Elements of a Comprehensive Plan

The Elements of a Comprehensive Plan

What does the comprehensive plan contain? In some states the contents of a comprehensive plan are mandated by enabling legislation, while in others the contents are within the discretion of the local government. While every comprehensive plan is unique, in general, all address four topics: (1) existing conditions, (2) goals and objectives, (3) implementation strategies and (4) the future land-use map.


Existing conditions

The existing conditions section is an accurate description of the community’s current status. It will be made up of several elements and make extensive use of charts, graphs and maps. The elements commonly addressed in most plans are demographics, economy, housing, transportation, public services, environmental conditions and existing land uses.

The demographics element of the plan typically contains information about the community’s population by age, gender and racial characteristics, average household size, total number of households, birth and death rates, migration rates and distribution on the landscape. It will also contain population projections for the next 10 to 20 years, based on current demographic trends. Demographic analysis and projections are the heart of the plan because many other plan elements depend on the population projections found in this section.

The economy element provides an inventory of the economic conditions of a community and will reveal how people in the community earn a living as well as the kinds of businesses and industries the community needs and could support. Information commonly found in this section can include workforce (adults age 15 to 64) characteristics such as education level and occupations; unemployment rates, places of employment, per capita income, community tax rates and property tax base, community debts and special assessments.

The housing element will address the total number and condition of the existing housing stock, home prices, building permit data, vacancy rates and owner-occupied housing versus renter-occupied as a percentage of total housing stock. It will assess future housing needs based on demographic projections.

The transportation element will review the volume and usage of existing roadways, the existence and utilization of airports, transit services, rail lines, and trails, and project future volumes based on development patterns. The transportation element should also assess the current physical condition of these systems.

The public facilities and services section generally includes an analysis of water and sanitary sewer facilities, police and fire services, parks and recreation facilities; other land, buildings and facilities owned by the local government; social services and others as deemed important to the planning effort. Along with the transportation system, these facilities comprise the essential service provision network of the community.

The environmental conditions section will include a general description of the community’s major environmental resources, such as soil types, slopes, climate conditions, mineral resources, water resources; and critical areas such as wetlands, watersheds and special geologic features. An inventory of the environmental resources (green infrastructure or special and unique areas) can help the community identify areas that are suitable for development, other areas where only limited development should take place, and areas that should be protected from development.

The section on existing land uses describes, in map form, current development patterns, including the locations of the five major land-use classifications (residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural and public), residential densities, and commercial and industrial uses of special concern.


Goals and objectives

The heart of the comprehensive plan is the community’s goals for itself. The goals and objectives are a direct expression of the desires of the community. A goal is a general statement of a future condition towards which actions are aimed. An objective is a statement of measurable activity, a benchmark, to be reached in pursuit of the goal. Goals and objectives develop with extensive citizen input and are shaped and refined by the information gleaned from the collected data. They provide the necessary focus for long-range policies and action programs. Goals are sometimes included in the specific section to which they relate, for example, housing goals included in the housing section. Often they are included as a separate section because many goals and objectives cut across several topics. The goals and objectives should be concise statements that point the community in the general direction of its desired future.



The implementation section or action plan contains specific, achievable, measurable steps that will be taken to achieve the agreed-upon goals and objectives. Generally, this section identifies the who, what, when, how, and how much necessary to accomplish the goals. This section of the plan acts as the work plan of the legislative body in adopting ordinances, resolutions, programs and other policies, and allocating resources (money and personnel) to carry out the goals and objectives of the plan.


Future Land-Use Map

The future land-use map illustrates future desired land-use classifications, locations, densities and designs, both in developed areas and in areas projected for growth. The map should be developed based on projections in population and employment, housing needs, environmental considerations, and the costs of providing infrastructure to the various geographic areas of the community.

Gary D. Taylor, Iowa State University