Planner Speak: So what exactly is a plan?

Community planners have a way of taking words that are used in everyday conversations and giving them a new meaning. The word ‘plan’ is a perfect example. You have probably planned out a vacation before: where to go, how to get there, what to do, where to stay, even created a long-term plan for what you hope to accomplish 20 years from now. You may have created a business plan about how your company can grow and adapt to a changing world. Planning is something we all do in our own lives, many times without even realizing how often we do it. 

When community planners use the word ‘plan’, it is rooted in that same concept of looking towards the future and making decisions about what we hope will happen, but when planners talk about ‘plans’ they are referring to something slightly different than a plan for your vacation or your personal goals.


A plan (n.) is a set of action statements that the government has formally adopted. The action statements can be presented as text or visually through maps and graphics. Plans give decision makers the information they need to make decisions that affect the physical, social, and economic growth of a community or region. There are many different types of plans, covering areas small and large and covering all of the issues that are key to advancing great places.

Last week we introduced the term ‘land use’ and explained what a land use plan is. Land use is only one of many issues that a plan can cover. Plans can also examine issues such as:

  • housing: making sure people have places to live;
  • transportation: making sure both people and things can get to the places they need to go;
  • critical and sensitive areas: identifying areas with natural resources that should be protected; and
  • economic development: identifying areas that need more investment to encourage businesses to locate there and bring more jobs to the area.

Housing-2013          Transport-2013

Not only do plans focus on a wide variety of issues, but there are also many types of plans. The areas that the plans cover can range in size from a single site, corridor, or neighborhood to an entire city or region. The plan can range in scope from accessing neighborhood strength and weaknesses to studying market shifts and water quality changes. Examples of different types of plans include:

  • reuse plans, which identify how a vacant site or a site with a vacant building could be put back into use;
  • area plans, which provide specific recommendations for a place like a neighborhood, riverfront, or downtown;
  • system plans, which identify projects needed to maintain, improve, or expand systems like the sewer or public transit; and
  • comprehensive plans, which explore a broad range of interrelated issues, such as housing, transportation, and economic development; and define the big picture vision, principles, and policies for a city or region.

Comp-2006           Comp-2014

Updating the comprehensive plan for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County region, or Renewing Our Vision, is the first step of the RPA’s Growing Forward framework. How exactly is a plan updated? At this very moment, the RPA is studying the trends in our region, anticipating how we will grow into the future, and identifying the issues that are priorities for our community.  We need your help for the next phase of the update: public participation. Check back next week to learn more about public participation and how you can help set the vision, principles, and policies for our region.



Miller, B. (2009). Plans that fit the purpose. In Hack, G., Birch, E. L., Sedway, P. H., & Silver, M. J. (Eds.), Local planning: Contemporary principles and practice. Washington, DC: ICMA Press.

Sendich, E. (Ed.). (2006). Planning and urban design standards. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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