Putting the Vision into Action: How Zoning Implements the General Plan

on January 22, 2014

What is the General Plan?

A graphic from the General Plan Framework Element cover.The General Plan functions as a community’s constitution for future development. Once adopted, the general plan becomes the foundation for all policies and day-to-day land use decisions made within city limits. Accordingly, it guides where we live and work to how we move about our communities.

Both State law (California Government Code, Title 7, Division 1, Chapter 3, Article 6) and the City Charter (Section 553) require that Los Angeles create, adopt, and maintain a general plan. This document is produced as a joint venture between local stakeholders and City Planning staff, and is routinely updated to adapt to changing demands and conditions. After City Planning vets each element of the Los Angeles General Plan to the public, staff first present the element to the City Planning Commission, and then pass it to the City Council and the Mayor for approval.

In addition to requiring a general plan in every city, the State of California also requires that every general plan include seven mandatory ElementsLand Use, Open Space, Conservation, Circulation, Housing, Noise, and Safety. 

Although the purpose behind this requirement is to create a standard format for general plans statewide, each community possesses a certain level of autonomy to rename these elements, combine them, break them up into smaller pieces, or even create additional ones. As long as these seven basic factors are considered, each community plan may be customized to better address local needs and conditions.

Here in Los Angeles, the seven mandatory elements have been gradually modified to include the following General Plan elements:


Land Use - comprised of 35 Community Plans

Urban Form and Neighborhood Design Element


Transportation (Bicycle Plan Chapter added in 2011, an updated and rebranded ‘Mobility’ Element is expected in 2014)

Infrastructure Systems


Air Quality

Open Space and Conservation

Historic Preservation and Cultural Resources


Public Facilities and Services

PLAN for a Healthy Los Angeles (expected to be adopted in 2014)

The 1970 Concept Los Angeles Plan Map, also known as the Centers Concept.

The current General Plan is guided by the Framework Element, which proposes a region of distinct community centers, surrounded by single-family neighborhoods, and linked by public transportation. This vision originated in the 1970 Centers Concept Plan for Los Angeles, developed at a time when Angelenos recognized that a new approach to development was necessary to counteract sprawl and improve quality of life. The remaining elements of the General Plan carry forward that vision, with each helping to make the Framework a reality.

General plan elements must be routinely updated, and Los Angeles most recently completed an update to the Housing Element. Work scheduled for 2014 includes an update/renaming of the Transportation Element (to become the Mobility Element) as well as the addition of the PLAN for a Healthy Los Angeles, a new Health & Wellness Element. The Department of City Planning is currently formulating a timeline for amending the General Plan elements that are due for an update, and developing a routine sequence for modifying the rest.

For more information on the General Plan and its Elements please visit: planning.lacity.org



What is a Community Plan?

The General Plan establishes goals and visions for the City that are implemented through regulations. Issues such as health, noise, air quality, and historic resources easily lend themselves to citywide regulations, but the use of land is a different matter. Because Los Angeles is so large and geographically, socially, and culturally diverse, it would prove immensely challenging to determine the land use goals and zoning for every lot in the City in a single Land Use Element document. 

For this reason, the City of Los Angeles is segmented into 35 Community Plan areas. Each plan area identifies the appropriate intensity of local development by establishing a local Land Use Map (for more information on this process, please refer to our ‘What is Zoning’ article). The map on the left is a visual representation of the land use designations throughout the City of Los Angeles. Combined, these 35 plans collectively make up the required Land Use Element of the Los Angeles General Plan. Each area chooses from a standard citywide list of land use designations and zones, establishes its own land use map, and the 35 maps collectively determine the City’s overall Zoning.

If you want to know the zoning of any specific lot in the City, please refer to the Zoning Information and Map Access System (or ZIMAS).

A graphic depicting the curent status of the New Community Plan Program as of January 2014.


The Community Plans are updated on an ongoing basis, allowing neighborhoods to reconsider how they will grow and develop over time. Updates to six community plans are currently in progress: four community plans are going to the City Council for adoption in 2014, and two additional plans are currently scheduled to be presented to the City Planning Commission in 2014/2015. An update to a seventh plan, the Boyle Heights Community Plan, launched in October 2012. The Central City and Central City North Community Plans are also expected to commence the update process in the near future. Staff assigned to these two plans will be working closely with the re:code LA team to develop and implement the new Downtown Development Code. 

For more information on the New Community Plan Program please visit: planning.lacity.org



How is the General Plan Implemented?

While the General Plan and its 35 Community Plans contain ideas for the future, the Zoning Code is the implementation tool that makes those visions a reality. The zoning code establishes development standards and other special requirements for growth in particular Zones of the City. Each zone permits different types of land uses, be they residential, commercial, industrial, open space, or public facility. The development standards required in each zone are determined by the ideals of the General Plan. For instance, if the community’s goal is to create walkable retail districts, then the Zoning Code would likely require human-scale building design and extensive landscaping in commercial zones.

Until the zones in the code are applied to actual lots through zoning, however, the goals of the General Plan remain abstract concepts. It is through the community plan update process, when zones are categorized into land use designations, shown on a land use map, and applied to development on real properties, that the General Plan visions finally become implemented in physical space.

Because the City’s current 1946 Zoning Code does not contain many of the tools necessary to implement the General Plan, the Department of City Planning relies heavily on overlays, specific plans, and special districts to patch the gaps left in the Code. This practice has led to disjointed, disparate sets of regulations that cover over 60% of the City, meaning that City staff and stakeholders must review two or more sets of regulations to figure out what may be built on a lot. The goal of re:code LA is to gather together the best practices from these various regulatory tools, and consolidate them into a new Zoning Code that is not only easier to follow, but that also implements the visions of the City’s General Plan more effectively.