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Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans

Posted by Content Coordinator on Friday, June 12th, 2015



Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans is the result of a four-year effort by the American Planning Association (APA) to define the role of comprehensive plans in addressing the sustainability of human settlements. The comprehensive plan, also called the general plan or community master plan, is the official statement of a local government establishing policies for its future long-range development. APA announced the Sustaining Places Initiative at the World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro in 2010, after which a 11-member Sustaining Places Task Force was appointed to explore the role of the comprehensive plan as the leading policy document and tool to help communities of all sizes achieve sustainable outcomes. The task force’s work culminated in the 2012 APA report Sustaining Places: The Role of the Comprehensive Plan (PAS Report 567). Focusing on both the comprehensive planning process and its outcomes, the task force termed the process “planning for sustaining places” and the goal of that process, the desired outcomes, “sustainable communities”:

Planning for sustaining places is a dynamic, democratic process through which communities plan to meet the needs of current and future generations without compromising the ecosystems upon which they depend by balancing social, economic, and environmental resources, incorporating resilience, and linking local actions to regional and global concerns. (Godschalk and Anderson 2012, 4)

As documented in the PAS Report, the task force identified eight principles that make up the foundation of planning for sustaining places. In addition, the task force reviewed leading comprehensive plans to evaluate the extent to which they incorporated these principles.

Following publication of the report, APA established a working group to develop these principles into a resource for communities to use to integrate sustainability into comprehensive plans. The working group developed a set of best practice standards derived from the principles, drafted a scoring system and procedure to recognize and potentially designate plans for achievement in “sustaining places,” and held a workshop to test the draft standards and scoring system at APA’s 2013 National Planning Conference in Chicago. Following the conference, work continued on the project to refine the standards and address issues identified by the working group and workshop participants. As part of this work, APA enlisted the assistance of 10 “pilot communities” that were developing comprehensive plans. These communities applied the standards to their plans and planning processes. Four communities with completed comprehensive plans (including one of the pilot communities) agreed to pilot-test the draft standards and scoring procedure with their plans. The communities reported on their findings at a second workshop held at the 2014 National Planning Conference in Atlanta.

This report presents the completed set of standards and the scoring system that incorporates the work of the pilot communities and the results of the Atlanta workshop. While these standards may evolve further as they are refined and applied more widely, they are offered here as a resource and toolkit for communities seeking to integrate sustainability principles and practices into their comprehensive plans. In addition to describing the standards, the report outlines a voluntary procedure for APA recognition of comprehensive plans that achieve defined levels of quality for inclusion of sustainability best practices.


The comprehensive plan standards are organized into a framework of related components: (1) six principles, (2) two processes, and (3) two attributes. Each of these components is implemented through a set of best practices. Collectively, these principles, processes, attributes, and supporting best practices define what the comprehensive plan for sustaining places should do.

Principles are normative statements of intent that underlie a plan’s overall strategy, including its goals, objective, policies, maps, and other content. The six principles are:

  • 1. Livable Built Environment: Ensure that all elements of the built environment—including land use, transportation, housing, energy, and infrastructure—work together to provide sustainable, green places for living, working, and recreating, with a high quality of life.
  • 2. Harmony with Nature: Ensure that the contributions of natural resources to human well-being are explicitly recognized and valued and that maintaining their health is a primary objective.
  • 3. Resilient Economy: Ensure that the community is prepared to deal with both positive and negative changes in its economic health and to initiate sustainable urban development and redevelopment strategies that foster green business growth and build reliance on local assets.
  • 4. Interwoven Equity: Ensure fairness and equity in providing for the housing, services, health, safety, and livelihood needs of all citizens and groups.
  • 5. Healthy Community: Ensure that public health needs are recognized and addressed through provisions for healthy foods, physical activity, access to recreation, health care, environmental justice, and safe neighborhoods.
  • 6. Responsible Regionalism: Ensure that all local proposals account for, connect with, and support the plans of adjacent jurisdictions and the surrounding region.

Download full executive summary (PDF): Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans

About the American Planning Association
The American Planning Association brings together thousands of people — practicing planners, citizens, elected officials — committed to making great communities happen.

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