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Are Comprehensive Plans Becoming too Comprehensive?

Comprehensive planning is an essential process that helps communities chart a course for future development, identify goals, and prioritize projects. In recent years comprehensive plans have broadened their scope to address issues including climate change, community character, equitable food systems, public health, and more.

This podcast features planning experts, Charlie Nichols, Mindy Moore, Lorin Ditzler, and Charlie Dissell, discussing their experiences with comprehensive planning and sharing details on how to improve the planning and implementation process.

Podcast Agenda

  • Panel Introductions  (00:20)
  • Making Comprehensive Plans More Useful  (02:22)
  • Balancing Community Objectives and Implementation  (03:57)
  • Community Vision vs Planning  (06:04)
  • Preventing Community Planning Fatigue  (08:12)
  • Geographical/ District Plans  (09:06)



Lorin Ditzler

Community Coach

Warren County Hometown pride


Charlie Nichols

Director of Planning & Development

Linn County


Charlie Dissell

Community & Economic Development Director

City of Indianola

Panel Introductions  

Charlie Nichols (0:20

My name is Charlie Nichols. It is my pleasure to be the moderator for: “Should comprehensive planning really be comprehensive?” I will let the team introduce themselves. I will congratulate them on recently winning the Daniel Burnham Award for comprehensive planning. With that Lauren, Mindy, Charlie take it away. 

Mindy Moore (0:38)  

Thanks, Charlie. Today. We’re going to talk about some of the issues that we’ve encountered with planning, in all of our experiences, and then we’re going to take a step back to see if we should approach planning in a different way to try to mitigate those issues. I will introduce myself first I’m Mindy. I have about 20 years of experience planning in both the public and private sectors. For the last six years, I’ve been with Snyder and Associates, and I’ve worked on several comp plans there as well as bike and pedestrian plans and a whole lot of trail planning work. Prior to that, I worked for the City of Des Moines for about six years in the parks department. I’ve also worked in Florida and Illinois.  

Charlie Dissell (1:16

I am Charlie Dissell I’m the Community and Economic Development Director for the City of Indianola, I have been here for just about two years now and over the past two years, dealing with updating our Comprehensive Plan for the City of Indianola. In fact, over the last 70 months of my career, I’ve spent about 58 of them updating comp plans. That includes my previous two jobs, which included independence, Missouri, and Story County, Iowa. 

Lorin Ditzler (1:38

Hi, I’m Lauren Ditzler and I work with Warren County Hometown Pride. We are a community betterment program that works in seven towns in Warren County, Iowa. I work with volunteers to implement the quality-of-life recommendations of Comprehensive Plans and also previously I worked as a Planning Consultant with RDG Planning and Design. Where I wrote many Comprehensive Plans ranging from very small towns to larger cities like Oklahoma City, where I worked on the latest, Comprehensive Plan. Which was the 2018 national award winner for Comprehensive Plans. So, I’ve seen a wide range of Comprehensive Plans and work both on writing and implementing them.  

Charlie Dissell (2:18)

With that, we wanted to get to some discussion questions.

Making Comprehensive Plans More Useful 

Charlie Nichols (2:22

The first question we have is: Which elements people would say are necessary and follow-up actions that would help make Comprehensive Plans more useful? 

Lorin Ditzler (2:30

For a long time, we have had the standards of land use and economics and housing and transportation in our Comprehensive Plans. More recently, the planning profession has been embracing and incorporating a lot of other things that impact a community. We talk now more about community character, climate change considerations, public health, equity food system because planning really can be used to address nearly everything that impacts a community. These issues that we’re dealing with as planners are very complex and far-reaching, and we absolutely need to consider all these factors. 

I see that the integration of these issues has made us better planners and has encouraged better decisions. At the same time, from a practical standpoint, when we expand the number of the factors and the number of topics that we are covering. It makes the process longer. We have more content in the plan. We have plans that they’re taking years to complete when they’re done, they are very long with a tremendous number of actions, initiatives, goals. 

When I look at a lot of Comprehensive Plans they spend the majority of their pages, talking about the things that people don’t use as much. Background information, the demographics, and the public feedback are all things we need to do. But is that what we should be spending the most time on, the most pages on? I would say what we should be spending the most real estate on in the plan is the things that people are using the most, the land use, the vision and goals, infrastructure. And that’s not generally what I tend to see.   

Balancing Community Objectives and Implementation 

Charlie Nichols (3:57

Thank you. Next question. And I will second this one: Am I the only one who finds plans overwhelming, not due to their length, but due to the vagueness of many objectives and implementation steps? 

Lorin Ditzler (4:08

I know that when I was working on comp plans, I was always working to try to figure this out. How do we present all this information? I’ve got 157 action statements. How do I present it in a way that people can digest, and people can make sense of it? I made a lot of charts I color-coded did infographics. What I never did in all of that was to take a step back and say, maybe this isn’t just the communication issue. Maybe the problem is that it’s, just too much for one plan to bear, and we may not be able to color-code our way out of it. 

So, we might need to be rethinking content and I really hadn’t thought about that, until Mindy approached me about this session. 

