Everyday Destinations

Advancing Active Living Through Adaptive Reuse

Planning Approaches to Encourage Physical Activity in Small and Rural Communities

Adaptive reuse encourages active living by converting previously unoccupied or under-occupied spaces — which may already connect to town amenities, such as sidewalks, public transportation, and economic centers — into destinations. Adaptive reuse is the practice of remodeling or repurposing an underutilized building to fulfill a need different from the original intended use (Burayidi 2018).

This approach is used in historic preservation to protect design elements that contribute to local character. Private developers, community-based organizations, economic development entities, and other community partners can work together to implement adaptive reuse projects. Examples of this approach are visible in communities where land-use needs have changed over time; for example, some communities have converted underused malls and industrial buildings into retail, dining, and recreational spaces. Read more on how partners can work together to encourage adaptive reuse in their communities.

Equity Considerations

Adaptive reuse can help communities achieve equitable development goals by reducing barriers of entry for partners and entrepreneurs, such as small retail businesses and service providers, who are interested in (re)locating in areas of existing development. This approach may provide lower-cost options (in comparison to new builds) to small and minority-owned businesses.

Implementing adaptive reuse projects in historically disinvested areas can result in greater access to amenities and destinations in those areas. Grants and educational programs that support small-scale adaptive reuse projects can provide access to the financial support needed for implementing reuse projects, which may also encourage economic development in the community. Additionally, reusing vacant spaces and neglected buildings in areas experiencing decreasing economic activity may also improve the perceived safety and walkability in those areas (Georgetown Law n.d.).

This approach can present challenges because it increases the desirability of an area. Areas or neighborhoods with multiple adaptive reuse projects may have heightened demand for residential and commercial space, driving up property values and contributing to displacement and gentrification. While these conditions benefit property owners and increase tax revenue, they may have the unintended consequence of displacing people with lower incomes.

Communities can combine adaptive reuse projects with affordable housing and affordable commercial space programs to avoid displacement. Other strategies, such as investing in workforce training, providing social services, and generating community benefits agreements, can ensure that adaptive reuse projects benefit residents across income levels.

This image shows a facade of a building that has been adapted from an auto repair shop to a special events venue in Downtown Ellensburg.

This historic building in Ellensburg, Washington, was previously an auto repair shop. In this image, the building houses a catering business and a special events venue. Ellensburg Downtown Association/flickr.com< (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Connection to Small and Rural Towns

In small communities that have vacant industrial properties or unused spaces such as malls, adaptive reuse can be a lower-cost approach to meet community needs because it uses existing infrastructure. This approach can increase destinations in existing commercial districts and increase perceptions of safety by activating underutilized spaces. Adaptive reuse can also support mixed-use development, which may lead to increased community services and goods under one roof or within an area.

Additionally, this approach helps preserve the historic character and traditional design elements of buildings, which may be a community priority in small and rural towns. Adaptive reuse can also complement open space preservation priorities by using previously developed land instead of greenfield land.

Case Example: Schenectady, New York

Schenectady, New York, is home to 845 Commons, an adaptive reuse property that aims to meet the needs of residents who have been economically and socially marginalized. The 100-year-old property was adapted from a former insulator-production company to a 155-unit housing complex, which is supported by the County's Department of Social Services, located onsite at an adaptively reused mill building. 845 Commons offers convenient access to health care, employment training and placement, and a nearby central business district.

The project required multiple partnerships to secure sufficient funding for renovations. Partners included local entities (including the municipal government, a development authority, an industrial development agency, and the local YMCA), state offices (including the offices of Homes and Community Renewal, Temporary and Disability Assistance, and Historic Preservation), and private-sector partners. Collectively, project partners secured $26.2 million in funding, resulting in a project that is aligned with the community's goal of downtown redevelopment that also increases access to affordable housing.

Strategic Points of Intervention

Practitioners have a variety of options to help their communities integrate adaptive reuse into their practice. 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.

