Identifying Activity Centers: A How-To Guide

PAS Memo 116

By DW Rowlands, Tracy Loh


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All regions and communities have areas where we go when we are not at home. These are places where economic, social, and civic activity, as well as key infrastructure assets, are concentrated. These clusters of activity, or activity centers, are the building blocks of our economy.

Developing an accurate picture of activity centers requires a quantitative analysis. Historically, however, planners and researchers have used very narrow definitions of activity based solely on the locations of residences and jobs. Researchers at Brookings Metro have developed a new approach to identifying activity centers based on a broader definition of activity that takes into account community, consumption, tourism, and institutional assets, as well as economic assets, in measuring activity.

This PAS Memo explores this new activity centers methodology as a potentially valuable tool for planners seeking to better understand the hierarchy of places in their localities and to focus investment and development where it can have the most regional impact. It offers step-by-step guidance in performing an activity center analysis of a locality or region and action steps for making use of a completed analysis in planning practice. Planners and decision makers can use this information to support and expand their communities' economic productivity, sustainability, and equity.


Page Count
Date Published
May 1, 2023
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

About the Authors

DW Rowlands
DW Rowlands is a Senior Research Assistant with the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings Metro. She holds a master’s degree in urban geography from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. More of her work can be found at

Tracy Loh
Tracy Hadden Loh is a Fellow with the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings Metro, where she integrates her interests in commercial real estate, infrastructure, racial justice, and governance. She serves on the boards of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Greater Greater Washington. Her most recent writing includes two co-authored chapters in Hyperlocal: Place Governance in a Fragmented World and a series on the future of downtowns, including what to do about public safety and adaptive reuse. She also previously served two years on the city council of Mount Rainier, a small town in Prince George’s County, Maryland.