Everyday Destinations

Coordinating Community Growth to Promote Physical Activity

Planning Approaches to Encourage Physical Activity in Small and Rural Communities

Growth area identification is a preliminary step to strategic community development. This planning approach encourages new developments in specific areas, such as town centers, while preserving open areas and greenfields. This approach concentrates destinations in specific preferred areas to help residents walk, bike, or roll from one location to another while preserving natural resources and open spaces.

Growth areas can be selected based on existing community assets and services, including public infrastructure, retail, and housing. By designating areas suitable for development or redevelopment, this approach can reduce demand for new infrastructure and municipal services such as water, sewer, and emergency services.

Equity Considerations

By concentrating development in a specific area, growth area plans and programs may increase demand, and thus, costs, for commercial and residential uses in those areas. Such action may have adverse impacts on historically underserved residents and businesses, especially small and minority-owned businesses.

Decision-makers should proactively incorporate inclusive growth practices to reduce displacement and support existing community members and businesses in those areas. They can encourage programs that promote affordable housing, workforce development, and small business support. These programs advance equitable development and encourage all residents to benefit from increased access to everyday destinations.

Further, programs that require or incentivize hiring within the community can reinforce local economic benefits, connect residents with opportunities to earn living wages and increase opportunities for career growth (RHI Hub n.d.). Local partners should collaborate with residents to identify such solutions for overcoming barriers to inclusive growth.

This image of transit-oriented development in Plano, Texas, includes buildings, a sidewalk, and a train station.

Connecting Destinations with Infrastructure: Communities can encourage growth in areas that are connected to transit networks, such as this transit-oriented development in Plano, Texas. Source: David Wilson/wikimedia.org (CC BY 2.0) Transit Oriented Development, Plano, TX

Connection to Small and Rural Towns

Through growth area identification, communities can select where they would like to see new development. They can use scenario planning to explore the pros and cons of various growth area options and select the one that best meets community priorities. Growth areas can promote physical activity by connecting destinations and avoiding geographically dispersed destinations in small and rural towns.

Concentrating development within a specific area can also reduce new infrastructure costs (e.g., roadways, utility systems, stormwater management solutions), preserve historic character, conserve open and green lands, and reduce uncertainty for developers looking to invest in a community.

Case Example: Wake County, North Carolina

In 2018, Wake County, North Carolina, implemented an equitable economic development program with targeted growth areas focused on increasing economic mobility, workforce training, and small business support to encourage opportunities for "lower-income citizens and communities of emphasis." These efforts are supported by a new tier of incentives integrated into the Wake County Business Investment Grant policy.

Under this policy, companies are eligible for funding if they meet investment, job creation, and average salary criteria within targeted growth areas. Companies can combine county financial support with other municipal incentives to encourage industry and economic growth. This approach adds new employment destinations within closer proximity of low-income communities, supports physical activity, and increases opportunities to build community cohesion.

Strategic Points of Intervention

Practitioners have a variety of options to help their communities identify growth areas. This section provides a non-exhaustive list of strategies that professionals with the ability to influence the built environment can use to improve access to everyday destinations. Collaboration between these professionals and public health is crucial as public health professionals can support planning approaches and engage partners but may not have the authority to implement some of the strategies identified below.

This blog encourages communication and engagement between public health and planners to discuss approaches that might be applicable in their community. For more information on the role of public health professionals in helping implement these strategies. For more information on other partners that play a role in implementing the growth area identification approach.

The following list of strategies can help professionals from different sectors come together and implement planning approaches that support a mix of accessible everyday destinations. Community engagement is crucial throughout every step of implementing the strategies below. Planners and public health professionals can collaborate to create equitable engagement to collect and act on community needs.

Communities should select strategies based on their context and constraints. The links at the end of actions provide more guidance materials and examples from small and rural towns across the country.

Community Visioning and Goal Setting

  • Engage community members to identify growth areas that are supported by adequate utilities, infrastructure, and services. They can also provide insights on identifying areas that would maximize community benefits without harming existing assets, including open spaces.
    • Identify areas where development is feasible, desirable, and complementary to existing land uses and economic activity, such as town centers and commercial corridors (Nelson 2012).
  • Engage community and local partners to create visions, goals, values, and objectives around potential growth and preservation areas.
    • Set goals around existing businesses as the primary focus for growth areas and create objectives for attracting new businesses (U.S. EPA 2016).
    • Develop a vision that values community character and places emphasis on specific areas to attract development while protecting natural areas (Lexington 2018).

