This blog post is part of the Everyday Destinations series, which focuses on increasing physical activity in small and rural communities through everyday destinations.
Community facilities refer to publicly funded destinations that provide essential services, such as schools, libraries, post offices, community gardens and farmers' markets, courthouses, childcare facilities, and police stations.
Communities adopt community facility siting or location policies to select locations for public facilities that align with a community's vision and goals. This type of policy aims to develop community facilities close to where community residents live.
In some cases, community facilities exclude private, commercial, and business activities, focusing instead on essential services led by public or nonprofit entities and funded by taxpayers (Smart Growth America 2017).
Such policies encourage the construction of new development near community facilities, fostering a network of destinations that support active living. It is important to consider both the benefits and drawbacks of a community facility location. Community facilities may create nuisances that negatively impact neighbors, such as loud noises from fire stations.
With community input and an understanding of current conditions and needs, communities can make decisions that create desirable places that encourage physical activity through active transportation while providing access to public services.
Taking an equitable approach to community facility investments means addressing gaps in existing services by engaging community residents and partners in discussions about the planning processes for these facilities, and by understanding the historical context of facility investments.
Professionals interested in improving community health through public investments can seek public engagement from the beginning of facility planning processes. Community members can provide insights on local factors, such as travel patterns, environmental conditions, and perceptions of safety, that can lead to better community facility site selection.
Existing community facility location policies may have favored areas that have historically received greater amounts of funding. This in turn perpetuates investment patterns that negatively impact underserved groups, such as favoring investment near a currently operating medical district instead of an area where medical services are lacking.
Municipalities can review previous funding patterns and take action to correct historic underinvestment that may have disproportionately impacted underserved community members. Without accounting for past facility investments, new facility investments may perpetuate or exacerbate existing inequities in the resources and services available to community members.
Community Facility Siting: Coosada, Alabama, is an example of a community that combines community services at one facility. Source: Rivers Langley; SaveRivers (CC BY-SA 3.0). Coosada, Alabama Town Hall + Post Office 36020.
Connection to Small and Rural Towns
A community facility siting policy can ensure that public investment decisions advance local goals and reflect factors beyond financial cost, ensuring that public investments bring higher value to a community (Smart Growth America 2017).
This type of policy helps ensure that community facilities are located within areas designated for everyday destination improvements. It can reduce infrastructure costs and service needs that accompany community facilities, such as utility delivery and transportation demands.
Further, it can help reduce barriers for community members to access services that support a higher quality of life, such as local events, educational opportunities, and healthcare services.
Keeping destinations within proximity of one another for small and rural towns provides many benefits, including supporting community character, encouraging economic development, and preserving open space for recreation, agriculture, and nature. These features can attract private investment, a trend that can increase businesses, retail activity, and professional and technical services offered within a community (Zigelbauer, Ryan, and Grabow 2005).
Case Example: Castro Valley, California
The Castro Valley General Plan features equity-oriented community facility goals and policies. The plan's goals and policies originate from a collection of major initiatives identified during a visioning process, including an initiative to create a walkable town center and develop community centers, parks, and recreation facilities.
The plan lists overarching policies to ensure present and future community members have access to quality facilities and services. It defines community facilities as services that assist, educate, or provide recreational activities to the public.
The plan elevates environmental justice by stating that community members will have 'equal access to facilities and none are disproportionately affected by any potential adverse impacts.' Outlined within the plan are specific goals and policies for facility types to help guide the selection of community facilities.
In addition, the Alameda County General Plan, which covers an area larger than Castro Valley, requires the inclusion of an environmental justice element that 'promote[s] equitable access to public facilities.'
The county requires this element for low-income communities in the county, including census tracts within Castro Valley, in collaboration with the Alameda County Community Development Agency and the Department of Public Health. The county plans on expanding the area influenced by this element to include additional low-income census tracts.
The county approved a zoning ordinance in 2020 to implement the plan and support public facilities through public facility districts (Alameda County 2020). The plan has remained active, with reports on it published as recently as October 2020, and an anticipated update to address equitable access to public facilities in low-income census areas by fall 2022 (Alameda County Community Development Agency n.d.).
Strategic Points of Intervention
Practitioners have a variety of options to help their communities develop a community facility site selection approach. 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 community facilities siting 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 contexts and constraints. The links at the end of actions provide more guidance materials and examples from small and rural towns across the country.
