as the profession grapples with the legacy of systemic racism.

By Lydia Lee


As landscape architects push the profession to become more equitable, some landscape architects and planners say it’s time to replace the industry-standard term “master plan.” The term not only has racial overtones, but more significantly signals a top-down approach that is antithetical to the profession today, they say.

In the United States, “master” was the term for slaveholder in the slave codes enacted by states starting in the mid-1600s. Because of its associations with slavery, various professions have been moving away from using “master” in its various forms, and the Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated these initiatives. For example, the tech industry has been trying to eliminate references to “master and slave” software routines, a common parlance for relationships between elements. Last summer, several real estate associations announced they were using “primary bedroom” in lieu of “master bedroom” in listings. As far back as 2014, activists in Philadelphia urged the city to drop the term “master plan” because “master” was an insulting term to the Black community.

Commonly used to describe an overarching drawing or document for a proposed project, the term “master plan” came into use well after American slavery formally ended in 1865, debuting in the 1928 Standard City Planning Enabling Act (SCPEA), a guide prepared by the federal government to encourage land use planning. In the 53-page document, “master plan” appears throughout but is also referred to as a “comprehensive plan” and “municipal plan.”

Excising “master plan” from the lexicon is a good step toward inclusivity, says Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard. “Even if its history isn’t directly related to slavery, it almost doesn’t matter. If the word has developed carbuncles of racial insensitivity, it should be eliminated from planning parlance,” he says.

And as Kayden and others point out, even the 14th-century meaning of “master”—one who has power and control over something or someone—is problematic. “That word [master plan] is offensive to other disciplines and communities, as it implies that somebody else is in control,” said Haley Blakeman, FASLA, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Louisiana State University, during a presentation at ASLA’s reVISION 2020 conference in December.

“I’ve always felt it was a bad term because it’s about dominance,” says Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, a principal at DesignJones LLC, whose preferred alternatives would be “guiding plan” or “collaborative plan.” “Too often in the past, master plans have been executed by outside consultants that come into a community. You can call it something nicer, but the important thing is to change your approach.”

One thought on “Whose Plan?”

  1. When I was a student at UVa, Beth Meyer and other women professors used the term framework plan. I still use that term in my practice.

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