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Planning for Character Areas

What is Character Area Planning? How to Plan for Small Areas |

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What is Character Area Planning?

Cities and counties are made up of smaller areas that have their own set of defining characteristics. A character area plan is any plan that addresses the issues of a portion of the government’s jurisdiction. DCA’s Local Planning Requirements call for identification of many such small areas, or character areas, in each community and for description of a vision for future development of each of these character areas. Character areas are defined as specific geographic areas that meet the following criteria:

  • Have unique or special characteristics;
  • Have potential to evolve into a unique area when provided specific and intentional guidance; or
  • Require special attention due to unique development issues.

More detailed planning work is likely needed to refine the general vision and plan for these character areas. This planning will go beyond identifying the character of the area and what you want the place to be like in the future. The planning will be focused and more detailed, likely considering desired development patterns on a parcel-by-parcel basis.

This more detailed planning results in a “character area plan” -- a master plan with specific design standards and guidelines to direct the future growth and development of the area. It should consider appropriate uses, development patterns, street patterns, that apply to the area and describe the type of development – its style and physical characteristics – that should be preserved or achieved. A successful character area plan will serve as a guide for land use, zoning, public improvements, set-aside of open space and identify opportunities for revitalization.  The result should be a comprehensive guide for transforming an area into the realization of the plan’s vision. The advantage of a character area plan is its ability to engage issues and people on a close-up, personal scale. The result can be a richly detailed plan that addresses the area’s unique issues with tailored solutions.

How to Plan for Character Areas

Your planning should build upon the general vision for the area contained in the Community Agenda portion of the local comprehensive plan.  The “Defining Narrative” portion of the Community Agenda is a good place to start, since it defines the intended future for the area that was agreed upon during the local comprehensive planning process.

To complete the character area plan, you will likely need additional data and more detailed information about the area, such as:

  • The condition of buildings in the area – are they vacant or dilapidated, and should they be restored, renovated, rehabilitated, or demolished? Opportunities, such as abandoned commercial buildings that can be adapted to provide housing, or public buildings and spaces that can be reused to benefit the area.
  • Economic conditions within the area, considering employment, labor force, and the opportunities for jobs creation. Where economic development is an issue, this information is essential.
  • Infrastructure within the area, considering streets – both condition, design, and function, as well as whether additional streets are needed; pedestrian and bicycle facilities; utilities – including the age, condition, and adequacy of water, sewer, and drainage services; public safety – police, fire, and emergency services; and communications.
  • Natural and cultural resources – types of resources that may need protection, threats to the resources, and the impacts of growth in the area on the resources
  • Additional demographic information to help identify special needs or market potential of the area.

Citizens play a key role in developing character area plans. Key to every plan is a thoughtful public involvement strategy includes a wide range of mechanisms for people to share their ideas, questions and concerns. Use fun, interactive participation techniques, such as design charrettes, community image surveys, cognitive mapping, a Quality Growth Resource Team visit or photo journals to involve citizens in the planning process. See PQG Resources below for information on these and other participation and visioning techniques.

Through these interactive processes, you will define the outcomes the citizens want to achieve:

  • specific types or mixes of uses,
  • architectural design,
  • desirable public improvements,
  • protection of special areas (cultural, historic, environmental), or
  • desired types of businesses or job-generators to attract to the area.

The results are best depicted on a map or series of maps, with supporting text and illustrations that clearly and specifically define the desired future development patterns for all portions of the character area on a parcel-by-parcel basis.


Resources and Additional Information

There are many resources to assist you in character area planning. There are also numerous fine examples of the results of a planning process for small areas. This selected list should help you get started.

PQG Resources

Good Examples of Character Area Planning

  • Forsyth County, NC, has created a comprehensive plan built upon plans for the character areas that make up the county. Forsyth County and Winston-Salem have a joint city-county planning department.  You can find the Legacy Development Guide at www.cityofws.org. Select the Planning Department, where you will find a list of Publications.
  • Greenville, SC, has a successful neighborhood planning program. Access to the neighborhood plans online is available at www.greatergreenville.com. Select the Neighborhoods menu and select Community Development. Here you will find links to neighborhood plans and other resources.
  • Hampton, VA, prepares a comprehensive plan for the entire city, for each sector – called planning areas- and also for small areas and neighborhoods. Some of these plans are modest in scope, yet still provide the detailed strategies for a small area to achieve the goals for its future within the community. Hampton is bounded by Chesapeake Bay, Langley Air Force Base, two cities, and the unincorporated county. Information is available at www.hampton.gov. Select the City Departments menu and select Planning Department. Select Plans/Documents/Ordinances for links to the comprehensive plan, sector plans, neighborhood plans, and small area plans.
  • Preserving Community Character in Hunterdon County, A Community Design Handbook, prepared by the Hunterdon County Planning Board, Flemington, NJ. Available online at www.co.hunterdon.nj.us. Select the Planning Board from the list of agencies, the select Planning Board Publications, to get a list of publications that includes the community design handbook.
  • Huntersville, NC, has prepared some character area plans for portions of the community requiring more detailed attention. Of particular interest is the Downtown Master Plan, which contains information on public participation methods that may be helpful. You can locate the comprehensive plan and the small area plans at www.huntersville.org. Select the Departments menu and select Planning. At the Planning Department web page, select Studies for links to the various plans.
  • The Knoxville/Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission in Knoxville, Tennessee, has a long history of sector planning and neighborhood planning to bring definition to the small areas throughout the city and county. For more information go to the web site at www.knoxmpc.org. Select Plans and Studies menu for a list of available resources. There are sector plans, neighborhood plans, and small area plans, some available for purchase and some for downloading.
  • Louisville/Jefferson County, KY, created a far-reaching comprehensive plan to guide development based on protecting and enhancing the unique character of the neighborhoods throughout the county. At the time of preparation it was an innovative was to make planning and development decisions based on “form districts.”  More jurisdictions are planning based on character and form, but Jefferson County is a leader in the approach. Information on the Cornerstone 2020 plan is available at www.loukymetro.org.  Select Departments and Planning and Design for the web page for the planning department.
  • Raleigh, NC, has a comprehensive planning process that includes several types of character area plans – plans for business districts, corridors, neighborhoods, regional centers, and watersheds. For access to the various plans, the city’s web site is www.raleighnc.gov. Select the Departments menu, and select Planning. Here you will find links to the various services and publications. Select Comprehensive Planning for links to the comprehensive plan. Follow the links to the various districts for lists of the small area plans in each district. Select Strategic Planning for links to redevelopment plans, another type of small area plans.
  • Denver, CO has set up a standardized process, format and planning tools to ensure that all small area plans fit within the context of the broader goals of the city’s plan. See Denver’s Small Area Planning guide for more information.

Books and Reports

  • A report entitled Placemaking, Tools for Community Action is identified as a starter kit for people to use in identifying tools and determining the applicability of those tools to their local needs. This document can be found online at www.placematters.com. At the web page, select Colaboratory, then Resource Library, to find a list of interesting and helpful resources, including this report. Select Tools for Community Design and Decision Making for the report.
  • The National Trust for Historic Preservation has published Rebuilding Community: A Best Practices Toolkit for Historic Preservation and Redevelopment. This document describes a variety of tools and places where the tools have been used successfully. If you have a small area focused on redevelopment and/or historic preservation, this guide will be helpful to you. Available online at www.nationaltrust.org. Select the Community menu and select Housing, then General Resources where you will find this document.
  • Small areas that are focused on conservation and environmental resources may be protected through techniques such as “conservation design.” An excellent resource is the book, Conservation Design for Subdivisions, by Randall G. Arendt, 1996, published by Island Press, Washington, D.C.
  • The Planning Commissioners Journal has a Special Collection, called Taking a Closer Look: New Development, Traditional Patterns.  While the PCJ is targeted to citizen planners, this collection provides an excellent overview of new urbanism techniques and is useful to both the novice and seasoned planner. Contact the editors at www.plannersweb.com.
  • The American Planning Association publishes a monthly report entitled Zoning Practice. Each month highlights an innovative tool for planning and zoning. Issue 8 in August 2004 is devoted to “Transit-oriented Development.” Subscribe to the series at www.planning.org.

Other Web Sites

  • The web site for the American Planning Association has a link for neighborhood planning. Here you will find links to dozens of neighborhood-related resources. Choose the links that look interesting and helpful for your situation. www.planning.org. Select the research menu, and then select projects to find Neighborhood Collaborative Planning.


Related Topics

Planning Information & Resources

Why Do We Plan?
Best Practices Toolkit

State Planning Recommendations

Alternatives to the Conventional
Your Local Government Status

Contact Information

Georgia Department of Community Affairs
60 Executive Park South, N.E.
Atlanta, Georgia 30329-2231

For more information about Planning and Quality Growth, please contact the Office of Planning and Quality Growth at 404-679-5279.