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Reinventing the General Plan Blog

The Riverside County Healthy Communities Element

Aug. 20, 2012, 9:13 p.m.

The California Planning Roundtable (CPR) continues to expand the number and type of models for the Reinventing the General Plan Incubator. One of the models currently being compiled is the Riverside County’s Healthy Communities Element which was created in response to increasingly high levels of chronic diseases such as obesity and low-ranking physical environment conducive to health.

In 2011, the American Planning Association released the results of the Planning and Community Health Research Center Survey.  According to this survey, about 1/3 of cities and counties have incorporated explicit goals, objectives, or policies related to public health in their comprehensive/general plans.  The study shows that local health departments were not involved or had little involvement in the development of the public health components for the comprehensive plans.  Riverside County is one jurisdiction working to reverse this trend.

The Riverside County Healthy Communities Element (RCHCE) is the first optional General Plan Element incorporated into a County’s Master Plan in the State of California.  This effort emerged from the Public Health Department leadership’s curiosity and realization that key aspects of creating healthy (or unhealthy) communities takes place at the Planning Department.

Unanimously adopted by the County’s Board of Supervisors in October of 2011, the RCHCE represents the culmination of over 8 years of skilful strategic planning, capacity building and collaboration with different stakeholders in partnership with the Planning Department.

The RCHCE is the visionary living document advancing one of the core principles of the planning practice “to protect public health and safety.”  It contains indicators and policies traditionally not found in General Plan Elements, such as social capital, access to healthy foods and nutrition, health care and mental health, schools, recreational centers, and day care centers.  The model in the Reinventing the General Plan Incubator will highlight two of the most innovative aspects of the RCHCE:

  1. CHANGING THE NARRATIVE: Acting as a catalyst for the Department of Public Health's role as a major driver for planning and community development, and
  2. ENGINE FOR COLLABORATION: Serving as a tool to convene non-traditional partners for collaboration.

Leading the preparation of this model is one of CPR’s newest members, Miguel A. Vazquez, AICP, who currently works as the Healthy Communities Planner for the Riverside County Department of Public Health.  This model is expected to be completed and published by this coming fall/winter 2012.  Stay tuned!

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Aspirations: Some Principles for a Reinvented General Plan

Nov. 30, 2010, 10:59 a.m.

Now that we've laid out some of the potentials and drawbacks of current General Plans (although it's not too late to contribute your thoughts on those posts!), we'd like to move toward the aspirational part of this process. What should a “reinvented” General Plan look like?

CPR members have been discussing this question informally and formally for some time, and below are a few ideas. Ultimately, we'd like to have a list of 8-10 Principles for a Reinvented General Plan.. These Principles will be our guide to how the General Plan can retain and expand its core strengths to guide California communities into the 21st century. What do you think? Please let us know your reactions to these Principles and suggest more in the comment box below.

VISION: The General Plan creates a shared vision for a community's future, and is focused on strategies and implementation tools to pursue that vision.

PLACEMAKING: The General Plan addresses the key questions: How does the community want to grow and change? What is this community going to look like in the future? How will that future be made sustainable?

UNIQUENESS: The General Plan expresses goals, policies, and implementation programs that are reflective of the unique issues and visions of the local community and helps create distinctive communities.

ACTION: The General Plan focuses on action and establishes clear implementation, evaluation and accountability tools, which ensure that the plan achieves results.

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Acknowledging the Gaps: Where the General Plan Falls Short

Oct. 28, 2010, 10:08 a.m.

In our last post, we suggested that it is often easier to recognize weaknesses than praise accomplishments or potential. That is definitely true for the California General Plan. We have been working with CPR members to list some of the current problems with General Plan policy and practice, and have certainly not had any trouble getting input. Below are some of the weaknesses our members have emphasized. Many will not be surprised to see that it is a fairly long list.

Yet calling out deficiencies and limitations doesn't have to be a pessimistic activity. Working with the list below, and with the input of others who join the conversation, we hope to produce constructive advice for how the General Plan can be revitalized and transformed to overcome such barriers. California's communities can do better. Unless we fully acknowledge where the plan is currently falling short, we may not address all the ways we need to Reinvent it. As always, we hope you'll join the conversation and contribute additional weaknesses you've witnessed or experienced, or respond to the ones listed below. Use the comment box below to share your ideas and reactions.


  • Long range planning is often not considered an essential local government service. Given limited financial resources, jurisdictions question why they should spend scarce General Fund revenues to update their Plans.


