Comprehensive Plan Contents Need to Reflect Community Character

Last Updated: October 28, 2022

Comprehensive plan contents quickly become a big issue when your community has decided to prepare or update its master 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. Many of these long-range planning projects also are saddled with names intended to inspire confidence in some ideal future. Don't be surprised if you hear what amounts to a revised plan being called something like Wonder City 2045 or Technology Metropolis Forward or World Domination Plan for City XYZ.

In some U.S. states, a comprehensive plan has a specific legal meaning under state law, by the way. In fact, in most states there are statutes that both give permission for undertaking the plan and require that certain land use controls, most notably zoning, be in conformity with the plan. 

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 interested residents do, meaning a particular plan document or book.

On this page, we will not be discussing the community planning process in any detail, since we already have a page on that subject. We will just comment that preparing a comprehensive plan is an occasion when that process needs to become particularly thorough in engaging all parts of the community. Our experience has been that this is one occasion when you generally can rally the civic leadership to get behind a civic discussion process that will inform the new plan.

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 classification, 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
  • Quality and availability of other infrastructure, which might include broadband today
  • 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

Often we see a comprehensive plan that addresses social goals, although often these are stated rather vaguely. We suggest that you think very seriously about doubling down on any particular social ills that may be raging in your community. Every city in the U.S., and many elsewhere, needs to address explicitly how your city proposes to ensure that racial equity and community development work in tandem. Addiction, public health, mental health, changing demographics, and dysfunctional education, governance, or public services all might find their way into comprehensive plans when situations warrant. 

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. Preserving or enhancing the tree canopy is a worthwhile and overlooked topic for almost all communities, but it is well worth creating a planning goal relevant to tree cover.

We are seeing a rapid increase in interest in climate change planning, and most cities can benefit from delving into the best available research about the likely impacts on local conditions. Whether or not your city has prepared a formal plan or study on this topic, the cascading impacts of global warming on your local ground cover, economy, and regional competitiveness deserve to be taken seriously across a variety of elements of your comprehensive plan, or perhaps as its own element.

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, and in fact a farming or forestry component often is interrelated with a more traditional topic of master plans, namely park and open space planning. This section of the plan also might be the best place to discuss annexation into your corporate limits.

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.

Many others would benefit from coordinating their planning with housing authorities, transit agencies, or multi-county water or environmental authorities.

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.

Unfortunately, the difficulty of passing any new ordinances or state laws, or changes to these, often was glossed over, in the attempt to paint a glowing picture of the future. This works for a few months, but in our experience, residents and elected officials alike quickly become disillusioned if implementing the plan proves to be more difficult than the discussion during plan adoption indicated.

However, it is quite encouraging to see implementation steps, including designation of the departments or entities to take the lead on implementing each aspect of the plan, new laws and procedures needed, and the costs and financing mechanisms 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, veterans 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 strategy for dealing with gentrification or for historic preservation. Plans to end homelessness also might receive greater attention from the planning community if they are integrated into comprehensive plans. Where there is a shortage of affordable housing, or indeed any type of needed housing, action strategies for addressing that shortfall should feature prominently in this element.
  • 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 civilian oversight over police investigations can increase trust in police, 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.
  • Annexation.  If annexations into city limits are expected to occur, the comprehensive plan should note annexation areas that make sense, address any pre-conditions for annexation, describe the process for the benefit of residents, discuss utility extension issues, anticipate zoning or land use controversies, and talk about the timing of additions to the city.

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.

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