The false hope of comprehensive planning

Michael Lewyn's picture


It is conventional wisdom in some circles that "comprehensive planning" and sprawl are polar opposites- that planning is the enemy of sprawl.

But in fact, a comprehensive plan is almost as likely as a zoning code to be pro-sprawl.  Many of the land use policies that make suburbs automobile-dependent (such as wide roads, long blocks, low density, single-use zoning, etc.) can just as easily be found in a comprehensive plan. 

For example, Jacksonville, Florida's plan(1) devotes most of the city's residential acreage is devoted to low-density residential use.  The future land use map allocates 138,949 acres to that use, as opposed to 23,187 to medium-density residential and only 74 to high-density.  (Land Use Element, Table L-20).  The maximum density in the low-density area is 7 units per acre, barely enough to support minimal bus service.  The plan adds that because zoning regulations will allow numerous districts with each residential category, "the average residential density in each category will be much lower than the maximum allowable density" (p. 67, Future Land Use Element).  In other words, the plan contemplates that most of Jacksonville will have far fewer than 7 units per acre.

Needless to say, these low-density zones will be single-use, and are often so large that residents will not be within walking distance of anything but other houses.   For example, my former neighborhood in Jacksonville (Mandarin, at the city's southern edge just east of the St. Johns River) is about six miles wide at its southern fringe- but the only commercial use is on two or three north-south streets, which means that most people will have to walk (or more likely, drive) a mile or two to reach any form of shopping at all.  (Id., p. 153).  The plan essentially ratifies the status quo, and in fact freezes it in place by allowing commercial expansion near residential areas only if such expansion "maintains the existing residential character." (Id., p. 35).

The plan also is ambiguous on cul-de-sacs, a common target of new urbanist commentators.  The plan states in several places that cul-de-sacs are disfavored in new developments, but on the other hand states that the city "shall protect residential neighborhoods from cut-through non-residential traffic by providing appropriate traffic control mechanisms" (p.. 32) including cul-de-sacs.

The transportation element of the comprehensive plan also includes a few sprawl-generating provisions. In particular, it creates right-of-way minimums, such as a 150-foot minimum for major arterials and a 120-foot minimum for minor arterials (Transportation Element, p. 41).  Major arterials are the most important commercial streets, while minor arterials are also typically commercial.  (For examples, go to and look at "10000 San Jose Boulevard" to see a major arterial and "Baymeadows Road" to see a minor).  Assuming 12 feet on each side for sidewalks and shrubbery, that means a major arterial might have about 125 feet of pavement and minor arterials 95 or so.   Since the plan also provides that most lanes are to be 12 feet wide (16 for outside lanes, to add a turn lane) this means that major arterials will could have as many as nine or ten lanes, and even minor arterials will have five to seven. Either way, such wide streets are hardly walkable. 

And Jacksonville's comprehensive plan is by no means the most pro-sprawl in existence; because Jacksonville has some walkable areas and a planning director who seeks to make the city more walkable, it does contain numerous countervailing features.  For example, the plan suggests that parking can be in back of buildings instead of in front.

Suburban plans, by contrast, tend to be more aggressively sprawl-oriented. For example, Alpharetta, Georgia is an outer suburb of Atlanta.  Its plan's(2) future land use map lists a variety of permitted densities; the highest density, for apartments, is only 10 units per acre (Ch. 7 at 7-14). Thus, the most compact areas allowed by Alpharetta's plan are only slightly more compact than Jacksonville's low-density areas.    The plan also provides for numerous zones that are clearly incapable of supporting public transit, such as a "residential estate" area of 3-acre lots and a "very low density" area of half-acre lots. (Id.)  The plan provides that only 4% of the city's land is to be high-density residential, as opposed to 54% for low-density residential (Id. at 7-10).  

Moreover, what passes for compact development in Alpharetta is not intermingled with the city's offices; instead, high-density residential is a buffer zone between the city's large stock of offices (near the Georgia 400 highway) and the city's even larger stock of single-family homes.  (See Future Land Use Map). As a result, most of Alpharetta's renters will not be able to walk to work even if they work in Alpharetta. 

In sum, comprehensive plans will typically reincorporate the status quo.  So if the status quo favors sprawling, low-density development, so will the comprehensive plan.








Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Comprehensive Plans as game-changers

Michael, I found your post interesting, but I would recommend you visit the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan (, which was derived from massive public input (thousands of participants) and suggests a new direction for the City, not a renewal of existing patterns.

Great Analysis and Related Questions

Great, succinct analysis, Michael. The roots of the built, visible environment run deep.
It brings to mind two related questions. One, what/who shapes such comprehensive plans and two, what kind of intervention, if any, can change them.
On the first, many trivial answers are in vogue and plenty of finger pointing like a) lack of vision b) lack of political will c) the developers lobby and d) the devil masquerading as a car.
On the second, other than a shallow answer, “hire a New Urbanist planning firm” to write the plan, I have no idea. If I recall correctly, the plans for Goodbee Square and Windsor golf community (exo-suburb) by DPZ had similar densities.
Any ideas from your studies of sprawl?

By the way, in your excellent study comparing Canadian and US sprawl, it was pointed out that a new version of cul-de-sac can achieve both traffic calming and walkabilty, the connected cul-de-sac. Some jurisdictions call for this variety explicitly. Jacksonville could use them.

Comprehensive Unplanning

And as models for walkable neighborhoods, we look at the sorts of neighborhoods that were built before World War I, at a time when there was no city planning. Of course, back then there were also no freeways and no shopping malls.

This is a point that I focus on in my book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices and in the opinion piece based on that book at

Charles Siegel

Providing lane miles

It is interesting, though, that Manhattan's planners even back in the era of "walkable", provided such a lot of road lane-miles. I argue that without this, it is likely that Manhattan would not be as strong a centre as it is today. While Transit use and walking are very high, both as proportions and in outright numbers, I doubt these results would have been achieved without the even higher outright numbers of vehicles accomodated per sq mile in comparison to other cities.
While I too condemn minimum lot sizes, height restrictions, and parking mandates; I think the provisions of long term rights-of-way etc that Michael describes, is just good common sense. This lowers the cost of capacity expansion in the future. One of the major contributors to congestion, is the very high cost of expansion when adjacent land is built out, rendering benefit-cost ratios unviable.
Angel et al in "Making Room for a Planet of Cities" discuss this very well.

Robert Goodspeed's picture

How to achieve normative goals through planning

We should remember these plans are the products of processes that differ significantly in their details and structure. Although all processes are mandated to be somewhat participatory, it is up to the ultimate authors -- planners and the elected officials they work for -- to determine how much the plan conforms to the views of the participants.

In addition, one of the interesting things about planning is that a good process can create a consensus to make changes, or even change participants' minds through social learning. Conversely, it is also difficult to make big changes without a plan. Good planning research can help us understand how to achieve these outcomes more consistently.

However, it might be that the planner's views are very far from what is possible through a planning process. In that case, the only option I see is to take the position of an advocate, engaging in issue advocacy and organizing. I argued in this space this sort of advocacy was needed even where the plans and regulations advocated for "smart growth."

Does not represent all comp plans

The title of this post implies a problem with comprehensive planning inherently, but the content of the post criticizes specific elements of certain comprehensive plans. These are two very different assertions to make. In fact, it's not entirely clear to me that the processes that created the plans mentioned are broken. Maybe this really does reflect what the people of Jacksonville and Alpharetta want, and it's the imperative of folks in these communities who believe this does not represent a sustainable vision to make a more convincing case. I could point to some other comprehensive plans that do clearly move the conversation forward.

The people's choice

Yes, plans that have had a lot of publicity and aroused a lot of debate, usually reflect what the local people want, or have been led to believe to be "best for them".
The Conservative government in Britain right now is copping criticism from almost everyone for daring to try and boost new housing development along to make prices more affordable again. The fact that most Poms "think" Britain is already over 50% urbanised when it is more like 8%, seems to have eluded them. Not to mention the increasing shortage of homes, numbering in the millions and rising, as build rates fall and employment in the construction industry falls.
I am sure that minimum lot sizes, height restrictions, and parking mandates in many cities in the USA, are just as poorly informed a "choice" as Britain's very constraining planning system is. But any people who reject urban growth boundaries or proxies for them, are very wise indeed, given the evidence of the consequences.

What an over generalization

I think you will find many a comprehensive plan that is trying to undue the ills of the past. However, you are dealing in a political environmnt and there are real people that live in cities that have an opinion about what their communities should look and feel like. It just isn't the comprehensive plan either. Lenders play a major role in what they are willing to fund. State and federal agencies play a role with grant formulas that score higher on greenfield "known sites" than the "unknowns" of reuse and revitilization sites. State departments of transportation and their engineers are just now starting to embrace complete streets and the idea that they are for more than just cars. How many miles will need retrofit? Dillons rule versus Home rule states and the flexibility that local governments have to deal with urban isues and sprawl. Intergaovernmental cooperation in complex metropolitan regions to get everyone singing from the same sheet of music. So to over generalize and just calling out the comprehensive plan is plain uninformed and idealistic. This is a complex puzzle that includes many players. Lets treat this isue in that light.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Thanks for your comments

Your comments will be very helpful if I ever turn this into a scholarly article (which I might do next year). Just to clarify: I'm not arguing that all comprehensive plans are bad.

Rather, my point is (or will be if I ever expand this) that comprehensive plans are a process, not a substantive remedy. So if you want sprawl a comprehensive plan can give you that- though if you want something else a comprehensive plan can give you that too. (assuming it is followed- but that's another discussion entirely!)

Earth to Michael Lewyn

Free market capitalism will generally make anything grow like hell (between recessions)--Recognize US growth for what it is and will always be and stop wringing your hands over it--it's wild west, "shootin tootin"--no holds barred---let her rip expansion with the words regulation and control officially designated as crimes against nature and something only perverts engage in. Live with it. Get over it.

"Comprehensive" Plan--geeezzz. Come on down to Houston we'll show how it's really done Rick Perry style

Oil and Water--"Planning" and Free Market Capitalism

Little Toot (US) seems to be finally growing up--wonders never cease.

The United States is gradually realizing that it sold it's sole for any chance of orderly, imaginative urban expansion when it passionately embraced Free Market Capitalism as the decider of choice for how to grow. Yanks don't like hearing that but the smart ones, particularly those who have worked extensively outside of the US in environments where Urban Design and Planning objectives are established and controlled ,to a much larger degree than we could ever imagine, by "big brother" or "monolithic government regulation" . Yes guys Paris is but one of many examples of those poor dumb socialists and their cold impersonal cities.

Amusing as hell when you hear US types swear they are not brainwashed but the reality is the Capitalistic system here has been far more effective at indoctrinating it's masses than "socialistic" countries will ever be.

Get over it guys--your system has produced volumes of crap in the name of growth--and the "comprehensive" planning voodoo that endorses it is now and will always be a sick fckng joke.

Michael Lewyn's picture

NYC roads?

Here's a blog post suggested that NYC actually has a pretty low road supply: (4th and 5th tables)

But I haven't thought through the issue myself, just thought I'd pass it on for the sake of discussion.

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