Creating Planning Documents

PAS Report 589

By Allyson Mendenhall, Claire Hempel, AICP CUD, Emily Risinger, Stephanie Grigsby, AICP

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Planners routinely create plans, reports, and guides to capture research, recommendations, program or process details, and stakeholder input. Creating these deliverables is a complex undertaking. Teams must work within project budgets and meet multiple deadlines while coordinating the involvement of collaborators representing different sectors, stakeholder interests, and levels of government.

A key element of successful planning processes or analyses can be whether the final report communicates project outcomes correctly, clearly, and compellingly.

Creating Planning Documents aims to advance planners’ ability to create successful planning documents and reports. Written by planning practitioners and based on hard-earned experience, this PAS Report standardizes guidance for planning documentation. It offers tools and knowledge required to create first-class planning documents by containing project scopes and using efficient processes. Seven chapters guide readers through the documentation process from concept to delivery, with checklists and templates to help track and coordinate production efforts.

The recommended practices detailed in Creating Planning Documents are valuable resources that will help any planning office efficiently produce high-quality planning documents.

Bonus Content

As an added feature, APA has created editable versions of templates in the report for planners to customize for their own projects.

Members and PAS Subscribers: Click here for the bonus content.

Executive Summary

Planners frequently create documents and reports that capture the research, recommendations, process, and stakeholder input that are central activities to planning work. These documents are a synthesis of written and graphic materials from many sources. However, there is no industry standard for planning documents. While planning documents are very diverse as far as the breadth and depth of topics and the types of plans being prepared, planning agencies and consulting firms would benefit from some standards to guide the creation of these documents.

This PAS report is intended to serve as a recommendedpractices guide for both public-sector planners and planning consultants to create efficiencies, ensure quality, provide clarity on how to set up and contain document creation efforts and review processes, demonstrate ideal work flows, and empower teams to stay within the parameters of project scopes and fees. It is geared toward public-sector and consulting planners that have a role in document oversight, content development, production, and quality management. It may be shared in part or in whole with collaborators to align expectations and processes.

Why This Report?

Planning for sites, communities, and regions is a complex undertaking. The effort to synthesize and distill graphic exhibits and written content from diverse sources requires knowledge, experience, and organizational systems. The suggestions provided in this guide are intended to help planners — both public sector and private sector — to develop and deliver successful planning documents.

Planning documents are very often the key deliverables of a planning project. They are the primary methods planners use to capture the process, design, and planning recommendations for a site, district, community, or regional planning effort, or to address a specific policy topic. Examples include comprehensive plans, design guidelines, strategic plans, master plans, site plans, and corridor plans. Common policy report topics include parking studies, cultural assets and inventories, public facilities and financing, community resiliency, and zoning issues, among many others. Often, these deliverables become legal documents that are adopted by municipalities. Document content must be accurate and must precisely reflect the expert analysis, sound data sources, and many stakeholder inputs received.

Both public- and private-sector planners face challenges in writing planning documents and reports. This PAS report has been developed for all planners who engage in developing, iterating, producing, reviewing, and delivering planning documents that capture the planning processes and proposals for sites, communities, states, or regions. The guidelines and recommendations offered in this report will assist planners in creating efficient processes that enable the work to be completed on time and on budget and that match the objectives that the planning project set out to accomplish.

Project document efforts are typically undertaken by a team and require extensive coordination. Therefore, this report and the tools it provides should be shared with collaborators to ensure that all contributors have the same understanding of the process and anticipated outcome of the project document.


The success of any project is dependent on having a clear and viable scope of work, well-defined deliverables, and widely understood expectations on the part of everyone involved. The process of creating documents typically occurs within the scope of a larger planning effort, for which the final deliverable is the document or report. However, many planners may not adequately consider the elements of the document and document production that impact the work plan, budget, and schedule.

