Why is Comprehensive Planning Necessary for Communities?

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on 18 November 2020
  • Comprehensive Plans
  • Community
  • Necessity

The Importance of Community Planning in a Changing World

Think about your commute to work. (There is a high probability you’re working from home right now, so think about your commute pre-pandemic.) Chances are, you are one of over 76% of Americans who drive to work alone every day, over the paved roadways planned, funded and constructed by local decision-makers and your state department of transportation. How long does the commute take? What do you pass along your route? When you arrive at your destination, do you feel calmer or do you feel more stressed than when you left the house?

Now think about what this commute will feel like in 10 years, assuming the population in your area increases. If we haven’t all moved to virtual offices by then, perhaps your local decision-makers will have provided an alternative means of transport like light rail or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or maybe new housing options or safer biking paths or sidewalks to make it possible for you to walk to work.

It is also possible that local decision-makers have enabled new, low-density development that has added drivers to the road, increasing traffic congestion, air pollution, and your frustration as you make your way to and from work.

The former transportation options are the results of thoughtful long-term planning while the latter scenario is a result of the disconnect between land use and transportation planning.

It’s not just your commute to work. The decisions made by planners and municipalities impact the built environment, and subsequently, the daily lives of every citizen.

Locations of schools, offices, houses, and apartments; commute time; a community’s ability to be resilient to climate change; even physical health, weight and stress levels can be attributed to the built environment, which was formed over time by daily decisions made by that community. How fascinating!

World’s Briefest History of Comprehensive Planning and Zoning in the United States, Virginia and North Carolina:

Municipal comprehensive planning goes back thousands of years but has become common legal practice in the United States in the past century. In the US, planning was initiated in the early 1900s as a reaction to overcrowded and polluted cities, as the need to separate nuisances such as dangerous factories and slaughterhouses from areas where citizens lived, slept, and went about their daily lives became evident.


The Federal Government granted states the power to create zoning regulations with A Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, and many US cities adopted their first zoning ordinances in the late 1920s and 1930s.
The Federal Government passed A Standard City Planning Enabling Act, which provided for the creation of Planning Commissions and gave these bodies the power to adopt plans.
Virginia State Code was changed to require that all localities have a comprehensive plan.
North Carolina adopted Chapter 160D of its General Statutes which adds a new requirement that all jurisdictions have a comprehensive plan in place by July of 2022 in order to enforce zoning regulations.

What is a Comprehensive Plan, Exactly?

Planning is all about analyzing how your choices today will affect your tomorrow and putting guardrails in place to make sure you get where you want to go. A good plan lets residents see their community objectively and in context of greater systems like regional growth patterns.

On the most rudimentary level, the elements of a comprehensive or strategic plan are like any other planning process. For example, think of your financial planning for your retirement. You analyze your current position thoroughly, realistically and dispassionately. Then you envision an ideal future – whether it’s you retired and relaxing on a beach at age 60, or living safely and harmoniously in your own community. Next, you determine what steps are needed to get from where you are to the future you want.

A comprehensive plan first analyzes existing conditions like socioeconomic data, population and growth trends, land use, transportation systems, housing, and natural resources. This plan establishes a vision of the ideal future and outlines the steps to get there. The most effective plans make very specific recommendations about zoning and capital improvements to ensure the plan is implemented.

We Are Planning for a Changing World

We’re living in a world that is changing at a rapid pace. Between the pandemic, a changing climate, more frequent extreme weather events, population shifts (especially in urban centers due to national and international migration), new technologies (think: self-driving cars or Amazon distribution centers), and stark socio-economic divides, it is more vital than ever for communities to plan for the future, and to consider various scenarios for which they must be prepared. Only by thoughtful planning can we rise to meet the challenges the next decades will bring.

Whether or not it’s immediately apparent, all those changes affect or are affected by land use and zoning decisions. In a pandemic, people want more space in their homes and want more outdoor space for gathering. In an area that is experiencing flooding due to changing weather events, a community’s growth is guided elsewhere. When new technologies like automated vehicles arrive, they affect location and need for parking, and distribution centers also affect land use and transportation infrastructure. Finally, land use policies play large part in creating and maintaining our socioeconomic divides and will have a role to play in mending them.

All these issues can and should be addressed with carefully considered Future Land Use recommendations in a comprehensive plan.

Good Planning Allows for the Prioritization of Limited Resources

Localities must increasingly do more with fewer resources. Good planning is vital to being able to prioritize the allocation of limited resources. The disconnect between land use and transportation, along with other municipal provisions like water, sewer and stormwater, makes sprawling development very expensive. Either it puts strain on municipal budgets to provide these services, or the cost goes to the consumer, making housing less and less affordable.

Existing Land Use map for Irvington Comprehensive Plan.

Existing Land Use Map for the Town of Irvington Comprehensive Plan

Comprehensive Plans Blend Citizen Input and Vision with Data to Create Realistic Goals for the Future.

The best plans are shaped with significant input from the community. This means the whole community, not just the people who regularly attend civic association meetings or donate to their elected officials.

One of the greatest challenges in planning is to engage the broader community and make sure that the future is bright for every resident. It is also important to balance this vision with existing reality and make sensible predictions of the future.

Almost every planner has a story of when a sector of the community (often a vocal minority) fought hard against a proposed change. This resistance to change is, to some extent, human nature, which is why a plan must paint a data-based picture of existing conditions and make recommendations in accordance with the facts. If a population is growing, the question is where to direct growth, not do we want growth?

For example, if your community is affected by sea level rise, the plan needs to address how to:

  • Direct growth away from areas that are affected by sea level rise and flooding
  • Increase resilience strategy for the existing infrastructure at risk from future rise
  • Ensure that future development does not exacerbate these challenges

Comprehensive Plans Are the Best Plans

Localities often adopt plans on different subjects, including:

  • Transportation plans
  • Land use plans
  • Corridor plans
  • Small area plans
  • parks and recreation plans

The list goes on. These plans all have their place and can go into depth about one particular subject. However, they often miss the connections between overlapping systems that a comprehensive plan can make. The most obvious is land use and transportation, which are inextricably linked but too often separated when making planning and funding decisions.

To illustrate this separation, think back to your commute. My guess is that if you are in a suburban environment it takes longer than it did five years ago. This is because most localities approve new development further and further out from already populated areas, thus adding more commuters on existing roads every day. Transportation planning then follows (if it didn’t happen before) to address the growing needs of drivers. Instead of working together, these plans react to each other.

Arguably the most important thing about creating a comprehensive plan is understanding the implications of land use and zoning recommendations and finding a balance between property rights and the need for sensible and balanced growth.

Planning Paves the Way For a Better Future

As we move forward, careful planning will help us develop sensibly, profitably, and responsibly as we respond to the challenges and opportunities around us. The world around us is changing more rapidly than it ever has, and the future of our communities, and the nature of our commutes, will depend on the resilience of our environment that can only be achieved through planning.


Anne Darby Headshot

Anne Darby, AICP
Anne has extensive planning experience gained over twelve years working in regional and local government. Anne is a firm believer in strong, community-led, data-driven plans to guide decision-making and to create great places. When not working, Anne spends time inventing delicious meals, taking care of an old house, and dreaming of traveling again.