Harnessing Improvement Districts to Increase Physical Activity
This blog post is part of the Everyday Destinations series, which focuses on increasing physical activity in small and rural communities through everyday destinations. Start your journey here.
Improvement districts are entities created by majority groups of property owners and businesses within designated areas to coordinate and provide public services. These public services are funded through special taxes or fees applied to properties and businesses in the area (Mitchell 1999).
In some cases, improvement districts may also receive public funding, such as access to grants and fund matching (Heller 2017, San Diego, n.d.). Improvement districts go by many names, including business improvement districts (BIDs), special service areas, property improvement districts, community improvement districts, and economic improvement districts or areas (Heller 2017, Mitchell 1999).
This approach creates opportunities for local partners to implement projects that lead to quality-of-life improvements. Though improvement district activities are specified by state legislation that enables and defines parameters for operation, they can be used to support amenities like sitting spaces, art installations, and wayfinding to encourage active living within residents.
Improvement districts have been criticized for advancing the priorities of a smaller portion of community residents and partners (Heller 2017), including practices that negatively impact people who have been economically or socially marginalized in favor of catering to people who may be able to advance economic development goals. This may lead to prioritizing development in gentrifying areas and prolonging underinvestment in historically underserved communities.
However, understanding the perspectives of current community partners and residents about the intended and unintended consequences of improvements districts (Elmedni et al. 2018) may provide opportunities to create equitable community benefits. Improvement districts can elevate the importance of equitable development by integrating equitable goals and strategies as part of their guiding documents.
Planners and affiliated professionals can encourage improvement districts to prioritize inclusive practices that lead to greater benefits for all community members, including the following:
- Creating new destinations and public amenity improvements that encourage visitors to stay longer.
- Establishing equitable growth initiatives, such as improving access to affordable commercial spaces for smaller businesses.
- Seeking diverse representation in boards, committees, and small business ownership (Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. 2015, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation 2020).
- Coordinating workforce development activities, and, in cases where improvement districts hire residents, providing living wages and opportunities for professional development (University City District 2019).
Communities interested in implementing an improvement district can use several strategies to reduce the displacement of current residents and small businesses. Grants and tax deductions for existing businesses and current residents can reduce pressures in cases of increasing costs. If there are active businesses to contribute to such efforts, these steps can support local investments that improve everyday destinations and opportunities for active living for all residents.
Connection to Small and Rural Towns
While improvement districts are more common in urban areas, small and rural communities can leverage this approach to make physical environment improvements.
Improvement districts provide an opportunity to identify what community partners, residents, and business owners would like to improve in their neighborhoods. Meeting these needs can help create more desirable centers of activity that encourage active living and access to everyday destinations. Further, improvement districts enable community partners to implement improvement projects, which can create new destinations and re-imagine existing community assets.
Improvement districts present an opportunity to revitalize communities by bringing activity back to them in creative ways. They can fund necessary public services that make communities livable. An example is Rural Improvement Districts through which Lewis and Clark Counties in Montana identify and fund improvements to existing public services such as roadways, stormwater management systems, and parks.
While improvement districts may be perceived favorably by those who value the use of private-sector strategies to fulfill government functions (BIDs have been credited with applying entrepreneurial, private-sector energy towards public problems) (Mitchell 1999), they may be met with resistance in cases where the district represents narrow interests (Heller 2017). Therefore, striking a balance between resident and community partner needs is important to ensure that this approach benefits all members of small and rural towns.
Case Example: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The University City District in Philadelphia is a BID that expanded inclusive infrastructure, defined by the district as "intentional and scalable approaches to sharing the benefits of an economically vibrant place in a broad and inclusive way" (University City District 2019). This definition supports an array of district activities benefiting residents and businesses.
The BID improves physical environments through placemaking and green space development. To ensure these investments help community members, the district engages residents via focus groups.
The BID also invests in workforce development opportunities by organizing the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (coordinated with local businesses) to ensure that residents have the necessary skills to be part of the local economy. Workforce development is an effective function of this BID considering that almost half of households in adjacent neighborhoods earn less than $25,000 in annual income.
The workforce development program has served over 900 people as of 2019, generating over $33.5 million in wages for participants (University City District 2019). Together, these activities create favorable environments for physical activity and support inclusive economic growth for community members.
Strategic Points of Intervention
Practitioners have a variety of options to help their communities integrate community events 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, click here. For more information on other partners that play a role in implementing the growth area identification approach, click here.
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 the 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.
- Use geospatial data to identify areas that may benefit from increased access to everyday destinations through the creation of an improvement district.
- Identify the creation of an improvement district as a possible implementation tool in community plans (Heller 2017).
