Unpacking the plans: #MasterPlan, #ComprehensivePlan, or #StrategicPlan ?

I’ve recently participated in some organizational planning exercises through committee work with non-profit organizations as well as the 100+ person firm work at, and it’s been great to get full exposure in all the various planning strategies that an organization may undertake. Throughout all these processes, I’ve noticed that questions always arise about determining the difference between these strategies. Specifically, there always seems to eventually be a need to clarify the differences between strategic plans, comprehensive plans, and master plans. While I think in general the average person with some committee experience could likely pass a multiple choice quiz to test this comprehension, it’s much more difficult to explain the subtleties and nuances of each planning strategy. In all fairness, it’s true that these three plans share many characteristics, so I thought i’d dedicate this post to explaining the differences between these plans based on my own experiences.

Master Plan

If you’ve worked with a non profit, corporation, or institution that maintains a physical entity, chances are that they have developed a formalized strategy for developing their space over time. This type of planning is called a master plan. Master plans answer the primary question of “how can we show proposed site development over time?” Master planning is a very visual exercise, and the final deliverable often is more graphic intensive in contrast to lengthy text-based reports. In order to understand and communicate site development over time, several analyses are often deployed, such as: an existing conditions assessment; utilization analysis; capacity analysis; gap analysis; recommended program of spaces; site analysis; and stakeholder interviews.

I was on a master planning committee for a local public garden, and we worked with a local landscape architecture firm to develop a 10 year master plan that clearly communicated how the property should be developed over time in accordance to our organizational goals. It identified expansion and growth projects in a report, and then generated plans and renderings to show how the spaces would be developed over time. One very important thing to mention is that a master plan can be most successful when an organization has a clear idea and focus on their goals and mission. Most organizations go through the strategic planning process before they address a master plan. In terms of time, a good master plan can be put together in as little as two months, but may take up to a year depending on the time, people and resources needed to collect vital information and statistics.

What is a master plan?

master plan – A preliminary plan showing proposed ultimate site development. Master plans often comprise site work that must be executed in phases over a long time and are thus subject to drastic modification.

Source: https://www.asla.org/nonmembers/publicrelations/glossary.htm

While working in an architecture firm, I’ve alo had the privilege of assisting in many of the analysis exercises mentioned above. Most recently, I was on a team hired to create a master plan for one of the more popular museums in Philadelphia. Since the organization already had particular goals identified, we went through a very throughout stakeholder interview process to determine user preferences for spatial configuration, uses, and conditions. One major exercise was determining how the building would be retrofitted, renovated, and/or expanded to meet future development needs, and we communicated this analysis through a sequence of schemes and phases. I particularly contributed a lot toward precedent research, where we identified examples of desired spaces that were used successfully in peer institutions. The exercise was very useful in helping with key decision making from the stakeholders.

Working in the landscape architecture realm in England, I was involved in a city’s planning department project to devise a master plan for improving a particular streetscape. This exercise was informed by recommendations laid out in the city’s Local Plan, also known as a Comprehensive Plan in the USA.

master plan copy
A master plan diagram I created for the City of Exeter, UK. The deliverable was informed by the city’s comprehensive plan document (referred to as the Local Plan)

Comprehensive Plan 

Another type of past planning exercise and deliverable that i’ve been apart of is a comprehensive plan. About 15 years ago i participated in a comprehensive planning committee for my hometown, where a group of people representing the city in different capacities worked with a consultant to help envision the future development of the city. Our final Comprehensive Plan document served as a guide for decision making about growth, development, redevelopment, and change over the next decade, and supports a long-range planning process. I recall brainstorming and drafting important ingredients of the plan, such as a vision, goals, and policy recommendations. The purpose was to be forward thinking and to look ahead 10 or 20 years when thinking about current challenges and opportunities in land use. After doing a quick search for examples, I particularly liked the structure for this one in Minnesota. The committee I was involved with met weekly for several months, but there were also several events before and after either behind closed doors or part of the civic process that occurred. Cumulatively, the entire process should take at least a year.

For those who are wondering, there is a clear connection between a master plan and a comprehensive plan. In a city planning and public policy context, a master plan can be the result of a part of a comprehensive plan. For example, a comprehensive plan may cover the whole city, but would be prescriptive in shaping a master plan for a particular section identified in the comprehensive plan. Also, the meaning of a comprehensive plan can change slightly depending on the scale with “local” and “regional” variants.

What is a comprehensive plan?

“Comprehensive Plan, Local” means the adopted official statement of a legislative body of a local government that sets forth (in words, maps, illustrations, and/or tables) goals, policies, and guidelines intended to direct the present and future physical, social, and economic development that occurs within its planning jurisdiction and that includes a unified physical design for the public and private development of land and water.

“Comprehensive Plan, Regional” means that plan prepared pursuant to Section [6-201] and adopted by a [regional planning agency].

Source: https://www.planning.org/growingsmart/guidebook/three.htm

So while master plans can be used by all types of entities from non profits to town planning, the comprehensive plan is mostly used in community development and led by urban planners. For large entities such as major universities that often function as a city in their own right, they may have their own version of a comprehensive plan. An example is UPenn’s PennConnects, which was developed in-house by my former employer at Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services. We used this document to inform all stakeholders in the region of our plans for land use and development over time. Additionally, it served as an internal compass to help with small to large scale decision making processes. Its also worth mentioning that comprehensive business plans are something entirely different and unrelated.

GetImage (18)
Source: https://www.pennconnects.upenn.edu/

Strategic Plan

Strategic planning can be deployed by essentially any entity as an internal communication tool to voice clarity of purpose and direction of the organization. Additionally, is it arguably a necessary and foundational (and sometimes overlapping) variable for the other planning exercises mentioned here. One can’t develop a great master plan unless they know the goals of the client. Furthermore, its hard to have a clear direction in the long range community development planning without first consulting goals and visions.

What is a Strategic Plan?

A strategic plan is a document used to communicate with the organization the organizations goals, the actions needed to achieve those goals and all of the other critical elements developed during the planning exercise.

Source: http://www.balancedscorecard.org/BSC-Basics/Strategic-Planning-Basics

My current employer takes their strategic planning very seriously and fully understands the exercise’s critical role in communicating the results to its employees. We take half a day each year to review the plan and go through group sessions to offer feedback to assess how we’re meeting our goals. In formulating the plan, we talk about our mission statement, our aspirations, and lay out a concept for meeting and exceeding goals. Because the actual strategic plan deliverable is often a top-down approach, it can sometime just require a month or so to put together.


So, in a nutshell, if you want to go big and are working with a planning professional at the community scale over a long period of time, you’re likely looking at a comprehensive plan. If you want to start thinking about specific land use and development strategies over time for a particular area or property in a community, then its likely a master plan. However, when working with all stakeholders and constituents for these deliverables, you’ll quickly start talking about the entity’s goal and vision. If these are not quite solidified, it’s time to start thinking about a strategic plan.

I realize that we all have different experiences working in these types of exercises, and that there are many ways to interpret these planning deliverables depending on your industry, owner/client role, context, and geography. I’d love to hear other examples, variants, and similar exercises not mentioned here.

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