Learn and explore the fundamental concepts of urban planning.

What Are Comprehensive Plans?

The comprehensive plan, sometimes also referred to as a master plan or a general plan, is the foundational document of long-term planning and zoning in the United States.

A comprehensive plan is an essential feature of long-term planning for cities and counties all over the United States, as both the process and the documentation for creating a broad, long-term vision for future land uses and the built environment of communities.

A comprehensive plan contains a map of future land uses for an entire planning jurisdiction (like a city or a county), addressing all of the physical elements in the area, for a long time period (usually around 20 years).

A comprehensive plan lays the foundation for zoning codes, the legal tool for implementing the vision of the future contained in the comprehensive plan. Sometimes the media and the public can confuse the process of drafting and approving a comprehensive plan with the process of rewriting or changing the zoning code, but usually these two tools are considered in separate processes, and in separate documents. Occasionally communities complete a unified development code, which includes the plan and the zoning components in one document.

In current planning practice, comprehensive plans usually set a planning horizon of 20 years—a duration that avoids the uncertainty of long-term economic and population growth patterns while also avoiding short-term thinking that can weaken a cohesive vision for the future.

Depending on which state a community is in, a comprehensive plan can also be referred to as a general plan or a master plan. No matter which name the state assigns or the community chooses, all of these documents will include the components described above.

In the past, plans were created by a central authority with the power to make and implement plans. Plans in the United States of the 21st century, however, are created in a democracy, involving participation from the public and the politicians accountable to them, throughout the process of drafting, revising, and adopting a comprehensive plan.

Two laws from the 1920s created the legal precedent for comprehensive plans—the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act, both offering details about the scope of comprehensive planning powers at the local level. Each state provides further mandates and recommendations about the necessary components of comprehensive plans.