After a project has been approved to go forward, consultants and their public agency clients should come together at a scoping meeting to approve as many expectations of the interim and final document deliverables as possible to finalize the overall scope of work. At that meeting and during the subsequent overall project kickoff meeting the team should capture the client (or project) vision, identify critical success factors, describe the project's dilemma and thesis, and select metrics.

Elements of a project's scope of work that are often overlooked are those associated with the planning document's content and appearance. Most planning documents aim to encapsulate the process, findings, and recommendations of the overall project. Such a document is very often the primary deliverable of most planning projects, and therefore the project scope of work should describe as many elements as possible regarding its purpose, audience, content, layout, and appearance.

Developing a Project Schedule

The project team should provide input to develop the document production schedule and consider how it relates to the overall project schedule. When the entire team is part of the discussion and agrees to the schedule, each person is more likely to be committed to the schedule because they have been empowered as part of the decision-making process.

The schedule must include adequate time for production and proper quality management review, and it must meet internal review period requirements for public agencies. Accurately anticipating deadlines and review cycles, estimating production efforts, and properly adjusting for the review time required of each document is a critical responsibility of project management. In the event an agency review takes longer than originally agreed upon, the overall schedule may need to shift to allow the consultant or project staff adequate time to address comments and conduct their review.

Often, a general project time line may be initially developed and deadlines refined as an agency's schedule and adoption constraints become known. Public noticing requirements add another layer of consideration. Agencies and consultants should plan to accommodate the schedule requirements to ensure review time is not forfeited.

Developing a Project Budget

Planners who recognize the importance of managing the document production process within the confines of a developed budget are more likely to have successful projects. Planners primarily use two methods to develop a project budget: (1) use the budget from a prior project as a reference, or (2) start from scratch using a spreadsheet. The total amount available for any given project may be determined by how much the sponsoring agency has allocated for it internally as well as the amount of any grant funding the agency has been awarded to pay for the work. Consulting firms must manage their projects to meet client expectations within the available budget.

Managing Change

Changes happen over the course of virtually every project. Project team supervisors, elected and appointed officials, and stakeholder members may change; additional work may be required; or the breadth of work anticipated may be modified. Existing conditions in the planning area may also change over the course of a lengthy project. These and other factors over the project course present distinct challenges and should be addressed as soon as they arise.

The most common change for most planning document efforts is scope creep: an incremental expansion of the project scope that can negatively affect the outcome of a project. Scope creep may also affect the project team's job satisfaction and morale. A common example of scope creep is when the team's supervisors, elected or appointed officials, stakeholders, or others ask for more meetings or additional rounds of review, or when stakeholders request that additional topical issues be addressed that were not considered in the initial scope. Many project managers recognize large scope changes but are not as diligent in mitigating smaller scope changes that may cumulatively add up over time. This can reduce the team's ability to deliver work that meets the expectations established during the initial project stages.


Following the kickoff meeting for the broader planning project, a second meeting to start the production of the planning document should be convened with key stakeholders, project managers from the project sponsor (i.e., the agency leading and funding the effort), the consultant group, and team members who will be directly responsible for the written content, graphics, and maps.

The scope items for the planning document inform the agenda for the document kickoff meeting and are key topics to cover. Project leaders might start with a brainstorming exercise to flesh out what the document is intended to accomplish and who the audiences are for the final product. Project leaders should present the public engagement and communications plan to the team to ensure understanding of how that aspect of the project will proceed in tandem with the development of the planning document. Team members should provide and receive input on the schedule, format, structure, major content elements, and review process of the document. Every planning document should be written with the intent to meet or exceed the overall project objectives. Affirming the project vision and discussing how the document will align with its goals and objectives lays the foundation for a successful document.

Ideally, a draft table of contents should be made available to the entire team at the document kickoff meeting. If the table of contents has not been previously articulated, it should be discussed at the kickoff meeting and a draft should be completed as an early deliverable of the document effort. The topics discussed at the document kickoff meeting can eventually solidify into a table of contents that structures the finished document.

