Region Forward Blog

New Activity Centers: smaller more numerous and more effective

Aug 30, 2012


Last week Sophie Mintier a Housing Planner at MWCOG provided an overview of the Activity Centers 2012 Update and asked readers to submit ideas for how these Centers can best be used to guide sustainable development in metro Washington. This week Sophie gives us more detail on how the new Centers differ from previous versions.

Throughout the process of updating the Activity Centers map we’ve received surprised – and sometimes alarmed – reactions to the number of Activity Centers we’re proposing. For the 2012 update the number of centers has more than doubled from 59 Centers in 2007 to 136 Centers today. We expected these initial reactions; after all Activity Centers are a growth management tool so having fewer of these focus areas would seem to make sense.

To explain how we ended up with this larger set of Centers it’s helpful to understand how they differ from their predecessors. In the past Activity Centers were defined solely based on future employment forecasts resulting in large Centers and a map that showed only the most regionally-significant places.

Many of these centers were between 3000 and 5000 acres – larger than the entire area of Falls Church Manassas Park or Fairfax City. In some cases these Centers were consistent with local plans but in other cases there were disconnects.

For example the Prince George’s County General Plan sought to focus new development around Metrorail stations but these growth areas were largely absent from the old map because they weren’t major employment centers. Other local jurisdictions did not have any Activity Centers and therefore their elected officials viewed any implementation policy focused on the Centers as a losing proposition for their constituents.

New Carrollton MD (image credit: Ben Schumin)

As a result of these disconnects between local and regional planning the Transportation Planning Board and MWCOG could not use the map for policy or implementation purposes. That’s why so far Activity Centers have mostly been a tool for scenario studies and other analytical efforts.

We sought to address these shortcomings through the 2012 update. There were two goals for this process: first to better align local and regional planning and second to create a policy and implementation tool for different planning purposes such as transportation land use and economic development. We developed a new approach to identifying Activity Centers resulting in key changes that increased the number of Centers as described below.

Proposed 2012 Activity Centers Update. Click image for more detailed information.

Formerly large Centers have been broken into multiple smaller centers. This change accounts for much of the increase in the number of Centers. For example Tyson’s Corner was previously one very large Center; now it’s four smaller Centers that are better aligned with Silver Line stations and the newly adopted comprehensive plan for Tyson’s. Most of the new Activity Centers fall within old Center boundaries and together they account for less land area than the old Centers. Most importantly smaller centers are a much better size for implementing the types of place-based improvements that will transform them into walkable mixed-use Complete Communities with the right mix of jobs housing and transportation choices.

Due to the new selection criteria Activity Centers now include more diverse types of places. The 2012 update still recognizes major employment centers but also includes many mixed-use centers whether they’re highly urbanized places smaller traditional downtowns or something in between.

On a related note every MWCOG jurisdiction now has a least one place that qualifies as an Activity Center. This is important because Activity Centers provide a way for all jurisdictions to contribute to our shared regional goals and it reduces fears that member jurisdictions will miss out on development and growth opportunities.

Several additional transit stations are now included as Activity Centers. Many local governments are planning for major development and growth at their transit stations and the 2012 Centers update recognizes those places that are identified as local priorities. The region boats some of the nation’s best examples of transit-oriented development. To ensure our future competitiveness and quality of life we need to greatly expand on this success.

The Region Forward team would like your input on how these Centers can best be used to guide sustainable development in metro Washington.

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