Recognizing the Potential: What the General Plan Can Do

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

Reimagining Santa Monica with James Rojas--from

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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