How the project document will be set up and worked on collaboratively are critical early decisions for the team. Document layout must meet the vision of the project manager or sponsoring agency as well as the printing capabilities of the document recipient. Software must be selected based on the level of graphic sophistication desired in the final product weighed against the software programs available to those doing the production work and post-adoption revisions and updates. If the document is to be a collaborative effort, this requires a discussion about the optimal organization of multiple writers and editors without compromising the document.

It is critical to determine at the planning document kickoff meeting who the audiences are for the final document, what will be included in the document, and who is responsible for developing it. Tasks to be assigned include data collection and analysis; writing text; producing graphic exhibits such as maps, figures, diagrams, charts, tables, and images; and formatting, producing, and printing the document. An editor should be identified to review text, graphics, and formatting for clarity and consistency. Staff coordination is important to ensure a cohesive process and to reduce inefficiencies.

The document kickoff meeting is also the time for project team to discuss the review and revision process that will be followed, as well as how the report will be printed and delivered. The project manager should articulate assumptions about who will review the document as well as expectations about the number of days allowed for reviewers to provide comments. It is essential to build time into the schedule for planning staff reviews, while at the same time defining limits and deadlines so the document effort is not delayed due to waiting for comments.

Typically, a planning document is part of a larger planning project that has an emphasis on stakeholder engagement and sharing information with the public. The process of developing the document often runs in parallel to the effort of engaging the public. Careful consideration should be given to the content and format of exhibits that will be presented during the planning effort and that will also appear in the document. Anticipating the multiple purposes of exhibits at the document kickoff meeting will enable the planning team to be nimble in its use of content for different audiences and avoid reformatting, which requires staff time and expends the budget unnecessarily.

Determining Writing and Graphic Style

Planning documents must be consistent in their message, analyses, conclusions, and recommendations. With multiple authors and editors it is wise to establish word treatment rules for the team to follow. Similarly, a coherent graphic style should be developed to result in a visually unified report. But such rules are only as valuable as the authors' abilities and willingness to follow them.

Consistent writing style and use of language is essential to authoring a planning document, whether as an individual writer or a group of coauthors. Using a style guide increases the coherency and quality of the document, and the efficiency of its production. It is important to note that planners should strive to produce jargon-free planning documents and reports for the members of the public and the boards and officials they serve.

It is also essential to consider graphic logic and coherence to create a visually unified document. Starting with a standard document template is vital to achieve consistency and will add a more professional appearance as well as be easier for the reader to navigate. If the report is to become part of a collection of documents, it is useful to use the same graphic style and format. If the planning project has a website and online tools for communication and community engagement, the graphic style of the document should clearly relate to the online presence of the overall planning project.

Printing and Digital Specifications

If the document is to be printed, it is important to make informed decisions about printing specifications in the project contract, as this can have significant impacts on project budgets and schedules. Printing specifications must be outlined for consistency and ease of production. These considerations include the type of paper stock to be used for the cover and the internal pages, the bleed, the binding material and method, the use of tabs, the quantity of reports to be printed, and a distribution plan. Printing arrangements must be confirmed with the team and vendor because they affect time and budget management.

Many planning documents are instead posted online in digital format for viewing and downloading. In these increasingly prevalent situations, the document is finalized as a PDF only, and then distributed electronically.


In collaborative document efforts with evolving content, the way that digital files are set up and managed is a critical consideration. When working with a team of contributors, the organization of folders on internal servers or online collaboration websites is important to anticipate, as is the naming of files to keep track of different authors and versions. There are several elements to consider when starting the document production process and preparing to set up the digital files, the most important of which are the software that will be used and the template to guide the document's format.

Starting the document effort with a consistent method for naming folders and files and a clear plan for managing content from diverse sources will create a smooth workflow and reduce inefficiencies as the project progresses.

