Greenbelt Alliance General Plan

What’s a General Plan & How Can it Impact Our Climate?

There’s no better way to get involved in making your city truly climate-friendly than influencing its General Plan. You’re probably asking yourself, “what is a General Plan?” Before you can jump in and inspire a fresh new approach to city planning, let’s cover the basics.

What’s the Plan?

Fundamentally, a General Plan must organize information in a way that can guide action, and in the state of California, information must be sorted into specific categories. Like a blueprint, just as any building must have an entrance, roof, walls, etc. so too a general plan must contain certain “elements” that group together the many factors that guide a city’s growth

Of course, the General Plan usually doesn’t just dive into the details. Most start with some background on the city or county’s current condition, followed by a vision statement that lays out where they hope to be at the end of the Plan’s lifespan. Then comes the policy-oriented material, organized into at least the following seven core elements:

Cities are also free to add other, non-required elements. Common optional elements include:

  • Economic Development
  • Infrastructure
  • Public Services
  • Recreation
  • Climate Change

Each element is then further broken down into four parts:

Goals: The general, ultimate end that the city is working towards.

Objectives: Specific, achievable, measurable (if possible), and timely outcomes that the city wants to achieve in support of the broader goal.

Policies: A guiding principle that the city’s various agencies will commit to following as they work towards their goals or objectives.

Programs: The actions, activities, or strategies the city executes in response to an adopted policy.

Here’s an example to help put things into perspective:

A city—let’s call it Greenbeltopolis—decides to include climate change as an element of their General Plan. To represent this, they identify their primary goal: reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all relevant activities within Greenbeltopolis in order to mitigate the impact of climate change. Their specific objective is to cut the city’s greenhouse emissions in half by the year 2035. It’s an ambitious benchmark, sure, but Greenbeltopolis is committed to conservation. 

They set forth a citywide policy of establishing plans to reduce or encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors in the city. Then, they create a program which aims to work with stakeholders from the community at large to establish a community Climate Action Plan within two years of adopting the General Plan. The Climate Action Plan plan will include measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions from community, municipal, and business activities in half by 2035.


Put together a few more examples like that, and you’re well on your way to building a General Plan! 

Now the question is when to act? Typically, every element in a General Plan is updated simultaneously, as part of a comprehensive overhaul, which usually happens every 10 to 20 years. But don’t despair if your city’s update isn’t coming up in the near future; as long as things remain internally consistent, it’s okay to revise or add new elements without doing a full refresh. So even if a full General Plan update isn’t on the table, you can still encourage your local government to adapt the plan to address climate change.

If you are looking at a comprehensive update, be patient; it usually takes at least two years to create and adopt a General Plan. But that just means you’ll have plenty of time to become an effective community advocate and get to know your local elected officials. When the process is underway, you want them to see you as a source of both information and political support.

To sum up what a General Plan consists of, remember:

  1. It has at least 7 required elements, along with a variable number of optional elements. These are the basic sections of the plan, the topics that will be addressed.
  2. Each of those elements is then broken down into four parts: goals, objectives, policies, and programs. These elaborate on the broader elements, explaining what the city hopes to accomplish (goals), what it would look like to accomplish those things (objectives), the general guiding principles the city will commit to as they pursue those things (policies), and the specific ways they intend to bring their vision to life (programs).
  3. Alongside this precise, issue-focused structure is the land-use map, which, quite simply, determines how land in your city will be used. You can learn more about how a city determines its land-use map here.

Find out more about how you can use a city’s General Plan to combat climate change by downloading our guide, Green Your City’s Blueprint here.

Need some more clarification around general plans? Click here to reach out to one of our staff or leave a comment below. We’re here to help! 

Photo: Saketh Garuda via Unsplash

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