Tips To Avoid Failure In Comprehensive Plans

A  Comprehensive Plan (aka Com Plan) has been and still is the bedrock of planning for most communities. But the process and contents of a Comp Plan have and continue to evolve, reflecting mistakes of the past and the future needs of the places and communities.

As defined by the American Planning Association (APA) a Comp Plan:

APA, 2018

“is the adopted official statement of a legislative body of a local government that sets forth goals, policies, and guidelines intended to direct the present and future physical, social, and economic development that occurs within its planning jurisdiction.

A local comprehensive plan represents a “big picture” of the community, allowing officials and citizens to explore their communities’ major opportunities and challenges and clarify their ideas on the kind of community they would like to live in.  The comprehensive planning process provides residents with the opportunity to be involved in creating a vision for their communities and offering input on ways in which that vision may be achieved. The adopted comprehensive plan offers a series of goals and policies to guide the local government in administering regulations and making capital improvements and investments within the community. Strategies and action steps offer concrete opportunities for implementation”

 This topic is personal and relevant for several reasons and from different perspectives.

apa map
Source: APA, 2018

First, my experiences as a planner (non-profit, government) participating in comp plan preparation and switching roles to the for-profit sector, reviewing them, seeking development/project approvals.

Second, the place where I live is now updating their 2009 Comp Plan.

Full disclosure – I was a staff planner and active participant in the preparation and eventual adoption of the 2009 Plan. To be candid and blunt, that Plan was not a good one but provides a framework illustrating key tips for effective plans so places can be better.

Just a pretty picture?

Comp Plan Image - APA
Source: Google 2019

 Comp Plans are more than just the physical layout of buildings, streets and associated land use. It is a holistic integrated process, each element dependent on the other.  We planners (me included!) have tended to dwell on the pretty drawings and sketches on what places could be neglecting the interdependence of each plan element, how to achieve this vision, the impacts (  the environment, economic, social) and the uniqueness of each place (one size does not fit all!). So avoid all the focus on the pretty pictures but pay attention to the uniqueness of the place and its interrelated issues  – affordable housing, infrastructure, climate change, and economic inequality. 

Public engagement

Source: Google 2019

“The community is the expert.”Project for Public Spaces (PPS)

Based on my experiences, this has been woefully inadequate. This is not denying that public engagement is hard, time-consuming and with no guarantee of success, but it is a necessary process that can make comp plans effective through active engagement by the community. During my work on the referenced 2009 Comp Plan, public engagement was limited to work sessions before the Planning Commission, where citizens could attend, but not comment and the perfunctory public hearings on the draft plan before the Planning Commission and then the Mayor/Town Council, the approval authority.  During the many months of developing and then writing the plan and policies, there was virtually no public review. We wrote the “updated” plan based on demographic changes, the previous plan and in essence our opinions as planners that we knew what is best for the community.

Hardly representative and reflective of the dramatic racial and economic changes happening across the country. Looking back, our Comp Plans has not served us well. Just look at our places today and ask can we do better?

road and cyclist Source Pineterst
Source: Pinterest, 2019

Social media and related techniques now offer greater opportunities and options for a sustained public participation process. 

What happens after adoption?

 Approval of the plan is not the end and written in stone. Now the real hard part begins! Will it be implemented or just sit on the shelf and gather dust? It must also change as a place changes.

Here are ways to sustain the plan. 

  • Effective community engagement as discussed above
  • The plan’s policies need to be linked and synchronized to the community’s operating and capital improvement budgets. Every decision made by the elected leaders must be made, consistent with the adopted plan.
  • The political will to invest the time, money and patience to see the process through.
  • Review tied to the annual budget review process to document the status of the plan’s quantifiable goals and objectives. 

New kinds of Comp Plans

But there is hope as communities seek better places through:

  • “Bottom-up”, not top-down planning –  Do It Yourself (DIY)  local solutions
  • Fiscal sustainability  – can we pay for it over the long haul?
  • Environmental sustainability – climate change, flooding, storms
  • The status quo hasn’t kept pace, not good enough for our changing places 

Here are examples of innovative Comp Plans and associated processes, breaking the business as usual mold, making a difference in their communities:

Verdacity photo











One Reply to “Tips To Avoid Failure In Comprehensive Plans”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: