Comprehensive plans guide the future of many cities throughout the country.
They are a direct outgrowth of the two standard state enabling acts published by the U.S. Department of Commerce in the 1920s. For many states, these Standard Acts still provide the institutional framework for planning and zoning, particularly as it relates to a local government’s police power authority to protect the public health, safety and welfare.
What Is a Comprehensive Plan?
A comprehensive plan is a long-range plan for a city, which captures the vision of where the community wants to be at some point in the future. The term comprehensive suggests it is an all-inclusive approach to analyzing and evaluating the future growth of a community. At minimum, most comprehensive plans provide guidance for the physical development of a community, with an emphasis on future land use and thoroughfare planning.
Many comprehensive plans also include guidance on elements such as community growth and annexation; infrastructure capacity; housing and neighborhoods; public facilities; parks, open space, recreation and trails; economic development; urban form and design; and, increasingly, sustainability and resilience. Some comprehensive plans are embodied in a single, all-inclusive document; others are organized by an umbrella document cross-referencing more specific sub-plans such as an independent parks master plan.
There is great value for undertaking a comprehensive planning process, and often the process itself is as informative as the final document. A comprehensive planning process:
Allows a jurisdiction to be proactive and have greater control over its destiny
Allows a jurisdiction to step back from day-to-day activities and identify factors influencing and shaping the community
Provides one of the only opportunities to comprehensively analyze a community and evaluate how competing interests can be balanced
Provides guidance for the orderly growth, development and physical appearance of the community
Builds consensus and commitment from elected and appointed officials, staff, the overall community and other interested stakeholders
Provides guidance for future decision-making
Prepares a community for action
What Makes a Comprehensive Plan “Implementable?”
The plan must be rooted in the implementation mechanisms that cause an idea in the plan to be translated into action as part of a post-adoption, established process.
Common Integrated Tools
Comprehensive plans can be embodied within a single document or organized by an umbrella document cross-referencing a more specific sub-plan. However, there are several critical components that should be directly integrated into the main document. These include the community vision for the future, the future land use plan and the thoroughfare plan. Together, these provide overarching guidance to the future physical development of a community. They also provide an intrinsic connection between future land use and the jurisdiction’s thoroughfare plan—two critical aspects of community form that need to be cohesive.
Vision. The community vision needs to be derived from a robust public engagement process. The results of this process are embodied in the vision statement, guiding principles, goals, objectives, and in many cases, element-based policy statements. The importance of the vision is two-fold: 1) It identifies how and where a community aspires to grow. 2) It identifies what a community is willing to support during implementation.
Future Land Use Plan. The future land use plan, which includes the future land use map and its associated classification descriptions, provides essential guidance for decision-making, e.g., during rezoning decisions and updates to development regulations, regarding the future growth and character of the community. It provides property owners and the overall community predictability in the future built environment. It needs to identify a future build-out scenario supported by the community vision, yet still based in market reality. In other words, the future land use plan needs to be developed in a way that establishes a partnership between the public and private sectors, who together will shape the community one property at a time.
Thoroughfare Plan. The thoroughfare plan provides essential guidance regarding jurisdiction-wide connectivity. Its focus should be on arterial and collector street connections that provide through-connectivity, ensuring that as a community grows over time, residents and visitors can traverse the community in a logical and efficient manner. While many communities have independent, more refined thoroughfare master plans, the thoroughfare plan map should be generated in concert with the future land use plan and be embodied within the comprehensive plan. This ensures they are developed cohesively and create one overarching framework for community form and connectivity.
Action-Oriented Implementation Tools
In some comprehensive plans, the vision and the future land use and thoroughfare plans may be the only guidance for how a jurisdiction should move forward. While essential components, a truly implementable comprehensive plan should provide an implementation action plan that can be accomplished incrementally in defined timeframes during the plan horizon. These implementation actions are what sets apart a plan used by only a few and a plan used by everyone. Most implementation actions can be categorized into the following classifications, which identify the implementation processes common to most jurisdictions.
Regulatory Updates. Predictable change of the built environment cannot be accomplished by a future land use map alone. Most of the physical change of the built environment comes from private-sector investment in new development and redevelopment. An implementable comprehensive plan should provide guidance as to how the community vision for the future can and should be translated into subsequent regulatory amendments to the jurisdiction’s zoning, subdivision and other development-related regulations.
Capital Improvements. While much of the built environment is created by the private sector, it is built upon the backbone created by the public sector through infrastructure investment and long-term maintenance such as streets, water, wastewater and drainage. Implementable comprehensive plans should identify where new or redeveloped public infrastructure, e.g., water line extensions, can be placed to spur additional private-sector investment. In some cases, public sector projects, e.g., downtown streetscape enhancements, can be the catalyst project that creates momentum for moving forward. An implementable comprehensive plan should provide guidance as to how capital improvement actions can be integrated into the jurisdiction capital improvement program or plan (CIP).
Non-Capital Improvements/Operational Changes. Similarly, a jurisdiction provides a series of services that provide essential community functions such as police, fire, EMS, parks and libraries. It is imperative that a comprehensive plan provides guidance as to how the community vision translates into new or modified community services. It should provide guidance as to how non-capital improvements/operational changes can be integrated into a jurisdiction’s annual budgeting process.
Future Studies. It is often said that a comprehensive plan should view a jurisdiction at a 30,000-foot level. This means it inherently needs to remain at a high level and should not “dive into the details.” Consequently, it should provide guidance as to whether future studies may be needed to better achieve implementation. This could include providing strategic directions as to what needs to be considered during the next update of an existing, more refined sub-plan, e.g., a parks master plan, or the request for an entirely new plan such as a corridor plan, neighborhood reinvestment or other sub-area plan.
Policies. In some cases, a community chooses to declare its philosophy or strategic directions through an actual policy document, for example, a Complete Streets policy. In other cases, implementation of an action may first require an informal determination to move forward, such as promoting or incentivizing infill development in areas served by public infrastructure. In this regard, these “strategic directions” may serve as policy directions and will eventually lead to other implementation actions.
Beyond the integrated and action-oriented implementation tools, a truly implementable comprehensive plan needs to remain current and front and center. There should be established procedures for integrating the plan into decision-making, keeping it updated and providing accountability for implementing it over time.
Mechanism for Decision-Making. In some jurisdictions, the vision, guiding principles, goals, objectives and element-based policies are used as part of decision-making during rezonings and development-related processes. In other jurisdictions, conformance with the comprehensive plan is required for all items placed on the agenda of an elected and appointed board or commission. This ensures elected and appointed officials, staff, developers and the community understand the importance of the comprehensive plan and the guidance it provides moving forward.
Annual Progress Report and Updates. A comprehensive plan, or any plan for that matter, only truly reflects a snapshot in time. While it is intended to provide short- and long-term guidance for the future, it will not get everything right, nor will it be perfectly implemented. It is intended to provide guidance moving forward, and it is not set in stone. It can only be effective if it is up to date and relevant with current community realities. It is important that the comprehensive plan is made available to the public, such as on the jurisdiction’s website, and kept up to date as implementation actions are completed over time, i.e., checking off completed actions and reprioritizing remaining actions, reporting back to elected and/or appointed officials regarding progress, and periodically updating the plan through annual updates, five-year evaluation and 10-year update.
Implementation Accountability. When it is all said and done, there is no substitute for accountability. It is essential that procedures are put in place to identify who is responsible for managing the implementation program. In many jurisdictions, positions such as the city manager (or assistant city manager) or planning director are designated as the implementation manager.
Creating an implementable comprehensive plan takes a concerted effort by the entire community. It is sometimes not an easy process, but it is essential for your community’s future.
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