Understanding the Golden Triangle

In order to affect change in the way the built environment is created, one must first understand the relationships that exist between the governing elements that control how the built environment comes together. In looking at these governing elements it helps to visualize the connections of these elements by placing them at the points of a triangle.

These elements are:

  •   Economics
  •   Policy
  •   Market

Golden Triangle (1)


Economics plays the role of governing the financial considerations that are part of the decision making pertinent to the built environment. Economics often serve as a measuring stick for whether certain decisions can be made. If a particular decision does/doesn’t “pencil” it typically is an easy decision to make as to whether to move forward or not.


Policy governs the manner in which the built environment is allowed to occur from the general perspective of the health, safety, and welfare of the general public. Policy sets the rules and has a direct impact on the “output” of what and how the built environment looks and feels once it is in place.


Market is the execution of making the built environment a reality. It is the process undertaken which delivers the end results that we as human beings then have/get to experience the built world made up of streets, buildings, and civic space.

What must be clearly understood about these governing elements is that in order to achieve the creation of the built environment Economics, Policy, and Development have to be in sync with each other. Without willing participants on all three sides of the triangle nothing happens.  If the Economics work (available money), supporting Policy is in place (zoning), but unwilling Market conditions (Developers), there will be no activity. If the Economics are supportive, and a willing Development community, but unwilling Policy, again there will be no activity. This arrangement works the same way if there is a supportive Market and Policy but no support with Economics.

In between these elements are linking elements which connect the governing elements to each other:

Golden Triangle (2)

Economics <——- Development——–> Market

Development is the linking element between Economics and the Market and represents the influence of the consumer in the equation. It is the relationship between Economics and the Market that creates the “product” that must then have appeal in order for it to be “consumed”. On the side of Market and Development is the “consumption” of development, by end consumers, in the form of the places that serve human activity (live, learn, work, shop, play).

Market <——– Planning/Design ——–> Policy

Planning/Design is the linking element between Market and Policy. Policy sets the parameters under which Planning/Design operate to assist in delivering the necessary plans which are the precursor to actual Development projects. This is often a tenuous relationship that exists within this particular quadrant because aligning Policy and Market is delicate at best. Planning/Design has to stay reactionary, in most cases, to the parameters that are set by Policy and may not be an effective contributor to the Market process.

Policy <——– Private/Public ———> Economics

Private/Public is the linking element between Policy and Economics. For the better part of 50 years rules governing Economics tied to development have been influenced by government Policy (mainly at a federal level). There are Private/Public factors which tie the two together, but not always in a manner that is effective.

Money should never be master.  It should always be used as a measure of discipline.  When allowed to lead it typically responds by being a task master.  It has a propensity to inhibit choices and force decisions to be made from a short-sided mindset.


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