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Introduction to Green General Plans

California law requires local governments to have a general plan consisting of least seven plan elements: land use, circulation (transportation), housing, conservation, open space, noise, and safety. The general plan sets goals and standards, but does not regulate municipal activities.

While numerous guidelines and resources are available for the development of general plans, there is a great deal of flexibility as to what may be included in a general plan beyond the seven required plan elements.

Historically, local governments have viewed the general plan merely as a requirement for compliance with state law, but that is beginning to change. Local governments are starting to view the general plan as an opportunity to formulate and express their vision for the future of their communities. The general plan provides a unique opportunity to incorporate sustainability goals into the highest levels of local government, encouraging consideration of sustainability issues in all municipal activities.

The California Sustainability Alliance recognizes five key sustainability principles that local governments may wish to consider in developing their green general plans: strategic emissions reduction, smart land use & planning, responsible resource use, integrated transportation, and innovative waste management. While many sustainability measures are cross-cutting, this framework can help to organize planning efforts.

Local governments may decide to include sustainability measures as a separate sustainability plan element, or they may incorporate sustainability measures throughout the planning document. The Alliance recommends a hybrid approach, with sustainability measures fully integrated into existing plan elements but also grouped into an “Environmental Sustainability” element that helps to frame cross-cutting issues. The table below demonstrates how several common sustainability measures map to both the seven required plan elements and the five key sustainability principles:

Common sustainability measures

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Guidelines and Resources

Development of General Plans is a long and complex process. For guidance, explore these resources: