What is a Comprehensive Plan? 12 Things (2024) You Should Know

What’s the point of a comprehensive plan?

Well, have you ever heard the saying, “If you’re failing to plan, then you’re planning to fail”?

It couldn’t be more true!

In a community, it takes a lot to make and keep everyone content.

A comprehensive plan is a tool that is intended to help further the economic prosperity of a community and encourage growth in the future.

Throughout constant change and evolution, it’s helpful to have some written guidance.

In this blog, we’ll discuss the top things you should know about a comprehensive plan.

Let’s get started.

1. What is a comprehensive plan?

A comprehensive plan — also known as a general plan, master plan, or land use plan — is a document designed to guide the future actions of a community.

It explains a future vision with long-term goals and objectives for all activities that affect the local government.

Most plans are written to project over a 10 to 20-year period post-adoption.

That said, plans are often reviewed and updated every five years.

2. What is the purpose of the comprehensive land use plan?

A comprehensive plan services the following functions:

bulletAchieve continuity

A comprehensive plan helps to provide continuity to the community over time.

It allows public bodies to have a framework from which to address land use issues.

bulletBalance competing interests

There are countless citizens who want to use land in various ways.

Having a clear comprehensive plan allows these interests to be kept orderly and rational.

While you want individuals in the community to benefit, you don’t want the community as a whole to be annoyed or bothered by various projects.

bulletProtect public investments

A clearly defined plan allows a community to avoid digging up any investments they made last year.

For example, if they laid a new sewer pipe last year, then they know that it will be protected and maintained by any projects going forward.

Having a well-thought-out plan is less expensive and less disruptive to the community overall.

bulletPlan development to protect valued resources

A comprehensive plan helps to identify environmental features like wetlands, agricultural lands, woods, and steep slopes.

When you have a plan in place, it prevents resources from being destroyed or degraded by inappropriate development.

bulletGuidance for shaping the community

The planning process can help to create policies that foster a distinctive sense of community.

bulletPromotes economic development

The plan contains valuable information that drives the location of prospective firms.

bulletProvides justification for decisions

A comprehensive plan provides a factual and objective basis to support zoning decisions.

Communities can use it to defend their decision if/when they are challenged in court.

bulletAllows citizens to express a collective vision

The planning process provides citizens the opportunity to brainstorm, debate, and discuss the future of their community.

If a plan is developed with the support of the community, then policies are less likely to be controversial.

3. What’s the history of comprehensive planning?

Comprehensive planning has been a concept since the United States was founded.

The original Williamsburg was the first place that successfully implemented a land use plan.

This occurred in 1699 when the town laid out detailed planning legislation (the most detailed of all English colonies up until that point).

It adopted an axial plan, which featured a wide central corridor with a college on one end and the capital building on the other.

Yet, despite this early start, some argue that the modern phase of American city comprehensive planning began with the Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Others say it began in 1900 when several papers were presented for the purpose of beautifying government buildings at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C.

Either way, these events left an impression on cities and villages throughout the country that began creating public improvement groups of their own.

4. What are the six basic requirements of a comprehensive plan?

Willian I. Goodman, a well-known author on comprehensive planning, has stated that such a document should fulfill the following six requirements.

It should be…

bulletComprehensive (complete)



bulletFocused on physical development

bulletRelated to physical design proposals of community goals and social and economic policies

 5. What does the plan address?

 A comprehensive plan should consist of the following elements:

bulletLand use (both existing and future)

bulletDemographics (both existing and projected)






6. What’s the procedure for creating a comprehensive plan?

Goodman also stated that there are six basic requirements for creating a comprehensive plan.

These requirements are…

bulletThere should be only one official comprehensive plan

bulletThe legislative body should formally adopt the comprehensive plan

bulletThere should be a lengthy period of public debate prior to the adoption of the plan

bulletThe plan should be available and understandable to the public

bulletThe plan should be formulated to capitalize on its educational potential

A comprehensive plan is a vision of the direction that a community wants to go in the future.

