State law and the collective body of court decisions over the years clearly establish the basic components of a General Plan and how these components are to be interwoven to create a "long-term", "comprehensive", "integrated, internally consistent and compatible statement" of goals and policies that reflect local conditions and circumstances. The law requires that a General Plan
address seven subject areas, known in the law and by practice, as "elements", and that each element establish goals, policies, and implementation programs and time frames for the subject matter in each element. The mandatory elements are:
- Land use
- Open space
The law and the state's "General Plan Guidelines" (created and periodically updated by the Governor's Office of Planning and Research to assist localities in preparing a General Plan) includes specific requirements for each element as to the level of detail and analysis that must be addressed in the plan. The "Housing Element" has the most specific content requirements, including its own separate schedule of mandatory revision (currently every 7 years); and it is the only General Plan element that requires the separate approval (called "certification") of a state agency, the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). However, the internal consistency requirement of General Plan law is intended to ensure that all elements have equal importance and priority in their application and implementation.
Beyond the mandatory elements of the General Plan, there is a great deal of flexibility to address local conditions and circumstances through additional elements. Many General Plans contain elements that address the local economy, urban design, bicycle, and pedestrian needs, parks and recreation, social services, public health, sustainability, and so forth. There is also a great deal of flexibility in creating the format of the General Plan so that certain topics can be better integrated. For example, the Circulation element, which has traditionally focused on roadway networks and accommodating motor vehicle movements, has evolved into a much more comprehensive analysis of "mobility" that analyzes all means of personal and public transportation, as well as the movement of goods and services.
Although the scope of the General Plan focuses on local conditions and circumstances, it also offers an opportunity to do that in a broader context. Many local issues are influenced by factors that do not necessarily recognize the city limits: traffic, air quality, housing, natural disasters, and water supply, to name several. The process of preparing a General Plan allows the local community to look beyond its borders and not only collaborate with other communities and agencies on solutions to common problems but also build relationships that can result in more effective policy and program implementation into the future. Within the organization, the General Plan process can be a tool for building better working relationships among departments by clarifying regulatory and program implementation roles and responsibilities and future budget and capital project priorities.