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Comp planning Starting a new modern long range plan


So I need a new comprehensive plan/master plan/long range document. We're a growing city of 30,000 that lost about 1/3 of our good blue collar jobs in the 1990's and 2000's. We've bounced back fairly well, but our planning documents are not great. I've mended the current planning documents to keep us going, but we need massive changes to our zoning map and have no clear development goals or patterns. The last master plan before I came in had concepts that were in vogue in the 80's or consisted of "we need more weights in the weight room at the community center and should add horse-shoe pits at one of the parks." The future land use and the current land use are the same map. Its not worth saving or even referencing. With the current state of things, I'm going to do it in-house.

I've been looking for some models and ideas. I've heard people lately really knocking the 25-30 year comp plan, which is what my experience is with. I want a web component but we're not ready for web-based. I've gone through the last couple of years of APA award winners and there are some good plans and got a few ideas. I wanted to see what you have done or would do if you could start from scratch.

So what are your thoughts? What is the best plan you've seen? Is there a section or particular analysis that you've seen that really makes sense? I realize all plans should be based on the community it serves and concepts don't always translate, but I'm just really trying to brainstorm.
  • Big comprehensive plan or smaller strategic plan
  • What's the right time frame? Small staff so updates are likely only going to happen every 5 years.
  • Heavy graphics?
  • Is there a planning concept/theme you ascribe to or would form you plan on?
    • Form-based or use based
    • Growth boundaries, optimal growth zones, cost-benefit analysis
  • Have you seen plans that address sustainability or other good planning concepts in ways that don't bring out the pitch forks.
Sorry for the long post, planner-speak catchphrases, and vague topics. Any thoughts are appreciated.


Take a look a 'Destination By Design' webpage. https://dbdplanning.com/

They have been doing some pretty cool things with their planning documents. You'll get some good ideas there you might be able to incorporate.

As far as some of your direct questions, it's more what direction do you / city leaders want to go...big or small & concept / theme. Look at a 10 year period with implementation goals in short-term (1-3 years), mid-term (4-7 years) and long-term (8+ years). You should have heavy graphics in this day and age.

And I'm sorry to say but pitchforks are part of the business. They may even hide in the background until public hearings to adopt, but they'll eventually come out - torches optional.


I'll be watching this thread but with all the uncertainty right now, I find it impossible to be reasonably going through a long range planning process. Our Comp Plan has been suspended and we will be focusing on much shorter term projects.

That is until the layoffs hit.

Suburb Repairman

moderator in moderation
Staff member
I'm kicking off a comp plan for a client right now... suburban city of 70,000+, high-growth in a major metro. It is interesting because we did the proposal pre-COVID, and wrote the scope afterward.

I actually think this situation may prompt cities to think MORE CLEARLY about their future and their community vision, and that it is the perfect time to plan. Interestingly, throughout history pandemics have had the most impact on how cities plan (cholera and the birth of centralized sanitation; Spanish Flu and the legitimization of “city beautiful” and an emphasis on people having spaces to get out into fresh air). One can argue both modern city planning and modern civil engineering were born from pandemics. One of my major takeaways from working in disaster recovery for a few years was that those cities that took the time to assess and plan came out the other side of recovery much stronger than those cities that primarily shot from the hip and focused on short-term gains.

Here's a few notes and thoughts:
  • A big comprehensive plan definitely still works, but you need to build in agility and contingency for when the unexpected occurs in the planning horizon.
  • I have also seen comprehensive plans that are broader, visionary and more general, that then rely on creation of small area plans, corridor plans, etc. as the tool to develop implementation, etc. This can work, but ONLY IF THE CITY ALREADY HAS A CULTURE OF PLANNING. The city I live in has a plan like that, completed 7 years ago. It relied on small area plans. NOT A SINGLE SMALL AREA PLAN HAS BEEN DONE. It has caused havoc, even undermining what would have been a really impressive development code.
  • I'm using a 20-year horizon, but the implementation will be framed around a 5-7 year schedule. Evaluate progress every 2-3 years, update at 5 years, and consider a full plan again at 10 years. I like to include criteria to determine when it is time for an update, with some metrics. YMMV.
  • Heavy use of guiding principles as the tool to steer decision-making when something happens that the plan could not have anticipated.
  • We are going heavily into graphics and almost soundbite-like language. We avoid jargon and try to write simple plain English. We are considering a 2-part approach: an ultra-graphic summary plan (target audience of general public, officials, etc.), and then a lengthier technical plan (target audience of city staff, officials in some instances, "doers"). Still working through this with client. Bottom line is that we will have a very graphic deliverable.
  • Use- or form-based really depends on the client needs, and should be driven by the vision. And the plan should be useful enough to adapt. If the city is not already form-based, your plan better address both. Otherwise, it becomes a doorstop if/when your city fails to demonstrate the political will to actually convert their zoning.
    • city-wide form-based seems to only work well is very limited circumstances, so keep that in mind.
    • Make sure that, when using form-based, you include key data assumptions about those categories (density of pop or dwelling units, employment density, key intensity metrics, etc.). This is important to inform infrastructure elements, etc. and provides the conduit to link with market analysis. It also provides a better degree of certainty & direction.
  • I question ANY firm that subscribes to a single philosophy. I say this as an advocate of new urbanism practices... if it is all CNU all the time, are you really getting a plan responsive to the client? Does the plan acknowledge the limitations of the philosophy? As a note, I've found that firms that adhere to single philosophy also have an ugly tendency to do template-based plans.
  • Analysis of impact is critical. All plans at this point should include a significant fiscal impact analysis regarding future land use/character (I use the term "character" rather than form... it is more approachable to the general public). You should also augment this with quality of life analysis because city planning is art + science. If you base every decision on fiscal impact, you will end up untethered to the market reality and also probably get a pretty boring, formulaic result. Also, humans are inherently irrational--you can't model everything. This is used to identify optimal growth areas.
  • Scenario planning is a good approach, provided it is done right and not just lip service. I like using UrbanFootprint.
  • Housing affordability and zoning reform are huge topics. Your plan better tackle them head-on.
  • You will always have pitchforks. If you don't, then you aren't asking hard enough questions in your community.
    • Never use the term sustainability, especially without a clear definition established within the plan. It is generic term that gets manipulated all the time and means different things to different people.
    • Never say Smart Growth. The more correct and descriptive term is "compact development" or "efficient development." Smart Growth has become a word soup term at this point, with no real meaning.
    • The best way to neutralize pitchforks is to go through trade-off exercises.
  • Anecdotes are important. Stories connect and inspire. Stories become soundbites that hold attention. When using statistics in plans, make sure it tells a story that can connect with the reader. Statistical vomit is useless in a plan. Every stat or demographic should be explained, and why it is significant to plan vision, recommendations, etc. If I wanted to look at a basic demographic profile without explanation, then I'd just go to the Census website myself.
  • Implementation needs to be specific, scaled and with good metrics. You need metrics to determine progress on implementing recommendations, but more importantly you need OUTCOME metrics. These are the metrics that tell you that you are getting the desired results.