Content may be coming from multiple entities with existing protocols for folder and file naming. For the purpose of consistency, project managers should request at the document kickoff meeting that everyone use the same method. The chosen method should also be included in any written guidance on document production that is provided to all team members. Saving all document drafts is recommended to maintain an official record in case the need arises to provide old versions as part of litigation.

Sometimes it is not possible to have a single project file structure. In these situations, file proliferation and duplication by multiple planning document contributors saving locally are inevitable. Protocols for file naming to keep track of different versions are critical.


Teams often underestimate the amount of time and early decision making required to develop, iterate, and receive endorsement for the complex content and format of planning documents. Moreover, the knowledge necessary to synthesize materials from many sources in a user-friendly manner can be a challenge.

Research and Data Collection

Planners must identify research questions related to each project and collect the best available content to answer the questions or visualize solutions. Every planning project has a central research question. Data collection requires research, original data creation, document collection, writing, and generation of graphics, all of which will help support the findings and solutions to the research question.

Quantitative data for planning documents typically includes statistics, models, maps, simulations, previous plans, studies, and surveys. Qualitative data can be gathered from stakeholder dialogue or other types of research. Background research also often includes gathering and reviewing key findings from related policy documents for a plan, or researching other topics through reports or articles.

The kickoff meeting for the project is the best opportunity for identifying project-specific needs, brainstorming the necessary steps to collect data, and considering the best way to display it. Arranging and delivering data in meaningful ways lays the framework for communication at meetings, in media interviews, and in the final document.

Copyright Law

Project documents are often examined from many perspectives, so it is important to collect data and create content in a comprehensive and transparent manner. Planners must identify research questions and the best available data with which to answer these questions. Quantitative data must be collected alongside new and qualitative ideas emerging and being revealed through dialogue among various stakeholders.

All creative works, not just photographs, are copyrighted to their creator by federal law. This means that text, photos, and graphics (maps, charts, or data tables), the design of posters, signage, websites, paintings, or other works cannot be copied and used for commercial purposes.

Planners are responsible for obtaining permission for the reproduction of copyrighted materials. The author must determine if materials are copyright protected and then seek permission immediately for any borrowed content. Content creators should each keep a simple log of all copyrighted material that denotes the date permission was requested, the copyright holders' response(s), original file names, new file names (if renamed), and any other usage requirements.


When research, analysis, public engagement, and content creation is complete, the planning document goes into production. This is when the benefits of project management and astute quality control are critical for the team and the sponsoring agency. Review processes must be of finite duration and there must be adequate time to perform quality control checks prior to document delivery and project wrap-up.

Draft Management

As a team works together to produce a draft document, managing how it is produced will ease the workflow and contribute to a more efficient process. The schedule, team member availability, and budget will determine how many and which team members participate in draft production.

The work should be divided up as appropriate for the project and its team. If one team member contributed more content — such as research for a certain chapter, for instance — then it most likely makes sense for that person to write or produce graphics for that chapter.

Delays can result from missed deadlines early in the process, which require later draft production milestones to be pushed back. Missed deadlines can result when content development takes longer than initially budgeted for, or when reviews take longer or are added to the time line later in the project. Defining roles, reviews, and timelines at the kickoff meeting should alleviate some delays; however, as staff work on other projects, are out of the office, or take longer than expected, the proactive management of team dynamics is critical.

People-management pitfalls can arise during draft production. Interdisciplinary or multiagency teams collaborate on many documents, while individuals may report to various bosses having differing missions, values, or work styles. A project manager may operate in an environment where he or she does not control competing project schedules. In such cases, the project manager should help everyone be aware of factors that may limit participation and understand how conflicts will be resolved.

Often multiple team members are required to work on a single document. Version control can be managed in a variety of ways. First, when possible, strive to limit editing to one person at a time in each section of the document. Second, save versions with a naming convention to prevent confusion on the most updated files to be editing. Third, consider shared file apps, which immediately save the most up-to-date versions that can be accessed and viewed by all personnel.

