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What is a comprehensive plan? 6 steps to help your city

February 07, 2024

By Erin Perdu

New practices can help set a community vision for housing, transportation, and land uses that work for the future

The world is changing, and fast. That means our plans must evolve to stay relevant. Changing demographics mean that we need to think differently about how we design and build our communities. The US Census indicates that by 2040 only one in four households will include kids. Most households will be singles and couples. Multigenerational family living is increasing from 20 percent of households in 2020.

We are still in a national housing crisis. Communities large and small realize their existing housing stock—and new housing construction—either does not fit the changing nature of families or is too expensive for those who need it.

Climate change is accelerating. Local governments have a role in not only reducing carbon emissions but also how they adapt to and mitigate the current and future effects of climate change—from storms and heat waves to flooding, drought, and wildfires.

The Comprehensive Plan Update for Moorhead, Minnesota, included a review of best practices and current trends for mobility, housing, jobs, resiliency, arts and culture, and parks and open space.

Technological changes impact the design of cities. Rideshare, micromobility (e.g., scooters and bikeshare), and autonomous vehicles are here or are on the way. They are changing the way we think about the space needed for driving, parking, and deliveries.  

These changes mean that old ways of thinking about housing, transportation, and how land uses interact no longer fit how people live. They don’t address the challenges and needs of tomorrow. Your community must plan in a different way, and your comprehensive plan is the first step.

Successful cities with a clear vision

Cincinnati, Ohio, has become one of the most vibrant and economically healthy cities in the Midwest. This is thanks in large part to the five primary initiatives in the award-winning Plan Cincinnati (2012). Shortly after adoption of the plan, the City accepted a form-based code as a zoning tool for increasing compact, walkable (and desirable) development in centers of activity. The City began streetcar service in 2016. And it created a public dashboard to monitor the progress on reaching its goals.

Father south, Nashville, Tennessee, identified affordable housing and ending homelessness as priorities in its 2015 comprehensive plan, NashvilleNext. As a result, the City has adopted an inclusionary zoning code, which requires affordable or workforce housing within new developments. It also set up a dedicated affordable housing task force and created new funding sources to help build the needed housing.

In Plano, Texas, the City reimagined itself as more than just another suburb. This started with its comprehensive plan, Plano Tomorrow. The City has been progressive in implementing policies flowing directly from the plan so that it now offers a variety of housing options, walkable neighborhoods, and transit to support some of the largest employment centers in the region.  

What do these cities have in common? Their comprehensive planning process included the key elements that built a foundation for their future success.

How can a comprehensive plan help realize a vision

A comprehensive plan (“comp plan”) is also known in some places as a master plan, general plan, or official plan. It is one of the most important tools in guiding a city’s future development. It’s the city’s long-range plan. And it guides future development and links together topics such as land use, transportation, housing, the economy, parks, sustainability, equity, and more. The comp plan provides the basis for the city’s zoning ordinance, capital improvements plan, and other budget decisions. While most communities embark on completing a comp plan regularly, few community members truly understand what the plan is and their impact. Unfortunately, the most common time community members hear about a comp plan is when something they don’t want is proposed in their neighborhood.

Farmers Branch, Texas, worked with Stantec for an updated Comprehensive Plan to enable future growth that will redevelop underutilized properties and repurpose existing infrastructure.

While at its core, a comp plan helps set a longer-term direction for future land uses, it is so much more than that. It provides a vision that represents shared community values. It can help the city advance plans to achieve multiple objectives, such as mixing land uses to provide more housing options, increase walkability, and help sustain local businesses. While by nature an overarching document, it should not try to be everything to everyone. To make sure the city is resilient—from environmental changes, economic shocks, and demographic shifts—we must attempt to tackle things we know and be prepared to adjust to the things we don’t yet know.

The challenge for communities is to create a plan that matters to the people who live there. To accomplish that, the planning process, along with the plan itself, must start with a vision that reflects the community’s values. It must integrate equity in a meaningful way that is unique to the community. And it must focus on a lot more than land use.

A plan alone does not create change. Engaging the community is more important than ever, and we must go beyond the typical meetings that attract the same types of people. Instead, planners must intentionally engage those who don’t normally participate—working parents, shift workers, young people, and non-whites. This means going to where the people are. In some cases, it may require paying participants for their time. This type of engagement, which provides opportunities for participation, ownership, and capacity building, is key to a successful comprehensive plan, rather than a nice-looking document that sits on a shelf.