- Prioritize strategies that improve comfort and amenities for walkers and rollers near improvement districts within both comprehensive plans and improvement district plans.
- Organize placemaking activities and community events that enhance destinations within improvement districts, and specify how to collaborate with local partners, including improvement district representatives (Heller 2017).
- Engage businesses and property owners that are part of the improvement district as partners during community plan development processes.
- Determine whether there are opportunities to align municipal and improvement district priorities that encourage walkability and accessibility to public amenities for all community members.
- Involve all residents, including residents that lack formal representation, in community engagement efforts to better understand local priorities that can inform improvement district activities. This may be more relevant to improvement districts that have some public funding streams.
Regulations and Incentives
- Adopt improvement district zoning regulations that prioritize operations and management of services that support walkable spaces and accessible everyday destinations.
- Create mechanisms to capture value from increased property values to advance equitable development programs. This can be done through the improvement district, if permitted, by enabling legislation, or through municipal mechanisms like tax-increment financing (Lincoln Institute n.d.). This strategy can create funding streams to advance community priorities, such as education and public health.
- Prioritize improvement district investments near town centers to increase active transportation amenities near concentrated economic corridors (Nelson 2012).
- Encourage improvement district representatives to take part in public planning and budgeting activities, which can elevate opportunities to partner on programs that advance community goals.
- Find opportunities to partner with improvement districts to fund and implement approaches that improve active transportation options and increase the variety of local destinations, including seeking third-party funding opportunities and dividing roles and responsibilities for projects (Heller 2017).
- Create opportunities for input from the community on improvement district activities (University City District 2019).
- Assess improvement district activities that use public funding, such as grants, to better understand impacts, emphasizing equitable distribution of benefits and mitigation efforts for adverse impacts.
- Create small business educational grant opportunities to support current and future entrepreneurs within improvement districts. This approach can result in greater adaptability of existing business owners and help achieve community goals for increased access to shops and services.
Communities have active organizations, leaders, and professionals that 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 identify how improvement districts can support active living goals. These groups can also recommend other organizations that may be able to collaborate.
The following nonexhaustive list of partners offers potential starting points — there may be more partners to consider, depending on the community.
- Connect with improvement district boards and staff, who can serve as advocates for improvements to their district, including updates that align with community goals and create more favorable conditions for active living.
- Build partner networks to collaborate with improvement districts, including neighborhood organizations and civic groups and community partners that provide added services.
- Broker partnerships between improvement districts and nonprofit organizations that can support place-based investments and help build capacity. National organizations, such as AARP, and state-level organizations, such as the California Special District Association, may be able to provide resources for place-based projects.
- Connect improvement district boards and staff with representatives from institutions, including educational entities and faith-based organizations, with an interest in local community activities, who can serve as links between for-profit entities and other community organizations.
- Invite sustainability and conservation groups to collaborate with improvement district projects that promote environmental, social, and economic benefits.
We are interested in case examples that support physical activity through everyday destinations in communities with a population less than 20,000 people. If you are aware of such communities, please share their stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. By directing us to such articles you can help other small and rural communities become more active and healthier.
Read this post and visit the Everyday Destinations project page for background information, additional context, and overarching considerations that support creating great communities for all.
Burayidi, Michael A. 2018. Downtown Planning for Smaller and Midsize Communities. PAS Report 590. Chicago: American Planning Association.
Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. 2015. GR Forward.
Elmedni, Bakry, Nicole Christian, and Crystal Stone. 2018. "Business Improvement Districts (BIDs): An Economic Development Policy or A Tool for Gentrification." Cogent Business & Management, 5:1, 1502241. doi: 10.1080/23311975.2018.1502241.
Heller, Erica. 2017. "Planning with Improvement Districts." PAS Memo, November-December. Chicago: American Planning Association.
Lincoln Institute. n.d. "Value Capture and the Property Tax."
Mitchell, Jerry. 1999. Business Improvement Districts and Innovative Service Delivery. Baruch College, The City University of New York.
Mitchell, Jerry, and Melissa Sultana. 2014. "Business Improvement Districts." PAS QuickNotes 48. Chicago: American Planning Association.
Nelson, Kevin. 2012. Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Rural Planning, Zoning, and Development Codes. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
San Diego (California). City of. "Business Improvement Districts."
Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. 2020. "Equity and Inclusion on Main Street." WEDC Blog, November 18.
Missouri Department of Economic Development. n.d. "Local Incentive Programs."
Active People, Healthy Nation
Active People, Healthy NationSM is a national initiative led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. Increased physical activity can improve health, quality of life, and reduce health care costs.
Top Image: Payton Chung/flickr.com (CC by 2.0). Downtown Mall/Piedmont, North Carolina.