Internal Quality Review

Quality review is defined as proofreading the draft document, ensuring consistency with the style guide, making sure reviewer comments have been addressed, and checking for grammatical and spelling errors. Quality control is a key step in draft production. Internal reviews occur prior to sending a document out to the reviewing entity, project partners, or the sponsoring agency. Having someone who has not been involved read the document is a good way to test it for clarity. Sponsoring agencies or large planning firms may have their own quality management protocols with required steps and sequences for shepherding a document through a quality control process. This might include specific personnel who must perform reviews in a hierarchical order, or sign-off by a project supervisor. Quality control checklists may be required. Smaller public-sector or consulting entities will likely follow the basic quality control review steps related to reviewing a planning document for factual, grammatical, and spelling errors; confirming that it adheres to the agreed-upon style guide; and checking whether reviewer comments have been addressed.

External Quality Review

A draft of the document should be sent to all reviewing entities for comments and questions. After the reviewing entity receives the draft, they should be given a firm period to review the document; for example, five business days. This information should be agreed upon and documented at the planning document kickoff meeting.

The amount of time provided for review should be reflected in the overall project schedule with the knowledge that reviewers will often request additional time when the review process gets under way. To save time, the team may provide specific direction to the reviewing entity for what parts of the document or what narrow aspects they should review.

The team project manager should determine the flow of the draft production and determine which tools can help ensure an efficient process. Schedules, team member availability, and the project budget should be carefully considered before and during draft production, and work should be divided up as appropriate for each project and its team.


Managing a project document so that there is adequate time for quality control, test printing, and delivery by a final deadline can be challenging. Many decisions must be made and approved prior to the final printing and successful delivery of a document.

For the final product to be produced efficiently and with the highest quality, documents must be built according to the parameters outlined in this report. Printing companies are key partners in the planning document process. It is optimal to contact the vendor early on to communicate specifications and other requirements, to learn about materials and printing options, and to be aware of the costs. An initial conversation helps the printing company to anticipate what needs to be done and by when, leaves adequate time for quality control, and goes a long way toward eliminating unpleasant lastminute surprises that no one wants to experience.

There are several considerations to think about when determining whether to print in-house or to send to a printing vendor. Most document file formats, including Word, InDesign, and PDF, can be printed on basic in-house printers. Outsourcing is typically required for full-bleed pages or other special features. Online programs are another option for printing planning documents.

Digital-Only Deliverables

Websites are an increasingly common way for cities and planners to share information with the public and a wide range of stakeholders. Many agencies now have paperless standards for planning documents. Publishing documents on websites, and designing them so that they can be viewed on mobile phones and tablets, can save on printing costs and provide access to a broader constituency, including lower-income residents, youth, and underrepresented groups that are more likely to have mobile phones than computers.

Whereas printed planning reports are static documents and are often costly to produce in terms of materials and labor, digital files are user-friendly tools that can be uploaded to a website and frequently updated. The information that websites contain is available anytime and anywhere. Digitized content can offer more interactive approaches such as hyperlinks, embedded videos, and animations, and can provide links to more information and keyword search functions. Full planning documents can be made available as digital files on websites, but they can also be broken into discrete items and shared in a more accessible way to appeal to broader audiences only interested in specific aspects of a project or report.

While the public is comfortable with online navigation and interaction and increasingly expects to have access to information in digital formats, there are several considerations to think about when deciding whether to go the digital route. Documents should always be designed and formatted with printing in mind, even if the requirement is digital. While the trend is moving toward digital, there is always going to be someone wanting to print who will be frustrated if the content is not formatted for them to do so. Formatting for printing is important to protect the brand of the sponsoring agency and planning effort. In addition, many projects require a printed copy for city council or a printable PDF for the project record.

These considerations should be discussed at the scoping stage of the project and at the launch of the planning document effort. Other questions to answer are whether a digital-only deliverable will be politically feasible: will the planning commission or city council endorse the idea, or will they be more comfortable with a traditional printed document?