  • The most pressing issues facing planners and planning are regional and beyond, in scale.

  • Current legislation and planning practices generally fail to establish local goals [and] policies in context of regional issues and policies.

  • The state legislature has not established comprehensive planning policies to be implemented by regional and local governments, although legislation has set uncoordinated policies for a few geographic areas or topics, e.g., coastal zone, Delta, affordable housing, flood management.

  • Lack of regional vision creates uncertainty and competition between cities and counties for jobs, economic development, and so on.

  • The whole of state planning ends up being less than the sum of +/- 550 general plans (city and county plans).


  • Demands to address additional elements and topics are escalating – new legislation; new requirements.

  • State agency planning is fragmented, and state agencies sometimes work at cross-purposes when addressing local planning issues.

  • State legislation is inconsistent regarding the scope and detail of analyses, policies, and implementation programs among a number of elements.


  • Sometimes (but not usually!) CEQA gets in the way of good planning. CEQA compliance for visionary policy-oriented general plans is particularly difficult, and CEQA litigation can stall general plan implementation. Using the general plan EIR as a first tier EIR is a good idea, but hard to do in practice.


  • Because of the huge technical and financial requirements to create a successful General Plan, most of California's communities are unable to undertake a fully transformative process. Communities with financial and staffing constraints are more likely to adopt basic plans without fully considering their consequences or the potential to do something different. Sadly, this also leaves them open to litigation that will further cost these communities.

  • There is an unmet need to standardize modeling and other planning-related technologies at the regional level to provide consistency and eliminate the need for costly and repetitious analysis at the local level.


  • General Plans have often been amended frequently for specific projects, and developer campaign contributions assured project approvals regardless of the project’s planning merits. It is sometimes hard to assemble a single document that represents the General Plan.


  • General Plans are becoming increasingly technical, which works against the goal of a user friendly product that is easily disseminated via multiple platforms.

  • Many sections of the General Plan encompass policies and programs addressing technical subjects that, though of relevance, are often replicated from other policy documents and ordinances and are of little interest to the general public.


  • There is frequently a lack of imagination in execution despite a fair amount of flexibility under the law, and a tendency to treat the General Plan as separate chapters, rather than an integrated and cohesive document.

  • General Plan processes often miss the opportunity to conduct a vital discussion about vision and values of a community. Though there are some notable exceptions, many cities and counties are bogged down in technical issues and/or caricatures of landscapes, such as “rural”, “urban,” etc., without any serious discussion about the implications of these terms.

  • There is a tendency to bypass or ignore sensitive topics like social justice, homelessness, etc.


  • The General Plan often emphasizes paper and process rather than outcomes, leading to a lack of implementation and follow-through with many existing plans.


  • Communities are constantly challenged by the inability to attract a spectrum of participants that are fully representative of community demographics interests.

  • Planning processes are often accessible in their full form to a very limited set of the population, in part because of the technical nature and length of many planning documents, and in part because only special interests with significant expertise or funding (or a financial stake) can commit the time to be fully involved throughout the process. The remainder of the public seems dependent on newspaper articles, talk radio, and special interest-funded ad campaigns.


  • Some general plans have become very prescriptive in their land use designations and development standards, providing little flexibility to respond to evolving market conditions and needs as they evolve over the General Plan’s life.


  • Few general plans are monitored for implementation and updated on a recurring basis. There is little enforcement of legislatively-required reporting procedures and updates. More frequent “fine-tuning” would help reduce the costs for the comprehensive updates that communities have faced over the past decade.


  • General Plans are subject to the whims of the local electorate and elected officials. Even when nearly complete, they can be thrown out or substantially amended, often with little public involvement, so that certain parties can achieve political or economic gain. This sows distrust in the process and in planners.


  • Cities suffer when economic activity moves out of established centers, and the environment suffers, when valuable farmlands and natural areas are not protected at a city’s edge. Too often, General Plans codify pressures to develop in resource intensive ways, rather than serving as a guide for alternative ways to grow.


  • Communities must often commit substantial resources and costs to the General Plan, beyond what should be required to produce a legally adequate and usable plan. Moreover, there is a lack of a stable funding process for planning.

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Recognizing the Potential: What the General Plan Can Do

Sept. 16, 2010, 10:19 p.m.

