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Comprehensive Plan Contents Need to Reflect Community Character

Comprehensive plan contents quickly become a big issue when your community has decided to prepare a plan, either because it wants to or is being required to do so.

In the U.S. a comprehensive plan also may be called a master plan or a general plan, by the way. Planners and land use attorneys may tell you that a court might see all of a community's land use decisions as part of a big comprehensive plan in the sky. We don't disagree with that idea, but on this page we are going to use the term like most citizen planners and just interested residents do, meaning a particular plan document or book.

Likewise on this page, we will not be discussing the community planning process, since we already have a page on that subject. Preparing a comprehensive plan is an occasion when that process needs to become particularly thorough in engaging all parts of the community.

One final note of introduction is in order. Usually the chapters or divisions of a comprehensive plan are called elements. We often will use that term.




Typical Organization of a Comprehensive or Land Use Plan

Not so long ago, the terms comprehensive plan and land use plan were synonyms in many communities. Now it is becoming somewhat more common to introduce topics that are only slightly interrelated with land use into plans. We think that is a good thing. However, most plans are still somewhat influenced by the more typical plan from twentieth century America.

At a general level, often the organization of the plan includes an introduction, followed by a section on community engagement and the process of plan preparation in general, an analysis of existing conditions that includes demographic (population characteristics) data and projections into the future, and then a number of chapters called elements. Each element might consist of one or more goals, more specific objectives under each goal, and yet more specific action steps or policies under each objective.

Often comprehensive plans then present a synthesis in the form of a future land use map. Many state laws require a plan map, or imply such a requirement.  Zoning often is required by statute or case law to be consistent with the future land use map.  Note that the map categories may be more general than the zoning classifications. For example, the plan map might show only one type of commercial land use classifications, whereas the zoning ordinance may create three or four commercial district classifications.


Common Comprehensive Plan Contents 

Currently the most commonly found comprehensive plan contents include:

  • Public participation
  • Issues and opportunities (may be worded differently, using terms such as assets instead of opportunities, and challenges or even threats instead of issues)
  • Land use
  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Community facilities (This is a term that includes at least government buildings, recreation centers, and parks unless those are covered in a separate element.  It may also include utilities, especially if the government preparing the plan also owns the utilities. Especially in smaller towns, important facilities such as hospitals may be given a nod even if they are not owned by the government preparing the plan.)
  • Economic development, which seems to be regaining its rightful place as part of comprehensive plan contents after a period in which private organizations such as chambers of commerce and other business associations took the lead

Sustainability and environmental topics have been finding their way into comprehensive plan contents over the past 30 years or so.  Terms used might include natural resources, environmental quality, sustainability, water resources or water management, resilience, and locally appropriate topics such as climate adaptation.

A hazards or hazard mitigation element has become a frequently encountered part of the comprehensive plan contents.  Many communities become more specific to their own needs and create titles such as seismic hazards, wildfire prevention, or hurricane planning.

In communities where there is a substantial rural population, an agriculture element now is frequently written.  This element may be cross-cutting with economic development, land use, and cultural heritage.

Cultural resources may be grouped together in a single element, or scattered throughout. This term encompasses historic preservation, archaeology, and other locally appropriate cultural considerations.  Special needs of immigrants, indigenous peoples, or even higher education institutions could be addressed in this way.

In many cases an intergovernmental cooperation element has found its way into the comprehensive plan contents.  Truthfully many municipalities can pursue their plan successfully only with cooperation from the local school district, fire district, water board, county government, or even state government. Meeting these challenges straightforwardly offers the best opportunity to see the positive aspects of the plan come to fruition.

While we would hope that sprawl mitigation and sprawl prevention find their way into the land use element, a community character element might address those issues. Related topics such as commercial district revitalization might be grouped into such a chapter. Or under the banner of community character, you might address historic districts, preserving scenic assets, or balancing the desire for tourism with the needs of local residents.

It is now becoming common to wrap up the comprehensive plan contents with an implementation element.  In the recent past it was fairly typical to write only a page or two of glowing generalities about how the plan would be implemented. Often these pages did not include any reference to the costs implied in the previous chapters, and certainly did not address exactly which funding mechanisms the city or county proposed to pursue to meet those financial obligations. However, it is quite encouraging to see implementation and its financial costs being addressed in a more meaningful way in today's plans.


Some Challenging Comprehensive Plan Contents Suggestions

Certainly our list of elements would give most land use planners enough to consider.  But just to push the envelope further, we would like to suggest a few other items that either would become separate elements or be sprinkled through your comprehensive plan contents:

  • Disparities.  It would be nice to see racial or ethnic inequities addressed specifically by a forward-thinking community willing to write high-quality goals and objectives.  Healing of social divides or historic conflicts might be addressed in a meaningful way.  Or the disparities element might be broadened into a disparities and mismatches element, in which topics such as the mismatch between job location and residents' preferred locations are tackled.  
  • Housing Sub-Topics.  In some areas special housing needs could be addressed in a separate element. Examples might include senior housing, migrant worker housing, or workforce housing in areas where social workers, teachers, and police cannot afford to live in the communities in which they work. Where relevant, the plan might include a gentrification strategy.
  • Neighborhoods.  In cities where neighborhoods have a specific identity, general policies regarding when and how neighborhoods will be consulted would be very appropriate, as would goals about how the government can encourage or assist with neighborhood organizing and respond to neighborhood-level decision-making. This element might or might not include summaries of neighborhood plans already in place, or put forth goals concerning financial or logistical support for neighborhood planning.
  • Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. It is ironic that these two topics are almost entirely under the control of the local government, but often are not even mentioned in comprehensive plan contents. This element must set forth goals, objectives, and policies about how law enforcement interacts with residents, how local courts promote or fail to promote sound neighborhoods, and how prisoners ready to reintegrate into society can be effectively surrounded with community support.
  • Schools.  In the 20th century school boards tended to do their own separate planning for enrollments and buildings, with almost no consultation with the local government in any formal way.  However, we think most communities can no longer afford this luxury, and that school site selection is every bit as important in a land use plan as the need for commercial land. Participation of the school board in the preparation of your comprehensive plan is a very progressive step that will pay plenty of dividends. If the school already has a written plan, you can summarize relevant portions of it, but do involve school district personnel in your choices.

In short, planning commissions could and should consider social, economic, and ecological issues and consequences with the same fervor that they pursue land use questions. If a planning consultant is to be hired, your expectations on this subject should be clear during the selection process and early phases of determining the contents of the plan.

  1. Community Development
  2. City Planning
  3. Master Plan Elements

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