What is a
Comprehensive Plan?

A Comprehensive Plan defines the vision, goals and aspirations for the long-term development and redevelopment of the community.  The plan is intended to shape land use and transportation patterns, conserve natural resources, and identify needs for utilities, housing and parks and open space. The Comprehensive Plan also guides decisions on both public and private investments in infrastructure and facilities.

A comprehensive plan helps a city to identify community priorities and goals and provides an implementation strategy for achieving the goals.  The plan is commonly organized into the following components, or plan elements.


01 Introduction
02 Demographics & data analysis
03 Economic development
04 Public infrastructure & services
05 Existing & future land use
06 Vision & goals
07 Transportation
08 Housing
09 Green/open space, & historic areas
10 Implementation planning   

Why a Comprehensive Plan? What is it Anyway?

A comprehensive plan is a long-range planning document for a community, county, or region. The typical planning horizon is 20 years. The intended outcome of the plan and planning process can be to engage the public and community stakeholders to discuss the community’s long-term desires on subjects including growth, development, community character, housing, and other matters uniquely important to a community; evaluate existing conditions and use available data to identify and set goals to achieve the community’s vision; and develop an implementation plan to accomplish the identified goals.

Why does having a long-range plan matter? Communities may think, ‘We have so many other projects to pay for…we would rather spend our resources on physical projects.’ A comprehensive plan helps communities identify a unified vision of the goals and aspirations to allow them to appropriately allocate their resources. Some planning processes occur where several focus groups are held to discuss a variety of topics. A common issue that groups tend to identify is the lack of unified priorities within the community and the government structure. Imagine if everyone worked intensely on achieving something different at the same time – little measurable success was being achieved on anything. By identifying priorities and working toward the same goals using a comprehensive plan, progress can be made more effectively and efficiently.

A broadly supported plan provides continuity in a community by providing a roadmap available for residents, business owners, elected leadership, and development interests to use in making future decisions. Planning for infrastructure, transportation needs, and orderly growth results in a more efficient investment of limited resources and can be particularly useful in the annual capital improvement programming during the budgeting process.

A long-range plan can serve as the framework to ensure that other tools are in place and aligned with the identified goals. A community’s regulations should support the plan’s implementation. For example, if a community identifies that they want to attract a broader range of housing types, then other applicable regulations should allow for its development, including appropriate zoning classification(s), building codes, and inspection processes.

The more immediate and short-term benefits of a well-planned community includes demonstrating to funding agencies that its priorities and future needs have been identified in a proactive way and allow those agencies to act quicker in response to development and project opportunities. The plan also serves as the legal basis for land use and development decisions, if those needs arise.

A comprehensive plan is meant to preserve the uniqueness and appeal of a community while preparing for future development and redevelopment changes as growth or economic conditions change. A well-planned community is a more resilient community, better prepared to address challenges and opportunities.

By Rose Schroder, AICP