Plan Making

  • Determine growth area boundaries through growth management plans and policies (Centre Regional Planning Agency n.d.).
  • Direct growth to new areas by using approaches such as infill development [link to infill development approach blog post] and transfer of development rights, a market-based approach to limit development in protected areas and increase development opportunities in designated areas (Sacramento County 2020).
  • Select growth areas such that they help create a network of destinations and encourage multimodal travel or transit use between destinations (Nelson 2012). Create policies that encourage growth in areas that connect destinations (Lycoming County 2018).
  • Create cluster housing development [link to cluster housing approach blog post] plans to achieve smoother transitions between denser growth areas and open space (Nelson 2012).

Regulations and Incentives

  • Use growth boundaries or zoning overlays to delineate growth areas.
  • Adopt regulations, policies, and development standards to preserve the community's rural character while focusing development specifically in identified growth areas (Vienna 2009; Centre Regional Planning Agency n.d.).
  • Create incentives for local assets, such as local businesses, institutions, and resources, to connect through community regional hubs, such as community development corporations, colleges and universities, and community foundations. These hubs can leverage assets and strengthen residents, organizations, and businesses through partnerships, capacity-building efforts, and employment opportunities, which can create economic conditions that attract private investment to growth areas (Communities Strategies Group 2019).
  • Designate land reserves for future development areas to expand growth boundaries as needed (Centre Regional Planning Agency n.d.).
  • Reduce impact fees for projects in designated growth areas with adequate infrastructure to support development(Nelson 2012).

Potential Partnerships

Communities have active organizations, leaders, and professionals who can contribute to implementing the strategies provided in the previous section. Built environment and public health professionals should consider, and if applicable, reach out to the following groups to implement the adaptive reuse approach. These groups can also recommend other organizations that may be able to collaborate.

The following non-exhaustive list of partners offers potential starting points — there may be more partners to consider, depending on the community.

  • Connect with community members, who are key to identifying and informing the development of growth areas that create quality community amenities.
  • Collaborate with community development organizations and rural development hubs, which can connect professionals to opportunities for development. They can also share insights into the interconnectedness of community destinations.
  • Identify regional partners that can support coordination efforts between local entities interested in developing growth areas.
  • Reach out to community-based banks and financial institutions that can promote growth areas from within by encouraging access to grant programs and other funding opportunities (Love and Powe 2020).
  • Gather insights from local business owners to identify infrastructure and service needs within potential growth areas. This information can be used to prioritize capital improvement projects and anticipate future investments.
  • Enlist public service entities, such as school districts, fire and police services, hospitals, parks and recreation offices, and transportation agencies, to provide insights into the current and future needs of a growth area.

We are interested in case examples that support physical activity through everyday destinations in communities with a population of less than 20,000 people. If you are aware of such communities, please share their stories with us at activepeople@cdc.gov. By directing us to such articles you can help other small and rural communities become more active and healthier.


Burayidi, Michael A. 2018. Downtown Revitalization in Small and Midsized Cities. Planning Advisory Service Report 590. Chicago: American Planning Association.

Centre Regional Planning Agency. n.d. "Growth Boundary."

Community Strategies Group. 2019. Rural Development Hubs: Strengthening America's Rural Innovation Infrastructure. Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute.

Lexington (Kentucky), City of. 2018. "Goals and Objectives: Preamble." In Imagine Lexington.

Love, Hanna, and Mike Powe. 2020. "Creating A Shared Vision of Rural Resilience Through Community-Led Civic Structures." The Brookings Institution.

Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. 2018. "Chapter 4: Growth Area and Future Land Use Maps." In Lycoming 2030: Plan the Possible.

Nelson, Kevin. 2012. Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Rural Planning, Zoning, and Development Codes. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rural Health Information Hub. n.d. "Workforce Development and Human Capital."

Sacramento County, California. 2020. General Plan.

Salant, Priscilla, and Julie Marx. 1995. Small Towns, Big Picture: Rural Development in a Changing Economy. The Aspen Institute.

Snohomish County, Washington. 2016. "Development Patterns." Countywide Planning Policies for Snohomish County.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). 2016. Framework for Creating a Smart Growth Economic Development Strategy: A Tool for Small Cities and Towns.


This image is the logo for Active People, Healthy Nation, a national initiative to help Americans increase physical activity levels.

Active People, Healthy NationSM is a national initiative led by CDC to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. Increased physical activity can improve health, and quality of life, and reduce healthcare costs.

Top Image: Montgomery County Planning commission/flickr.com (CC by-SA 2.0) Spring Mill TOD Transit-oriented development being built in Spring Mill., PA

About the Authors
Jo Peña is a research associate with APA.
Sagar Shah is a planning and community health manager with APA.

December 21, 2021

By Johamary Pena, AICP, Sagar Shah, PhD, AICP