Early in the 20th Century, New York City charted new territory for land-use policy in American cities. The city's 1916 zoning resolution was the first attempt in the United States to apply zoning restrictions—which regulate the type, design and size of buildings that can be constructed on particular lots—to an entire city. Other cities followed New York's lead. Developers took umbrage; one complained all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that zoning rules were an unconstitutional “taking” of private property rights. The justices disagreed, and zoning has had legal heft ever since.

But then New York's approach to land use began to diverge from other major cities that opted to prepare comprehensive plans. Unlike zoning, which is a restrictive regime applying only to land use, comprehensive planning weds zoning rules to broader public policies and spending. It lays out not just where buildings go, but what transit services will be provided for them, where the schools will be built, how the new residents' waste will be handled, and so on.

In the late 1920s, the federal Commerce Department created model legislation for states to adopt comprehensive zoning schemes. About half the states have such legislation. Ten states require that local entities create comprehensive plans. New York is not one of them. Some are calling for New York City to reconsider its approach to planning.

Critics of comprehensive planning argue that the plans can be lengthy, expensive, abstract exercises that don't translate into real action—either because politicians and the market can ignore the plan or because underlying conditions can change in a way that makes the plan irrelevant. And there is a general suspicion of “master planning” from opponents of top-down control on the political left and, on the right, by champions of the free market. In New York City, at least three attempts at comprehensive planning have failed in the past century. The city's size, diversity and dynamism—not to mention the political power of the real estate lobby—are real challenges to comprehensive planning here.

But proponents of the approach say that comprehensive planning is the only way to make good on the sustainability ideas in Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 strategy—for instance, by wedding new mass transit plans to the new housing developments where tomorrow's commuters will live. Comprehensive planning also affords opportunities to incorporate community wishes: Portland, Oregon recently completed a two-year public input exercise to shape its emerging comprehensive plan. Some 17,000 people participated.

What does a comprehensive plan entail? Here are some highlights from Seattle's current plan:

Transportation:

  • During construction or implementation of new transportation projects, consider replacing short-term parking only when the project results in a concentrated and substantial amount of on-street parking loss.

  • Support efficient use of ferries to move passengers and goods to, from, and within Seattle. Explore route, funding and governance options for waterborne transit service, especially those that serve pedestrians. In order to limit the expansion of automobile traffic by ferry, encourage the Washington State Ferry System to expand its practice of giving loading and/or fare priority to certain vehicles, such as transit, carpools, vanpools, bicycles, and/or commercial vehicles, on particular routes, on certain days of the week, and/or at certain times of day.

    Utilities:

  • In meeting the demand for electric power, strive for no net increase in City contributions to greenhouse gas emissions by relying first on energy efficiency, second on renewable resources, and, when fossil fuel use is necessary, taking actions that offset the release of greenhouse gases such as planting trees or using alternative fuel vehicles.

  • Achieve universal access to state-of-the-art technology and telecommunication services.

  • Pursue the long-term goal of diverting 100 percent of the city’s solid waste from disposal by maximizing recycling, reducing consumption, and promoting products that are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.

    Jobs:

  • Periodically assess the effects of City policies regarding taxes, fees, or utility rates on economic development goals, considering the balance between economic development goals, financial health of City government, cumulative debt and tax burdens of overlapping jurisdictions.

  • Use plans adopted for the manufacturing/ industrial centers to help guide investments and policy decisions that will continue to support the retention and growth of industrial activities in these areas.

  • Offer apprenticeship and other workplace learning opportunities in Seattle City government, with particular emphasis on providing access to low income youth and young adults from diverse cultures and races.

    Environment:

  • Strive to achieve no net loss of tree canopy coverage starting in 2008, and strive to increase tree canopy coverage by 1 percent per year up to a total of 40 percent, to reduce storm runoff, absorb air pollutants, reduce noise, stabilize soil, provide habitat, and mitigate the heat island effect of developed areas.

  • Reduce fossil-fuel consumption in constructing new and renovating existing City-owned buildings to one-half the U.S. average for each building type.

  • Promote sustainable management of public and private open spaces and landscaping, such as by preserving or planting native and naturalized vegetation, removing invasive plants, engaging the community in long-term maintenance activities, and using integrated pest management.

    Land Use:

  • Consider development regulations that condition higher-density development on the provision of public benefits when such public benefits will help mitigate impacts of development attributable to increased development potential.

    Capital Facilities:

  • Seek to locate capital facilities where they are accessible to a majority of their expected users by walking, bicycling, car-pooling, and/or public transit.

    Cultural Resources:

  • Capitalize on opportunities for promoting community identity through the design of street space, preserving or encouraging, for example, street furnishings that reflect the ethnic heritage or architectural character of the surrounding neighborhood.

    For more on Seattle's plan, go here.

    To see Miami's comprehensive plan, go here.

    Portland's plan can be seen here.