Steps in Comprehensive Planning

Let’s look at a typical comprehensive planning process for a small community. In what order should the steps be carried out? What’s involved in the process? Who is going to do it?


Q. Ok, what is step one and who is involved?

A. The first step in is to set up the Citizen Participation Process. This is the most important work plan element, in fact, it should be listed as a separate task. The process for how citizens participate in the planning process will be acquired. How information obtained will be used should be described. Any language requirements, existing citizens’ committees, or previous citizen work on planning issues should be noted.


Q. Once folks get together, what are they going to do first?

A. Step Two in planning asks citizens, in conjunction with officials and staff, to set Goals and Objectives. Determining community goals and objectives should be clearly spelled out fairly early in the process, so the planning effort is working towards meeting them. These must be goals and objectives that the community reaches consensus on, not just those of whoever is writing the plan, or the plan will not be approved and/or utilized.


Q. I see, you are setting it up so the planning process creates the product, or the plan. But what about all the quantitative stuff, the traditional grist of the planning mill?

A. Obviously doing a snapshot of the community in numbers can’t be ignored. Step Three calls for an Assessment of Existing Conditions, including most, if not all, of the following typical elements:

  • Land uses – land use mix, overall densities, information on existing housing stock (if available), and a land use plan showing existing uses;
  • Transportation – road system map, and existing street standards, mass transit, trails, and any known traffic issues or existing deficiencies;
  • Utilities – telephone, cable, electricity, natural gas;
  • Water, Wastewater and Solid Waste – description of existing system, where major facilities are located, any known capacity constraints;
  • Drainage – Arroyos, acequias and other water carrying facilities should be mapped and studied by constraints;
  • Natural Resources – surface, groundwater, minerals;
  • Human Resources – population, demographics, educational indices (e.g. drop out and literacy rates);
  • Parks, Recreation and Open Space – map of existing facilities, physical condition, information on how park and open space facilities are acquired, any user information on existing facilities; and
  • Unique Issues – blight, tourism or other topics which should be investigated early in the planning process.

Q. Once we figure out where we are, how do we figure out where we’re going?

A. That’s where Step Four comes in. Trends Information allows us to assess where the community is going: growing or declining, at what rate, and expected future impacts. It looks at all the same topics as Step Three, but moreover, it includes projections (e.g. population, demand for sewage treatment, etc.) and provides information on level of services issues (Are there too few parks for the existing population? Will a drainage need surface in the next few years? etc.). Trend information and needs assessment data need not be complicated to acquire. Residents intuitively know what is needed. It just needs to be summarized clearly so it can be planned for in the future. Getting a community to describe what is its preferred level of service also confirms what should be the plan’s goals and objectives.


Q. What if trends show us going in a direction we don’t want to go?

A. The job of Step Five is to offer a Preferred Scenario for the Future. This is an extension of previous tasks, and describes graphically and in writing what the community hopes to become. In its most basic form, it is a comprehensive plan map which elected officials may use to evaluate future land use and zoning applications. With more detail, it can also set standards for services, and spell out specific future projects the community wishes to pursue.


Q. I’m still waiting for the product of the process. When does that happen?

A. If you’re ready, now. Plan Policies are the main focus of the plan, the place where real changes to existing procedures can be written. Again, this need not be unnecessarily complex, but it should be clearly written. Remember to make sure that these policies address all existing trends topics.


Q. How can the plan best be put to use?

A. Step Seven, Implementation, is the most crucial, though most forgotten, part of the plan for it to become a useful tool for the community. It should be as specific as possible, and list future short and long term actions needed to implement the plan’s policies. It should also identify funding sources, where possible, and note specific responsibilities by agency for each action.
The final step, Follow Up/Plan Review makes the plan truly useful, in that it encourages periodic review and updates time periods. The plan should also recommend additional actions that may be needed to implement the plan policies, such as revisions to the zoning code or subdivision ordinance.


February, 1995. [Adopted from a paper by Karen Marcotte AICP, Consensus Planning, Albuquerque]