Other considerations are technical. Questions of equitable access to information need to be addressed, including how it displays on smart phones and tablets, which some agencies require in addition to computer display. Not all constituents will be comfortable with the digital format. Special requests for emailed or printed copies of the report need to be anticipated.

Wrapping Up a Successful Planning Document

At the end of the planning document process, there are several housekeeping issues that the production team should consider to successfully wrap up the report effort.

Even if the deliverable was a print-ready document, it is important to save the final document as a PDF and as an editable version for future iterations. Most organizations have archiving guidelines and procedures that should be followed to properly organize project files and store not only the final deliverable, but the various drafts, research sources, and communication records for future access.

The production team will have accumulated many working documents. If these documents were not developed internally by an agency and a consultant was hired to lead the report process, the agency may want to request certain files before they are archived or disposed of. Often files are required to be saved by agencies as evidence of the iterations during an adoption process.

When the project has been completed and all deliverables submitted, it is a good idea for key members of the team, either an internal agency production team on its own or, if a firm was hired, with the consultant team, to convene a post-project review. Aside from officially closing out the effort, this can be a forum for all team members to share feedback on the process and the product. That way, successful practices can be honed for the next planning document effort and everyone will learn how to improve their approach to this prevalent yet complicated planning project deliverable.

All the comments and decisions from this post-project review should be summarized and saved into the project folder for archiving along with all of the other valuable project content. Finally, it is always nice to thank everyone for their hard work and to celebrate.

About the Authors

Allyson Mendenhall, PLA, LEED Green Associate, is the director of Legacy Design at Design Workshop and a principal in the Denver office. She leads initiatives related to practice-based research, project sustainability agendas, and protocols for project and quality management.

Claire Hempel, AICP CUD, PLA, LEED Green Associate, is a principal in Design Workshop's Austin office. She oversees a wide range of planning and design projects, and has led numerous comprehensive community and environmental planning efforts.

Emily Risinger, LEED Green Associate, NCI CS, is an associate at Design Workshop and executive director of the Design Workshop Foundation. Her work is recognized through many awards and speaking engagements.

Stephanie Grigsby, AICP, PLA, LEED Green Associate, is a principal in Design Workshop's Lake Tahoe office and serves on the board of directors of the Landscape Architecture Foundation.

Design Workshop is an international practice providing landscape architecture, land planning, urban design, and strategic services to developers, government agencies, institutions, and other clients engaged in improvements to the land.

Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
Nov. 1, 2017
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

Table of Contents


Executive Summary

Chapter 1. An Industry Standard for Planning Documents
Why This Report?
Who Is This Report Written For?
About This PAS Report

Chapter 2. Scoping Considerations for Document Production
Scoping Considerations for a Planning Document
Developing a Project Schedule
Developing a Project Budget
Managing Change

Chapter 3. Planning the Document
Launching the Planning Document Effort
Planning the Document
Determining Writing and Graphic Style
Printing and Digital Specifications

Chapter 4. File Setup and Management
Initial Document Setup
Adding Content
Folder Structure and File Naming

Chapter 5. Content Collection and Creation
Research and Data Collection
Content Creation
Copyright Law
Citations and Recommended Stylebooks

Chapter 6. Draft Production
Draft Management
Editorial Process

Chapter 7. Document Delivery and Project Wrap-Up
Printing Considerations
Finalizing the Document
Digital-Only Deliverables
Wrapping Up a Successful Planning Document

Appendix A. Fee Spreadsheet Template
Appendix B. Document Production Checklist
Appendix C. Sample Tables of Contents
Appendix D. Exhibits Checklist
Appendix E. Table of Contents Checklist
Appendix F. Sample Style Guide
Appendix G. Comment Log Template
Appendix H. Quality Control Checklist: Written Content
Appendix I. Quality Control Checklist: Graphic Content
Appendix J. Quality Control Checklist: Adobe InDesign Printing and Delivery
Appendix K. Printing Checklist