Plan Making

  • Incorporate adaptive reuse goals within subarea, functional, or comprehensive plans. Subarea plans encourage concentrated adaptive reuse programs, which can lead to more visible results than if the efforts were dispersed across a municipality (Burayidi 2018).
  • Identify existing building stock that is suitable for adaptive reuse and align policies with community growth priorities (Bellingham 2019).
    • Apply adaptive reuse strategies within growth areas [link to corresponding blog post] to concentrate on walkable destinations in targeted areas.
    • Engage community members and partners to identify potential adaptive reuse sites that can lead to desirable community destinations. They can also provide information on which sites and structures are underutilized and could be adapted to provide more comprehensive community benefits.
  • Integrate forward-thinking goals and strategies for new construction that consider future adaptive reuse (Bellingham 2019), such as using durable materials, separating systems to allow for repair, and requiring flat floors (American Institute of Architects 2020). This approach can provide the policy basis to ensure that infrastructure investments continue to benefit the community, even as the local industrial mix and land-use demands change over time.

Regulations and Incentives

For an example of model guiding policy and ordinance language, see the Model Adaptive Reuse Ordinance from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Development Work

  • Implement permitting assistance processes, such as presubmission and post-submission meetings, for adaptive reuse projects (Fairfax County n.d.) to make the process smoother and more helpful.
  • Provide staff support and educational materials to reduce barriers to development applications (Chesco County Planning Commission n.d.).
  • Provide data and mapping tools (e.g., online maps) to highlight buildings with reuse potential (National Trust for Historic Preservation 2017). A spatial database of potential adaptive reuse buildings can help built environment staff prioritize the buildings that have the potential to improve walkability.

Public Investment

  • Offer grants and loans to encourage adaptive reuse for both small and large projects. In some communities, this can be part of historic preservation programs.
  • Provide technical assistance programs and educational opportunities to support adaptive reuse projects (City of Vancouver n.d.).
  • Invest in capital improvement projects that support adaptive reuse in key locations, such as commercial corridors, underinvested areas, and areas lacking a network of connected destinations.
  • Identify opportunities to partner with local, statewide, and national funding agencies that could provide capital funds for historic preservation projects. Funding can help community partners overcome challenges related to cost-prohibitive remediations, repairs, and updates.

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.

  • Gather input from community members regarding potential adaptive reuse opportunities and community needs.
  • Determine whether community organizations and land banking authorities (government entities that convert underutilized properties into productive assets) are interested in and capable of implementing adaptive reuse programs (National Trust for Historic Preservation 2017).
  • Connect with land trusts to explore options for preserving the affordability of adapted buildings. Find out if they have resources and recommendations to prevent displacement.
  • Identify potential occupants who may be interested in an adapted space once completed, including small businesses, nonprofit organizations, institutions, makers and artists, and community members.
  • Discuss options for adaptive reuse with realtors to encourage potential investors to consider existing buildings.
  • Engage economic development departments or their equivalents to gather information on implementation support that they could offer to advance adaptive reuse.
  • Collaborate with historic preservation groups to gain community support for preserving community character and enabling building reuse.
  • Partner with business improvement districts to collect information on local business needs.

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.


American Institute of Architects. 2020. Buildings That Last: Design for Adaptability, Deconstruction, and Reuse.

Bellingham, Port of, and City of Bellingham (Washington). 2019. The Waterfront District Subarea Plan.

Buyaridi, Michael A. 2018. Downtown Planning for Smaller and Midsize Communities. PAS Report 590.

Chesco County Planning Department (PA). n.d. "Adaptive Reuse." Municipal Corner: Planning Toolbox.

Easton (Pennsylvania), City of. 2021."595-22 Adaptive Reuse District." Zoning Code.

Fairfax County (Virginia). n.d. "Adaptive Reuse Program."

Georgetown Law. n.d. "Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit: Partnerships for Adaptive Reuse." Georgetown Climate Center.

ICMA Center for Sustainable Communities. n.d. "Asset-Based Economic Development: Building Sustainable Small and Rural Communities."

Long Beach (California), City of 2014. Adaptive Reuse Technical Manual.

National Association of Home Builders. n.d. "Overview: Encourage Adaptive Reuse, Infill and Redevelopment."

National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2017. Untapped Potential: Strategies for Revitalization and Reuse.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 2007. "Creating Sustainable Communities: A Guide for Developers and Communities."

Schaumberg (Illinois), City of. 2007."§154.197 - Adaptive Reuse Overlay District." Code of Ordinances.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (U.S. HUD). 2018. "Adaptive Reuse and Redevelopment in Schenectady, New York." The Edge, November 5. Office of Policy Development and Research.

Vancouver (Washington), City of. n.d. "Adaptive Reuse."


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: Warren LeMay/flickr.com (public domain). The Ice House, Scott Boulevard, Covington, KY.

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