Mindy Moore (4:50

I think that is what gets overwhelming. The overall content, then we put in a handful of goals and a bunch of objectives and a bunch of implementation, I feel like we’ve shifted to be more actionable because we don’t like that critique that our plans sit on the shelf. We want to put more actions in there, but then it’s too much information because we are covering so many topics. It’s kind of this weird balancing act that we’re struggling with. That’s why we want to have this discussion. Is there another way to go about this? Maybe we have an overarching vision and goals and implementation comes in another form?  

Lorin Ditzler (5:25

I would second that and say that I have found when trying to write Comprehensive Plans I feel like I’m trying to do a strategic plan for 20 years. I’m trying to do the level of detail that you would need for one or two years out to a very long timeframe. So, I think that is what makes it overwhelming we’re trying to be both this long-range vision plan and a strategic plan. And the result is, the recommendations and actions aren’t specific enough to be clear for action, but they’re too specific to be streamlined and applicable for 20 years so we don’t have that balance quite right.   

Community Vision vs Planning   

Charlie Nichols (6:04

Thanks. Third question: How do you manage, or is there room for smaller topic-specific plans, or would the benefit be outweighed by the disconnect? 

Mindy Moore (6:14

I think maybe we have to get to smaller specific plans, not include all the specifics in the bigger comp plan.  

Lorin Ditzler (6:23

Mindy, that to me sounds kind of like the alternative. 

Mindy Moore (6:26

I was thinking about this in a couple of different ways. We talk about the vision, and this is where we have all of our history and demographics and projections and trends and lots of public engagement of what do we want to be in the future. We talked about additional topics coming into play. So, when we talk about health and we talk about public art and we talk about equity, maybe we don’t have a chapter about each of those things. Those things have to be in all of the other structures in the community, both physical and organizational. Maybe those don’t have implementation steps there. Maybe we implement these elements of a comp plan our traditional elements of comprehensive planning, transportation, housing, et cetera, and these become strategic plans and they become a shorter term and we have more public engagement at this stage, and they could be led by departments that are responsible for those things. Then we don’t have implementation and actions that are going out 20 years. We have goals and visions that go out 20 years, but our actions are shorter term.  

Lorin Ditzler (7:24

I’m wondering if we should shift to a smaller plan with technical appendices as background. The comp plan should lay out the overall vision and smaller plans should provide the strategy to reach the vision.  

Charlie Dissell (7:34

On top of that, I do think Indianola’s new Comprehensive Plan did a really good job with tying back to those separate plans that you have. You don’t want the Comprehensive Plan necessarily to ignore that those other plans are out there but to find a way to tie back to them. Before we adopted our comprehensive plan, we did a downtown master plan we’re in the process of implementing our square streetscape plan right now, which is awesome, but our Comprehensive Plan ties back to that. We have a trails plan, we have a parks plan, the balance is to not create a dozen to two dozen different plans that then become even more confusing because you have all of those plans sitting on the shelf. I think the comp plan serves as a way to summarize all those plans that are sitting out there. 

Preventing Community Planning Fatigue 

Charlie Nichols (8:12

The next question is: How do you manage plan fatigue and have the capacity to update a comp plan every five years and a strategic plan annually? 

Lorin Ditzler (8:21

Well, I think part of what causes the planning fatigue is people feeling like the plan doesn’t result in anything tangible. I think that’s part of it to make sure the plan is implemented, and I’ve even thought it would make sense as we were doing a comprehensive planning process or geographic plans. Can we pair a kickoff project or initiative with the planning process? So, at the end of the planning process, we not only have a plan, but we’ve actually completed something physical on the ground. That’s part of the plan. We’ve already done the first part of our plan by the time we get to the end of it. Because I talk to people who say I’m tired of planning, I just want to act. They want to make sure that action is being taken. If we make sure that action happens. I think that does help combat planning fatigue.  

Charlie Dissell (9:08

I would say the planning fatigue is real. I’ve been working on comp plans for almost five of the last six years. I think that’s on consultants and public sector planners to make sure that you’ve got a good, Comprehensive Plan that can look out to that 10-year to the 20-year range and make sure that they’re all measurable actions. 

Geographical/ District Plans 

Charlie Nichols (9:25

One more question: The city I work for has district plans. Do you have any thoughts on how district plans or more focused geographical planning efforts fit into this? We’ve been having discussions about maybe getting rid of the districts because it’s a lot to manage. 

Mindy Moore (9:40

I think if you think about the structure, the district plans make sense if the rest of the comp plan is less specific and more visionary. 

Charlie Dissell (9:48

I think it comes down to the whole one size does not necessarily fit all it’s what’s good for your community. I think there are some smaller communities, where district plans become somewhat unrealistic. It really comes down to what your community wants. Engaging your community, engaging your city council, your planning and zoning commissions, your key stakeholders, and finding out what they want. 

Lorin Ditzler (9:05

I think the other component of that is if you’re doing something like district plans, it seems that you can really only have as many plans as you have people to manage them. So, if you only have one person or two people that are managing eight district plans then that’s not going to work. I think of that as a staffing issue. Who can manage the plan and take ownership of it? It might be a group outside of the city, that takes ownership of something like a geographic plan. It’s a neighborhood association or the business association. 

Charlie Nichols (10:35

Thank you, Lorin, Mindy, Charlie, for the comprehensive presentation on this topic. 

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