It's often easier to point out faults than to commend successes or praise potential. This is certainly true with the General Plan: many people are quick to air complaints and bemoan weaknesses about the Plan whenever it comes up for discussion. Yet to focus on the negative misses the fact that there are some really great things that are possible under current General Plan policy and process. To solve the problems we lament, we must first appreciate the possibilities already present. This is the first step in the Reinvention of the General Plan.

CPR members have been sharing their thoughts about the General Plan's current strengths. Here are some of their ideas. What do you think? Please join the conversation in the comment box below.


  • In practice, the preparation of a general plan affords the opportunity for a community to “step back” from its focused project- and issue-specific agendas and engage in lively discussions about visions for the future correlated with the road map of policies and actions to get there. It provides a forum for real thinking about the community.
  • There is potential for the General Plan process to be the foremost discussion of community identity and vision, as well as to set essential goals for sustainability, equity, and economic success.
  • The use of visioning as a framework for general plan goals and policies. 


  • Provides avenue for public to participate in long term policy making as an alternative to project-by-project input
  • Public engagement tools (visioning exercises, etc) that have been developed to be used as part of general plan preparation result in communities involving a wide range of stakeholders, including underserved communities.
  • Because of the broader outreach and inclusion in long-term policy, local citizens buy into the General Plan and feel more ownership of it than they do most government documents. 


  • California Law builds in an ongoing role for the General Plan: Zoning, capital improvement plans, and many other local polices must be consistent with the General Plan.


  • Mandated elements provide a structure.
  • While fulfilling basic legislative requirements, a number of communities have innovated in general plan organization and content (e.g., Marin, Ontario, San Diego, Truckee, Sacramento) to enhance their readability, applicability to local issues and visions, correlation with broader authorities of municipal government, and, in general, create a document that can become a persuasive and respective tool in shaping the future of a community.


  • Sustainability has become a cross-cutting and unifying theme in many recent general plan updates


  • Adequacy and consistency requirements create accountability
  • Requirements for vertical and horizontal consistency.


  • General Plans must be pulled down and reevaluated fairly frequently, opening up the possibility for communities to reassess issues and visions before they become stale.

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Aim High in Hope and Work: Why We Must Reinvent the General Plan

Aug. 27, 2010, 9:59 p.m.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood...Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.

Daniel H. Burnham 
US architect & city planner (1846 – 1912)


History teaches us that great visions can be achieved through long-range, comprehensive city and regional planning. Many of our greatest cities, including Chicago, Boston, and Washington, bear witness to the forward-thinking ideas of great planners, architects, and landscape architects like Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted. Internationally, Paris, Chandigarh, and Canberra represent the ideals of their time through innovative and bold vision of how cities could function and look.And the tradition of great planning is not a long-ago fantasy; cities like Portland, Boulder, and even New York have led the way in recent decades with wide-ranging visions of livability and sustainability, achieved in part through comprehensive plans.


It was exactly these kinds of possibilities that led California to create the General Plan, as a cornerstone of communities' visions for their future land use, development, and functions of government. The  models on this  site demonstrate where California communities have used the General Plan process to instigate vital public participation in governance, to pursue innovative solutions to pressing problems, and to safeguard the places and features they find most valuable while allowing for economic growth and demographic change. The California Planning Roundtable is pursuing the Reinventing the General Plan project because believe that the General Plan can and must renew such great possibilities for all communities. 


So, where do you come in? We are seeking your input as we develop a set of Principles for Reinvention of the General Plan. This blog is a place to share ideas and start a conversation about the General Plan among all our readers, be they planners, elected officials, residents, businesspeople, or other stakeholders. In the coming weeks, we will use this space to hear your ideas and thoughts about the General Plan: what's working, what's not, and what must be changed to help the Plan adapt to changing challenges, demographics, and economics. 


We want to begin with what is already great about the General Plan. Tell us what you value most about current General Plan law. Call it your “Top 5.” Is it the ubiquity of the document, in that every community must have one? The comprehensiveness of its requirements? The flexibility? What else stands out as worth preserving in a newly reinvented General Plan process? We'd like to hear from our readers—be they planners, elected officials, residents, businesspeople, or other stakeholders—about what you think are the greatest strengths of the General Plan as it is today. In the coming weeks, we will use this space to hear your ideas of what's not working in the General Plan. But for now, keep it positive. What should aspects of the current General Plan process should be retained or emphasized in the future? Where have you seen it work well? Use the comment box below to share your thoughts, and check back often to contribute to the discussion.

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