Creating a General Plan that builds disaster resilience

About the General Plan and disaster resilience

Every city and county in California is required to have a General Plan. The General Plan is the foundational planning document for any local government in California, providing a roadmap of future growth that includes social and economic development. Each local General Plan is unique, reflecting the priorities, constraints, and aspirations of the city or county.    

The General Plan serves as a blueprint for the future, prescribing policy goals and objectives to shape and guide the physical development of the City.

City of Los Angeles General Plan   

General Plans are implemented by:  

  • zoning ordinances: regulations about the specific use of land,   
  • subdivision regulations: patterns of development (land, utilities, roads), and 
  • financial investments: resources that invest in public infrastructure and other public-serving goods. 

Under California law, all General Plans must include certain mandatory elements, including land use, circulation (i.e., transportation), housing, conservation, open space, noise, safety, environmental justice, and air quality. A General Plan can also include additional elements, like infrastructure, water resources, agriculture, arts and culture, and economic development, depending on local preferences and values. Each of these elements must be consistent with one another. As described in greater detail below, State law also now requires General Plans to incorporate adaptation into General Plans, Hazard Mitigation Plans, or other resilience plans.   

The General Plan represents the politics of a place at a point in time. However, General Planning processes often fail to adequately engage and represent the interests and values of frontline communities. When General Plans do not fully engage and prioritize frontline communities, then post-disaster plans likely will not either. Use the General Plan to comprehensively address climate and disaster resilience needs. This will ensure a holistic strategy to deliver true resilience in all areas of the jurisdiction, from water to transportation to arts and culture. 

Steps to create a General Plan 

The process to create a General Plan has several steps, shown in the City of Los Angeles graphic below. The Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has guidelines on each part of the process to support cities and counties in completing their Plans.  

Infographic that shows all the steps to completing a General Plan update including developing a strategy, visioning, confirming vision, drafting, reviewing, adopting, and implementing. This whole process also involves several layers of community engagement, data analysis, and producing deliverables for people to review.
Source: City of Los Angeles

Actions to take  

For community-based organizations and affordable housing providers 

  • Find out when the next General Plan update will occur in your area and participate in the process as much as possible. 
  • Review your local General Plan – even if it is not scheduled for an update immediately, it is helpful to understand what your community has prioritized in the past, and how it does or doesn’t align with resilience needs for frontline communities 
  • Implementing the important disaster resiliency and adaptation elements of the General Plan takes resources. Read more about Budget Advocacy as an opportunity to unlock more local funding for your community’s top priorities.   

For local government  

  • Create a Planning Team that includes members with lived experience facing the challenges that will be addressed in the General Plan. 
  • Ensure that your public participation process actively engages frontline communities. To address inherent power imbalances and the distrusting relationship many communities have with planning departments due to historic harms, start with community-based organizations you already hold relationships with. 
  • Address new requirements: 
    • SB1000 requires General Plans to address environmental justice. California enacted this law in response to the disproportionate pollution burden that many frontline communities experience. This pollution disparity results from structural racism in planning and policy decisions, including land-use choices for heavy industry, toxic waste facilities, ports, and highways, as well as residential segregation and discriminatory mortgage lending practices like redlining. CalEnviroScreen is a helpful tool to see the long-lasting disproportionate impacts of these policies on many California communities.  
      • To meet the requirements in your plan, you must address these topics at a minimum: pollution exposure and air quality, public facilities, food access, safe and sanitary homes, physical activity, civil or community engagement, and reversing inequitable funding mechanisms. Other essential topics to address include disaster resiliency, affordable housing, economic resiliency, workforce development, and transportation. However, it is most important to listen to frontline communities and incorporate their feedback into your plan, regardless of whether it is required or not. For guidance on implementing SB 1000, the California Environmental Justice Alliance put out this Implementation Toolkit. For technical guidance and case studies from OPR, please visit their General Plan Guidance Page.  
    • SB379 requires General Plans to incorporate adaptation into General Plans, Hazard Mitigation Plans, or other resilience plans. Climate change poses an immense threat to California, especially for frontline communities that often bear the brunt of climate impacts. Longer and more intense fire seasons, extreme heat in typically moderate-temperature places, and greater variability in weather patterns are all occurring with more frequency. According to the State’s Planning and Investing for a Resilient California guidebook, adaptation is “an adjustment in natural or human systems to a new or changing environment” (such as the increased frequency and intensity of climate-related hazards or other climate-related conditions). To protect people, the environment, infrastructure, and the economy, we must adapt our physical and social infrastructure to be resilient to the new normal. Simultaneously, we must find and implement all strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce futher impacts on the planet. For data and information about how climate change will impact California, visit Cal Adapt
      • For step-by-step guidance on how to meet SB 379, please visit the Adaptation Planning Guide from OPR. They also have guidance on “Defining Vulnerable Communities in the Context of Climate Adaptation” that can help local governments define vulnerability, identify assets, and determine strategies for resilience. For additional ideas on integrating equity into your adaptation plan, review this guidance from OPR.  
      • To promote climate adaptation, identify possible funding and financing options for adaptation actions. The adaptation strategies should weigh the benefits or downsides of particular financing tools, including special districts, development impact fees, state and federal grants. This is a helpful Playbook that demonstrates how cities across the country have used different funding sources to fund adaptation and resilience. 
      • Advance decarbonized affordable housing as part of climate adaptation. “High housing costs not only crowd out expenditures on other necessities — like education, food, and healthcare — but high costs also limit the ability of affected families to prepare for, respond to, and recover from impacts from disaster events.” This report describes how community land trusts bring community resilience by offering low-cost housing in perpetuity. Affordable housing is often located near transit reducing the need for cars and residents of affordable housing have a lower car ownership rate than residents of market-rate housing.  
  • Since 2012, there have been several updates to Safety Element requirements to include climate change vulnerability and adaptation and greater attention to wildfire and evacuation routes. Read more in these resources from the Association from Bay Area Governments
  • Include disaster recovery in your General Plans that recognizes potential gaps in both emergency assistance and long-term recovery resources and prioritizes the needs of frontline communities. Read more about Disaster Recovery Plans

For philanthropy  

  • Having a robust community-centered planning process requires time and money. Local jurisdictions might not have the funds or capacity to engage in a robust, community-informed planning process. Philanthropy could support efforts by funding these types of activities.  
  • Support resiliency and adaptation project ideas that result from the General Plan process. 
  • Provide smaller and lower-income cities planning grants, additional planning staff, and support to complete their General Plans. Engage with OPR to identify jurisdictions delayed in meeting their SB379 requirements.