California General Plan Elements

In California, General Plans have seven required elements:

  • Land Use: Planning decisions begin with Land Use. According to the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, land use planning “envisions the future of a city or county and interacts with all other elements of planning. At its best, the land use element will reflect the community’s vision; promote thoughtful, equitable, and accessible distribution of different land uses…Planners can also use the land use element as a tool to improve public health, reduce infrastructure costs, enhance local economies, and address long-term environmental issues such as climate change and water resources.”
  • Circulation: The Circulation Element is more than just a transportation plan! It’s a strategy that needs to address the movement of not only people, but also goods, energy, waste and more. It needs to work in concert with the Land Use Element, and it is closely related to other elements like Environmental Justice or Community Health. California recommends that jurisdictions center connectivity when designing their Circulation Element and continue to focus on greenhouse gas emissions and air quality standards.
  • Housing: Housing is a huge issue here in the Truckee-Tahoe region, and the Housing Element is a critical part of addressing it. The Housing Element has more specific guidelines and directives than other elements, and the Department of Housing and Development has unique authority over this element. It is also updated more often than a jurisdiction’s General Plan. The Town of Truckee recently updated its Housing Element with input from MAP as part of our role on the General Plan Advisory Committee and Truckee’s Housing Element is currently being reviewed by the state.
  • Conservation: The Conservation Element works together with the Land Use Element and the Open Space Element to enhance, protect and develop natural resources. In addition to setting policies, the Conservation Element describes the natural resources of a jurisdiction, including the land, water and ecosystem services. This element has the difficult job of balancing a community’s development needs with environmental preservation, especially in the face of a changing climate.
  • Open Space: Did you know that California’s legislative policy “strongly favors” the protection and preservation of open space? On a local level, the Open Space Element in a General Plan works together with the Conservation and Land Use Elements to ensure the long range protection of open space lands and determining which areas are suitable for future development.
  • Noise: The fact that the Noise Element is one of the few required elements of a General Plan might be surprising, but noise is an important factor of health and safety of a community. Plus, noise can have a major impact on wildlife! The Noise Element makes sure that a community isn’t exposed to excessive noise, especially in noise-sensitive areas (like open space) or times (like at night).
  • Safety: The Safety Element of the General Plan is where jurisdictions address and mitigate the risk of death & injury, property damage, and economic and social impacts that arise from man made and natural hazards. This element is also where climate change is addressed – a longer term safety impact. Local governments are required by California law (SB 379) to include a climate change vulnerability assessment and measures to address these vulnerabilities.
  • Environmental Justice: The newest required element in a General Plan is the Environmental Justice Element. This element was required by legislation adopted in 2016, SB 100 to address the fact that more than 9 million Californians are at a high risk for health impacts due to pollution. This element is only required if a jurisdiction has disadvantaged communities as identified by the Cal Environscreen tool. However, the Cal Enviroscreen tends to under report disadvantaged communities, especially those located in rural areas. Some communities are choosing to include environmental justice in their General Plans, even if it’s not required by the state. Environmental justice can be incorporated into other elements or included as a stand alone element.
  • Air Quality: The Air Quality Element is required by jurisdictions within the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution District to ensure that air quality measures are included in the General Plan. Additionally, communities that must include an Environmental Justice Element must also have an Air Quality Element. Chronic exposure to air pollutants has an impact on human health, especially young people, the elderly and other sensitive populations. Air pollution also can impact the local economy by damaging crops, vegetation and buildings, for example. California’s Office of Planning and Research encourages jurisdictions to adopt an Air Quality Element, even when it isn’t required.