As such, all interested parties must play a part in creating this vision and formulating specific goals and objectives.

The comprehensive plan should consist of all seven components listed above and then follow this process.

bulletGet organized

Before taking any serious steps, a leader should be appointed to coordinate the comprehensive plan.

This individual will provide direction to the people responsible for developing the plan.

Often, there is an entire committee assigned to the task of creating this document.

However, there should be a leader, head, or consultant that takes charge.

bulletCollect data

The first step in creating a comprehensive data plan is collecting data on the existing conditions of your town or city.

The data that is collected should relate to each of the elements that make up the plan.

bulletAnalyze data

Once you’ve collected the data, take a step back and analyze it for trends and special considerations.

bulletSet goals

The planning committee should have goals and recommendations for the city/town based on the data that they’ve gathered and analyzed.

These goals should be presented in the form of objectives in the plan.

bulletGet feedback

While your job may be to create a comprehensive plan, it’s likely this plan will impact thousands and thousands beyond you.

Citizen input should be obtained and taken into account.

The comprehensive plan is a document that is first and foremost for community use, and thus the community should have a say in the contents.

Here’s how you can get community feedback.

  1. Hold forums or public meetings to discuss the content
  2. Distribute news releases explaining what the document contains
  3. Send out a citizen survey regarding the contents of the plan and allow feedback

7. What are the different comprehensive plan types?

There are four different types of comprehensive plans:


This is a plan that is limited to a single municipality.


This is a plan developed and adopted by any number of contiguous municipalities, including a joint municipal plan as authorized by this act.

The municipalities participating in this plan do not need to be continuous if all of them are within the same school district.


This is a land use and growth management plan prepared by the county planning commission and adopted by the county commissioners.

It establishes broad goals and criteria for municipalities to use in the preparation of their comprehensive plan and land use regulation.


This is a detailed plan for non-residential development of an area covered by a municipal or multi-municipal comprehensive plan.

When approved and adopted by the participating municipalities through ordinances and agreements, it supersedes all other applications.

8. What are the components of a plan?

A comprehensive plan — regardless of type — must contain the following basic elements:

bulletA statement of objectives for the municipality.

These objectives must relate to the future growth and development of the municipality, including but not limited to, the location, character, and timing of development.

bulletA plan for land use for the municipality.

This plan may include provisions for the amount, intensity, character, and timing of land use proposed for the residence, industry, business, agriculture, major traffic and transit facilities, utilities, community facilities, public grounds, parks and recreation, preservation of prime agricultural lands, flood plains, and other areas of special hazards.

bulletA plan to meet the housing needs of current residents and any future individuals or families that may reside in the municipality.

The plan should conserve present housing, rehabilitate declining housing, and accommodate expected housing in different dwelling types and at appropriate densities for households of all incomes.

bulletA plan for the movement of both people and goods.

This is likely to include expressways, highways, local streets, parking facilities, pedestrian and bikeway systems, public transit routes, terminals, airways, port facilities, railroad facilities, etc.

bulletA plan for facilities and utilities for the community.

These may include public and private education and recreation, municipal buildings, fire and police stations, libraries, hospitals, water supply and distribution, sewage and waste treatment, solid waste management, storm drainage, flood plain management, utility corridors, and associated facilities, etc.

bulletA statement regarding the relationship between various plan components.

This may include an estimate of the environmental state, energy conservation, economic development, the social consequences of the municipality, etc.

bulletA discussion of the short and long-term plan implementation strategies.

bulletA statement indicating that the proposed development is compatible with the existing and proposed development plans in neighboring municipalities.

bulletA plan for the protection of natural and historic resources.

This may include wetlands, aquifer recharge zone, woodlands, steep slopes, prime agricultural lands, flood plains, unique natural areas, historic sites, etc.

9. What is the legal status of a comprehensive plan?

One of the criticisms of a comprehensive plan is the fact that it is not usually legally binding.

This is to say that a community’s ordinances (typically the zoning ordinance) need to be updated to implement it.

In addition, the power for local governments to plan is derived from state planning (which enables legislation).

However, local governments in most states are not required by law to engage in comprehensive planning.

10. How is a comprehensive plan implemented?

For a comprehensive plan to be valuable, it must be implemented.

To make a plan “implementable,” it should be rooted in implementation mechanisms that allow the plan to be translated into action.

Action-oriented implementation tools include regulatory updates, capital improvements, operational changes, future studies, and policies.

Some of the most important procedures that you can have when implementing a comprehensive plan involve implementation.

You should have a mechanism for decision-making, which helps to guide principles, goals, objectives, and element-based policies during rezoning and development-related processes.

You should also have annual progress reports and updates to ensure you’re on the right track as the municipality develops.

Finally, you should have implementation accountability.

Accountability is crucial because otherwise nothing will get done.

For this reason, many jurisdictions have a city manager (or assistant city manager) or planning director who is designated as the implementation manager.

This ensures that nothing slips through the cracks as you begin to make progress.

11. What is a comprehensive plan NOT?

A comprehensive plan can sometimes be misconstrued for several other things that relate to city planning or regulation.

Here’s what a comprehensive plan is not…

bulletMunicipal zoning ordinance

bulletAny other ordinance that regulates the use of land

bulletA rigid and unchanging plan concerning land use, growth, and development

bulletThe final answer to the problems of the future

Rather, a comprehensive plan IS

bulletBased upon present knowledge and goals

bulletFlexible and able to be changed when needed

bulletA basis for making rational decisions (but does not replace the decision-making process)

bulletA guide that can aid communities in implementing a sound growth-management and growth-inducing program

bulletA component of the ongoing planning process

12. What are some tips for a successful plan?

How can you be sure your community’s comprehensive plan will be successful?

You want to make sure that you’re using the public’s resources wisely and that you’re creating a useful guide for future development.

Here are our top tips for doing so.

bulletCreate a shared vision

As noted above, comprehensive plans work best when the entire community feels as though they have ownership of it.

While you’re creating it, make sure you engage all segments of the community.

You should focus on the broad issues to determine what the community values most and build your plans for the future using that knowledge.

bulletConsider relevant facts

One of the first steps to creating a successful plan is collecting data.

This data should lead your planning process.

You should also take a look at any other policies or strategies in place.

What you know about the existing conditions and trends can help you make reasonable assumptions about future outcomes.

bulletBe realistic

Always be realistic in your planning.

A successful plan is one borne out of realism — not optimism.

Your plan should accurately and realistically reflect the development options that are available to the community.

bulletBe actionable

Your plan should tell you how to take action.

Discuss the who, what, where, when, and why questions.

Make sure that someone could look at your plan and immediately know the next steps.

bulletPrioritize the actions appropriately

You have to start somewhere.

Even if you have a list of 10 things you’d like to achieve, make sure you prioritize because resources rarely allow you to do everything all at once.

bulletGet decision-makers on board

If possible, involve elected officials early in the process.

They’re the individuals who have the power to allocated resources and make the plan happen.

When you get them on board early on, you’ll have a much easier time gaining support.

Final thoughts

Comprehensive planning is an essential part of making sure our cities are successful.

Hopefully, this guide has prepared you to not only create a comprehensive plan for your city or town but to implement it effectively.

You don’t want it to sit up on a shelf and never be put to good use!

More importantly, if you are a land investor or developer, you can leverage a comprehensive plan to buy land in the path of growth.

For more information on buying, selling, or investing in vacant land, check out our other resources below.

We’re here to help throughout the entire land buying and selling process!

Would you like to receive weekly emails with our latest blog/properties?

Subscribe Now

Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


Leave a Comment