- Create an inventory of existing community facilities and analyze how current conditions may impact future community needs (Faribault 2020). This strategy can serve as a baseline for future community facility investments.
- Audit existing community resources to better understand existing facility conditions and determine opportunities for new projects that align with current community goals (Frederick 2016).
- Determine whether satellite offices and temporary locations for most common municipal services will help meet community needs and indicate where to locate permanent offices (Madison 2018).
- Select goals and strategies that connect community facilities and support active living, such as locating libraries near parks, schools near residences, and civic opportunities accessible via transit or active transportation options (Madison 2018).
- Connect development plans for community facilities or long-range facilities plans with economic development initiatives, partnership opportunities, and equitable levels of service for all neighborhoods (Madison 2018). Public and private activities can support community vibrancy in designated growth areas.
- Integrate strategies such as traditional neighborhood development and growth area identification to reduce investments in facilities that may encourage sprawl or auto-oriented development.
- Identify parties responsible for community facility location policy implementation, which may include the planning department and local entities that require physical space to provide services (Frederick 2016).
- Include civic buildings and community facilities as key components of development within neighborhood plans (Madison 2018). This approach can support neighborhoods that contain destinations within walking or rolling distance from new homes.
Regulations and Incentives
- Adopt siting standards that elevate factors beyond cost when making siting decisions for a new community facility (Smart Growth America 2017). Examples of factors that are relevant to site selection may include supporting public infrastructure, accessibility, proximity to a minimum household threshold, and historic patterns of investment.
- Update development requirements to locate facilities that provide community services near amenities that encourage active transportation, such as trails, bike paths, and tree canopies.
- Align new developments with existing infrastructure by adopting policies to locate major government services and offices in the town center (Nelson 2012)
- Determine whether a public facilities zone (area designated for government buildings and facilities) is necessary for improving access to local facilities (Rolling Hills 2021).
- Adopt adaptive reuse policies to encourage public entities to reuse existing assets for community facilities.
- Review existing regulations to determine potential barriers to siting community facilities in spaces accessible to the community (Smart Growth America 2017). This information can be used to inform new requirements that connect community facilities to other everyday destinations.
- Identify whether there are specific zoning requirements for connectivity between municipal-owned properties and everyday destinations.
For model community facility location policy language, see this resource from Smart Growth America's Rural Development Policy Toolkit.
- Determine whether capital improvement projects, such as complete streets projects, can enhance access to local facilities. Public entities can collaborate to identify criteria for projects that advance local health priorities and assess project impacts through health impact assessments (CONNECT Our Future Consortium n.d.).
- Use projected population patterns to inform public community facility investment decisions (Faribault 2020).
- Prioritize funding for community facilities in underserved areas by considering historic funding trends and identifying existing gaps in service.
- Ensure that public investments follow recommendations and requirements from comprehensive plan policies and development regulations for selecting sites that support access to municipal services(Smart Growth America 2017).
- Invite local and regional partners to contribute to the decision-making process on community facility location, including school district representatives, transportation providers, and public works departments (Smart Growth America 2017).
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 community facilities site selection 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.
- Include community members and community organizations in decision-making processes to determine what community facility investments meet their needs and would advance active living, economic priorities, and environmental condition goals.
- Connect with public entities that require physical space, such as public schools, transportation providers, library systems, public works, and police and fire departments to identify current and projected needs for new facilities.
- Connect with service providers, including health care facilities, local institutions, housing authorities and advocates, business groups, and food systems contributors, to determine opportunities to bring community facilities and community members together.
- Communicate with county, regional, state, and federal entities to align facility locations with local development goals (Office of the Federal Register 1978).
- Work with transit service providers to determine how current and future levels of service might impact accessibility to community services.
- Connect with public health and environmental health organizations to better understand needs and serve residents within community areas identified for additional facilities and improvements.
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 email@example.com. By directing us to such articles you can help other small and rural communities become more active and healthier.
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, and quality of life, and reduce healthcare costs.
Top Image: bigapple/gettyimages.com (Royalty-Free). New Jersey School and Waiting Buses — stock photo.
About the Authors
Jo Peña is a research associate with APA.
Sagar Shah is a planning and community health manager with APA.