Comprehensive Plan Standards for Sustaining Places

Welcome to APA's initiative on developing standards for comprehensive plans.

Pedestrian park in Milwaukee, photo courtesy Pedestrian and Bicycle Information CenterAPA's work in developing these standards grew out of a larger APA initiative, Sustaining Places.

Through the Sustaining Places Initiative, the comprehensive plan was recognized as ideal vehicle for addressing the sustainability challenge:

Planning for sustainability is the defining challenge of the 21st century. Overcoming deeply ingrained economic and cultural patterns that result in resource depletion, climate instability, and economic and social stress requires holistic problem solving that blends the best scientific understanding of existing conditions and available technologies with the public resolve to act. Planning processes allow communities to look past immediate concerns, evaluate options for how best to proceed, and to move towards a better future. The Comprehensive Plan has the legal authority to act as the vehicle for guiding community development, the scope to cover the necessary functions and facilities, and the history of practice to inspire public acceptance of its policies. Planning can provide the necessary analysis, the requisite communitywide reflection and education, and the momentum required to respond to these monumental challenges (Godschalk and Anderson 2012, 7).

APA's work through this initiative has resulted in discussion on the issues posed by concerns over long-term global sustainability. From these discussions, APA has defined a set of principles to guide comprehensive plans for sustaining places, and has developed these guiding principles into a set of recommended planning practices to serve as a resource for the preparation of local comprehensive plans.

Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans

The report, Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans (PAS 578), is the culmination of this four-year effort to define the role of the comprehensive plan in creating sustainable communities. The report defines the comprehensive plan standards for sustaining places, which include six principles, two processes, two attributes, and a set of related best practices. The report also provides a process for applying the standards and explores trends affecting the practice of comprehensive planning.

Sustaining Places Webinars

Comprehensive Plan Standards


Comprehensive Plan Standards timeline graphic

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At the outset of the initiative in 2010, APA formed the Sustaining Places Task Force. The task force issued a report recommending that standards be developed as a resource for communities seeking to integrate sustainability into their comprehensive plans. This task force report was later adapted into the Planning Advisory Service report Sustaining Places: The Role of the Comprehensive Plan.

The Comprehensive Plan Standards Working Group created standards for use by communities when developing (or updating) comprehensive plans for sustainable communities. The standards are designed to serve as the concise, go-to resource for desired content for comprehensive plans for sustaining places.

The standards are defined around principles, processes, and attributes, as well as supporting best practices for what a comprehensive plan should do:

Principles: Normative statements of intent that underlie a plan's overall strategy, including its goals, objective, policies, maps, and other content. 

Processes: Planning activities that take place during the preparation of a comprehensive plan and define how it will be carried out—public participation and plan implementation. 

Attributes: Plan-making design standards that shape the content and characteristics of comprehensive plans.

Pilot Communities

After the 2013 conference, APA selected 10 pilot communities in various stages of developing their comprehensive plans to help refine and finalize the standards as well as to evaluate the proposed designation program to recognize exemplary plans using these standards.

Four communities — three additional communities and one of the pilot communities — with adopted comprehensive plans agreed to test the standards and the proposed designation system on their plans These communities went through the proposed designation program, which included filling out an application and self-scoring their plans to measure their plans' strengths and weaknesses against the comprehensive plan standards in order to test the effectiveness of the proposed scoring system.

At the 2014 National Planning Conference in Atlanta, APA and representatives of the communities shared the results of their work and their thoughts about the standards and designation program at a day-long workshop. Workshop participants worked with the community representatives to apply the standards and proposed designation system to the "test" comprehensive plans.

The communities shared how they used the standards, how they found them helpful to the comprehensive planning process, and their insights in our Sustaining Places blog.

Pilot Communities – Plan Development

Auburn, Washington
Foxborough, Massachusetts
Goshen, Indiana
Memphis/Shelby County, Tennessee
New Hanover County, North Carolina
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Rock Island, Illinois
Seattle, Washington
Savona, New York
Wheeling, West Virginia

Pilot Communities – Plan Designation

Raleigh, North Carolina
Norfolk, Virginia
Austin, Texas
Rock Island, Illinois

Pilot Community Representatives on the Comprehensive Plan Standards

"[The standards] couldn't have come at a better time. As a pilot community, Seattle has used the matrix of best practices to identify some gaps in the areas of regional collaboration, equitable development, and climate adaptation."
— Patrice Carroll, Seattle

"[The standards] proved useful in evaluating how successful we had been at incorporating elements (into our adopted comprehensive plan) that would make our city more sustainable."
— Paul DiGiuseppe, Austin, Texas

"Through participating as a pilot community and considering the plan standards during our plan update, we were able to identify sustainability standards that were missing or weak in our plan ... and work with the public to integrate them in our plan update in a meaningful way."
Abby Wiles, Goshen, Indiana

"Memphis and Shelby County have benefited from using the standards as a guide for the regional (greenprint) plan. The standards have been a valuable tool for project planners to evaluate how effectively the vision addresses sustainability best practices."
— John Zeanah, Memphis/Shelby County, Tennessee

Working Group Members

David Godschalk, FAICP (Chair)
UNC–Chapel Hill

Uri Avin, FAICP
National Center for Smart Growth

Ann Dillemuth, AICP
American Planning Association

Benjamin Herman, FAICP
Clarion Associates

Gil Kelley, AICP
Gil Kelley & Associates

Bill Klein, AICP
American Planning Association (retired)

David Morley, AICP
American Planning Association

Erin Musiol, AICP
Formerly with the American Planning Association

David Rouse, AICP
American Planning Association
Formerly with Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC

Jeff Soule, FAICP
American Planning Association

Emily Talen, FAICP
Arizona State University

Karen Walz, FAICP
Strategic Community Solutions