Leave antiquated ways of land use planning behind

The days of the comprehensive plan that uses a standard list of chapters and siloed topics (performed from a checklist) are gone. People want great places to live and work, and there is a strong desire for walkable living. In a 2023 report by Smart Growth America, homebuyers will pay a 35 percent premium to live in a place where they can travel by foot to shops, services, and amenities; renters will pay a 41 percent premium (“Paying More to Drive Less”, Slate, Jan. 27, 2023). With newfound mobility because of remote work and the trend of younger generations seeking out their desired place to live before finding a job, creating these desirable places is crucial for a city’s long-term success.

In the past, a comp plan table of contents included a series of standard “elements” that were done in isolation from the others. These included land use, housing, transportation, economic development, parks and open space, infrastructure, and, maybe, sustainability or resilience. These elements focused on managing outward growth, segregating land uses, and preserving vast areas for single-family housing.

A comp plan’s greatest measure of success is the extent to which its people can see themselves reflected in it.

To better address the places people increasingly want, our comp plans must look to create more compact, mixed-use neighborhoods that are accessible for people with and without cars. We also need to rethink the old approach of segregating employment and industrial uses far from residential areas. Most industries are no longer the “dirty” manufacturing type that we need to keep away from people because of pollution and noise. And now, the trend away from traditional office spaces means that communities must look differently at what their “Main Street” is in the future.

A comprehensive planning process also allows us to think differently about housing. Including a robust housing analysis in the comp plan, which is not currently standard practice, will shine light on the availability of housing, what is needed, where the gaps are, and how developers and/or public entities can fill them. And because land use decisions are based on the comprehensive plan, the plan sets up the policy basis for zoning reforms that allow for a wider range of housing.

6 key steps to set up your comprehensive plan

The pace of change in our communities is faster than ever, and change is happening whether we are ready for it or not. You can get on the right path as you think about your next comprehensive plan process by:

1. Take time to understand the stakeholders in your community. Who is living there? Who is opening (or trying to open) new businesses? Who works there and could be potential new residents? Commit to engaging all of them, so that the loudest voices are not the only ones heard.

2. Think about the best way to connect with your stakeholders. This will likely involve intentionally going to them and seeking out typically underrepresented groups like people of color, youth, the disability population, renters, and shift workers. A comp plan’s greatest measure of success is the extent to which its people can see themselves reflected in it. Having the people feel ownership over the plan also gives it the greatest chance of getting implemented. A community ambassador or liaison program can help. A program like this can compensate community members for reaching out to their own family and friends, allowing them to engage directly with their own networks. Staff provides them with meeting materials, instructions, and training so that they are supported in their efforts.

3. Understand that the way people engage with government is changing. COVID accelerated this shift toward virtual communication. And the rise of the gig economy means that work hours are changing. People need flexible ways to provide their ideas anywhere and anytime.

4. Gain a basic knowledge about trends impacting cities. Things like autonomous vehicles, climate change, and the on-demand economy are not far-off concepts; they will impact your next comprehensive plan’s time horizon. The Trend Report for Planners from the American Planning Association is a great place to start.

Community engagement—like this gathering for Farmers Branch, Texas—is critical to the success of a comprehensive plan. And it’s time to think differently about what that engagement looks like.

5. Cast aside old notions about land use and keeping things separated by colors on a map. Consider something like the STEP Framework, where areas are classified as Strengthen, Transform, Enhance, or Preserve. Each has its own levels of intervention (both regulatory and public realm) suggested. We can introduce character areas or place types in this framework, which include policies focused on complementary mix of uses, appropriate scale and intensity of development, and the design of the public realm. Farmer’s Branch, Texas, and Moorhead, Minnesota, are good examples of this approach.

6. Embrace the needs of your changing city. As you begin your plan, be honest with the idea that if you may need different types of housing to accommodate smaller households, multigenerational households, and others.

Start planning today

If you’ve been thinking about creating a comprehensive plan but haven’t gotten to it yet, make it a priority. The thoughtful, stakeholder-building process that’s ingrained in a good comp plan will pay dividends over time. And it will make other priority projects more successful.

If you’ve started a comprehensive plan using old methodology, take the time to reassess the planning process to make sure you are capturing the changes we are seeing in our cities. Taking the right approach to build the right foundation will make sure you’re on the path to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

  • Erin Perdu

    Working with our team in Minneapolis, Erin is a senior urban planner. With extensive professional planning experience in both the public and private sectors, she’s served as the project manager and lead planner on many projects.

    Contact Erin
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