Comprehensive Plan Standards for Sustaining Places

APA's work in developing the comprehensive 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.

Comprehensive Plan Standards for Sustaining Places

Through this initiative, APA defined a set of principles to guide comprehensive plans for sustaining places, and developed these guiding principles into a set of recommended planning practices to serve as a resource for the preparation of local comprehensive plans.

The comprehensive plan 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.

Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans

Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans offers a framework with standards for creating livable, healthy communities in harmony with nature — communities that have resilient economies, social equity, and strong regional ties. Four steps show how to turn those principles into a plan and score the results. Insights from 10 pilot communities add the real-world perspectives of big cities, small towns, and everything in between.

Comprehensive Plan Standards for Sustaining Places Recognition Program

Building on the experience and success of the Pilot Communities, APA is now working to develop a Comprehensive Plan Standards for Sustaining Places Recognition Program. The Recognition Program will be a voluntary program for recognizing communities that are integrating sustainability into their comprehensive plans. A pilot phase of the Recognition Program took place in 2016.

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Designation Program Background

Why is APA exploring this program?

APA feels (and our members confirm) that we have a critically important role in promoting the importance and value of comprehensive planning. Although many resources exist on this topic, there is limited guidance and assistance available for communities seeking to develop high quality comprehensive plans that are both relevant and effective today. The standards, developed as a part of this project, are meant to serve as the concise, go-to resource for desired content for comprehensive plans for sustaining places.

The standards can also be used to determine whether comprehensive plans that strive to achieve principles for Sustaining Places, as defined in PAS Report No. 567 (published by APA in January 2012), are doing so in a complete and integrated manner. The proposed designation program is envisioned as a means of recognizing communities that are at "the leading edge" of integrating sustainability into their comprehensive plans.

What will APA call the program?

"Designation program" was selected as a working title after a number of possible terms were considered. "Certification" and "accreditation" were among those considered initially, but were discarded based on member feedback and concern that they could be confused with other certification/accreditation programs. Other terms under consideration include "recognition" and "endorsement." As the design of this program continues, the name may be modified.

To whom and what will this program apply?

The program is completely voluntary for those communities that are interested in measuring their comprehensive plans against a set of standards and best practices.

The standards are not intended to apply to traditional comprehensive plans, but rather to comprehensive plans aimed at sustaining places. They are designed for communities that want to go above and beyond what is required in state enabling legislation (if applicable) and tackle the relevant issues of the 21st century.

How does this program relate to state level requirements and guidance for comprehensive plans?

This program would not replace or eliminate the need for a community's plan to meet state requirements (if applicable). It is intended to supplement such requirements for interested communities seeking to address a range of substantive issues.

APA's mission and vision is to provide leadership in the development of vital communities and to develop solutions to address the emerging issues that communities will face in the 21st century. Our members have expressed the need for resources (consolidated, up-to-date, and easy to use) that will help them produce higher quality plans and plans that are more relevant in their community.

The standards are designed to provide assistance on how to create a high quality, relevant comprehensive plan while leaving the flexibility to design a plan that best meets the needs of each community.

How would Sustaining Places designation relate to the STAR Community Rating System and other sustainability certification programs?

Sustaining Places designation differs from national and state level sustainability rating systems in that it would focus specifically on local government comprehensive plans. APA has coordinated its work with representatives of STAR Community, Sustainable Jersey, and other sustainability certification programs. The input received was that Sustaining Places designation would be a valuable complement to these programs and would fill a valuable niche in sustainability practice.

How would this program be operated?

The Sustaining Places comprehensive plan designation program would be a voluntary one for communities seeking validation that they are at the leading edge of practice in incorporating sustainability into their comprehensive plans. Each community would submit its completed plan and an application providing context and background information.

The review would be carried out by trained, two-person teams who would use a scoring system to recommend plan designation levels: Designated (basic achievement), Silver (medium achievement), or Gold (advanced achievement), depending on the degree to which the comprehensive plan standards are met.

APA would coordinate the review process, ensuring a pool of qualified reviewers, assigning plans for review, and maintaining a database of designated plan reviews.

What happened at the 2014 National Planning Conference in Atlanta?

During the six months leading up to the 2014 National Planning Conference, APA worked with 10 pilot communities that were at various stages of developing comprehensive plans to refine the standards and scoring system for designation. Three additional communities volunteered their completed comprehensive plans to "test" the scoring system.

The conference program included an all-day workshop and panel session on the Sustaining Places comprehensive plan standards and potential designation program. The workshop was led by David Godschalk, FAICP, with APA staff. Representatives of the pilot and "test" communities shared their experiences with the program and worked with workshop attendees to evaluate the completed comprehensive plan using the scoring system.

The feedback received from both the pilot communities and the attendees was positive. APA is currently working on a PAS Report (designed as a "how-to" guide for Sustaining Places comprehensive plans), which will contain the finalized standards and proposed designation system.

Pilot Communities

In 2013, 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 a proposed designation program to recognize exemplary plans using these standards. These communities were selected based on the following criteria:

  • Size of jurisdiction
  • Geography
  • Stage in comprehensive planning process
  • Commitment to monthly conference calls and attendance at the National Planning Conference (NPC) in Atlanta April 2014

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 self-scoring their plans to measure their plans' strengths and weaknesses against the comprehensive plan standards.

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.

"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

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

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

Working Group Members

Kenneth A. Bowers, AICP (Chair), Deputy Planning Director, City of Raleigh, North Carolina
Philip R. Berke, Professor, Texas A&M University
Kenneth R. Markert, AICP, MMI Planning
Douglas Melnick, AICP, Chief Sustainability Officer, City of San Antonio
Joanna B. Nadeau, AICP, Audubon International
Petra Stieninger, CCJM
Abby E. Wiles, AICP


Comprehensive Plan Standards Timeline from 2010 through 2016

Comprehensive Plan Standards Timeline