With little discussion, the Costa Mesa City Council awarded a $665,000 consulting contract Tuesday night to update the city's general plan over the next 18 months.

Although this project has flown under the radar, its importance cannot be underestimated.

As the city's blueprint for growth, the general plan should clearly articulate the community's expectations — how and where we want to develop — so that those who desire to build and invest in Costa Mesa know what kind of standards the community has established.

Frequently, the general plan is used simply as a basis to approve or deny a development proposal. However, as the city's seminal policy document, the general plan should do much more than that. It should help guide the city's decision-makers in all matters of governance, not just those related to land use and development. It's an important tool to be actively used by our elected officials and city staff, as well as developers and the community.

Unlike typical general plan updates, which comprehensively address a range of state-mandated and elective topics, this particular effort only targets the city's land use, circulation and housing elements.

Having managed and helped craft a number of general plans for California communities, I am apprehensive that such a piecemeal approach runs the risk of being shortsighted, costly and disjointed.

It is critical, therefore, to establish a firm foundation on which to build the general plan and its component parts.

The first step in the update process for the community is to define a vision for how it would like to grow and develop over the next 20 or so years. The vision is the underpinning for all of the subsequent planning and analysis, from the development of a land use and circulation plan, to the creation of topical goals and policies, to the identification of specific actions to implement the plan.

Planning for the long term is difficult. It's hard for people to disengage from the narrow issues of today and their own parochial interests, and instead think broadly about the future and the next generation of Costa Mesans.

This is why great care and time should be taken to engage a wide range of people — residents, businesses, children, students, seniors, developers, social service agencies and community organizations — in soliciting input and getting people invested in the process.

This should not be treated like a perfunctory planning exercise, where people merely place dots on a map to indicate individual preferences. The public engagement process should be creative, thoughtful, focused and inclusive.

For example, one resource that should be tapped for a community visioning process is Costa Mesa students. Although rarely consulted directly, students offer new and thoughtful insights about their community and environment. Unlike their parents, they are generally not burdened with obligations, such as mortgages, rent payments or job responsibilities. Their imagination is unencumbered, and we could benefit from their open-mindedness and fresh perspective.

If we're planning for our children, then we ought to ask them about what they find important.

The timing of this project could prove to be fortuitous. Over the summer months the city should take the opportunity to work with the entire community to develop the vision.

There are a number of vehicles the city can employ to solicit input — public workshops, focus group meetings, online surveys, collaborative sessions known as design charrettes, walking audits — and build interest in the project.

If done properly, by November we could have a general consensus about what direction Costa Mesa should take for its future growth.

Imagine what our municipal election would be like if we had an accord about our collective vision.

This is a huge opportunity, and not one that should be squandered or marginalized by ideological perspectives. This is the one chance for the community to set aside the politics of today and focus on our aspirations for tomorrow. It's time for Costa Mesa to have an open and honest discussion about who we are and where we want to go as a community.

Setting a broad, forward-thinking and collective vision would be an achievement worth celebrating.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.