A New Standard for Comprehensive Plans

Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans is a product of APA’s Sustaining Places initiative launched in 2010 to define the role of planning in addressing the sustainability of human settlement.

As this initiative evolved it focused on the role of the local comprehensive plan as the leading policy document and tool to help communities of all sizes achieve sustainable outcomes.

Sustaining Places Background

I first became involved in the Sustaining Places initiative in 2011, when I was appointed as a volunteer member of the Sustaining Places Task Force chaired by David R. Godschalk, FAICP (professor emeritus at UNC Chapel Hill), and William R. Anderson, FAICP (principal and vice president at AECOM and subsequently APA President).

This task force developed a series of principles for addressing sustainability through the comprehensive plan, based on best-practice research of leading plans. These principles were published by APA in 2012 in Sustaining Places: The Role of the Comprehensive Plan.

I was subsequently part of a smaller APA working group, again led by Dave Godschalk, to develop the principles defined by the task force into more detailed standards addressing the comprehensive planning process, the content of the comprehensive plan, and outcomes in the form of implementation.

Beyond addressing the substance of sustainability (commonly characterized as the “triple bottom line” of environment-economy-equity or people-planet-prosperity), the standards were designed to provide communities with an overall framework of best practices for comprehensive planning (including, for example, authentic participation in the planning process). The draft standards and a system for “scoring” comprehensive plans against the standards were tested at a workshop at the 2013 National Planning Conference in Chicago.

With this background it was only fitting that, when I became APA research director in July 2013, moving the Sustaining Places initiative forward was at the top of my to-do list. In consultation with the indefatigable Professor Godschalk, APA staff decided that the logical next step was to test the standards “on the ground” with local jurisdictions in the process of preparing comprehensive plans.

Therefore, in the fall of 2013 we issued a call and selected 10 pilot communities ranging in size from the Village of Savona, New York (pop. 822), to Memphis/Shelby County, Tennessee (pop. 1,178,211 in the regional planning area).

Three additional communities — Austin, Texas; Norfolk, Virginia; and Raleigh, North Carolina — volunteered their completed plans for testing against the scoring system. We worked with these communities to refine the standards and scoring system over an eight-month period culminating in a workshop at the 2014 National Planning Conference in Atlanta.

Sustaining Places Comprehensive Plan Standards

Published in 2015, Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans describes the experience with the pilot communities and presents the complete set of standards and the scoring system developed through this multi-year process.

The standards are organized into six principles (examples include Harmony with Nature, Interwoven Equity, and Healthy Community), two processes (Authentic Participation and Accountable Implementation), and two attributes (Consistent Content and Coordinated Characteristics — which we call “plan-making design standards”). Each principle, process, and attribute is supported by a set of best practices against which a comprehensive plan can be scored.

One would expect cities such as Austin, Raleigh, and Seattle (one of the pilot communities) to embrace principles of sustainability in their comprehensive plans. In working with the pilot communities, I was particularly impressed by how useful smaller places such as Goshen, Indiana; Rock Island, Illinois; and New Hanover County, North Carolina, found the standards to be. Based on this experience, I believe that the standards can serve as a resource for communities of all sizes and types to achieve sustainable outcomes through their comprehensive plans — the primary mission of the Sustaining Places initiative.

What’s Next

So what’s next for the Sustaining Places standards for comprehensive plans?

In September 2015, the APA Board of Directors voted to move forward with a pilot program to recognize exemplary comprehensive plans as measured by the scoring system. A total of 30 applications for this pilot were received, member volunteers were recruited and trained as reviewers, and the volunteers are currently reviewing the first set of plans from the 30 applications.

Exemplary plans will be recognized as gold, silver, or bronze depending on how well they score against the standards. Announcements will be made in October.

APA will evaluate the results of the pilot to decide whether to develop it into an ongoing, voluntary program available to communities seeking recognition of completed comprehensive plans. In the meantime, the standards described in Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans are available for communities that wish to evaluate existing plans against a national benchmark or use them as a resource when embarking on a new comprehensive planning process.

Other resources: In addition to the PAS Report, an on-demand webinar on the comprehensive plan standards, Sustaining Places through the Comprehensive Plan, is available from APA.

About the Author

David Rouse, FAICP, is APA's managing director of research and advisory services. He co-authored Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans with David Godschalk, FAICP.

Top image: Seattle is one of the pilot communities. Thinkstock photo.

September 20, 2016

By David Rouse, FAICP