Planners Look to ‘Activity Centers’ for Sustainable Development

While the term “15-minute city” has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists to push baseless claims, a new concept may be taking its place. As Gaby Galvin writes in Smart Cities Dive, “as city leaders look to promote more sustainable growth, they’re relying on ‘activity centers’ — hyperlocal hubs of business, retail, tourism, civic institutions and social pursuits — to help people access everything they need with less or no driving.”

Although “Conventional wisdom suggests that greater population density translates to more walking, biking and public transit use, thus lowering carbon emissions from cars,” Galvin explains that “the relationship isn’t actually so straightforward, with local policies playing a major role, researchers say.” Now, policymakers in cities including Boise and San Antonio are looking to existing activity centers as a model for sustainable future development and identifying policies that will support dense, transit-oriented development.

According to Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, “It’s less about just concentrating [homes and jobs] so that people can use transit to get to those parts of the region, [and more about] trying to concentrate more of the work and play around these activity centers.”

Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, cautions that activity centers, far from a panacea, can easily encourage more driving if built around sprawling shopping centers, for example. “Ultimately, identifying where activity centers are in a metro area is just one tool for city planners, developers and local officials as they map out the future of their regions.” Tomer adds, “The activity center framework ‘should help inform a sweeping set of decisions: Where do we want to prioritize development? How do we better understand which neighborhoods interact more with one another, so we can do certain investments in these places?’”

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