The Future of Comprehensive Planning Practice

Planning for sustainability is the defining challenge of the twenty-first century. As the leading policy document guiding the long-range development of local jurisdictions across the country, the comprehensive plan has a critical role to play in meeting challenges such as resource depletion, climate instability, and economic and social disparities.

In the twentieth century, the typical comprehensive plan was a general policy document focused on land use and physical development. The plan was divided into separate elements, and it was prepared through a “top-down” process. This model began to change towards the close of the century in response to societal change and trends in planning practice, such as increased demand for citizen participation and a greater focus on implementation.

The following are some key trends that likely will significantly affect comprehensive planning practice in the twenty- first century:

Resilience: The increasing frequency and impacts of natural disasters, as well as severe economic downturns, have highlighted the need for communities to become more resilient— in other words, they need the ability to recover from disturbance and change.

Systems Thinking: The traditional model of separate topical elements is being replaced by an approach that views these topics as complex systems whose interactions determine the form and function of an even more complex system—the community as a whole.

Community Engagement: Rapid advances in digital technology are transforming the ways citizens can be involved in the comprehensive planning process. At the same time, a critical need exists to reach groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the process.

Equity: Increasing inequality—not just in economic status but also in basic quality-of-life issues such as health outcomes and vulnerability to disasters—is a major national and global concern.

Implementation: In a time of fiscal constraints and questioning of the role of government, successful implementation is vital to establish the value of planning. For the comprehensive plan, this means establishing priorities, responsibilities, and time frames; effectively allocating resources; developing new implementation models; using targets and metrics to monitor progress; and communicating stories of success.

Adaptation: Conditions that used to be considered stable, such as the climate, resource availability and costs, and the local employment base, are increasingly subject to forces beyond the control of local governments. Such uncertainties call for an adaptive approach that uses monitoring and feedback mechanisms (a form of systems thinking) to adjust implementation programs on an ongoing basis.

There are no easy paths to addressing these and other complexities affecting comprehensive planning practice in the twenty-first century. The plan standards framework described in the report, American Planning Association PAS Report 578, is not a prescription or recipe. Rather it is a resource and benchmark for communities to use as they develop solutions that work for their particular circumstances. The ultimate aim is to help planners and the communities they serve realize the powerful potential of the comprehensive plan to sustain twenty-first century places.

Source: American Planning Association, PAS 578: Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans

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