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Subarea plans are detailed plans prepared for a smaller geographic area within a community. The areas can encompass neighborhoods, corridors, downtowns, or other types of special districts that show cohesive characteristics. Also referred to as sector, small area, character area, or specific area plans, subarea plans include a greater level of detail than a comprehensive plan, but deal with many of the same topics.

Why is this important to your community?

Comprehensive plans are long-range policy instruments that typically keep to a “big picture” view regarding community-wide goals and issues of transportation, future land use, and infrastructure needs. But every community is made up of smaller areas, each with its own set of unique attributes, issues, opportunities and challenges that contribute to the whole. Subarea plans are targeted for smaller geographies with similar characteristics and provide a way to help the residents and businesses in these areas, such as corridors, neighborhoods, etc., figure out how their area fits into the “big picture” in terms of achieving the overall goals of the comprehensive plan, while addressing issues or concerns of particular importance to the small area. These might include dealing with an aging mall or vacant businesses, increased traffic flow, development densities along corridors and how to make the density “fit” into the neighborhood, and/or how to address walkability, connectivity, and open space. Subarea plans are where broad policy statements see their practical application in guiding development, and where “the devil in the details” is addressed at a scale that engages residents.

A study by Mecklenburg County, MeckConnect, demonstrated that in larger cities, many residents feel that they are not able to influence community affairs outside of their neighborhood or small area. For larger communities, the subarea planning process may offer the best opportunity to engage residents in learning about the municipality’s or county’s comprehensive plan, and in adapting it to the needs of individual small areas.

How does it work?

Typically, subarea plans will cover a specific geography that shares common issues or characteristics. While a comprehensive plan establishes the entire community’s vision for the future over the long term, a subarea plan illustrates how that vision can be carried out at a much more detailed level, considering a range of topics such as land use, transportation, utilities, circulation, and open space, but also more place-specific factors such as zoning and development regulations, urban design and street character, historic preservation, and even building design.

A comprehensive plan may identify areas in the community that are good candidates for subarea planning, and may include guidelines that serve as a template for the development of subarea plans. A comprehensive plan may also simply include policies that recommend the identification of subareas for future planning.

CONNECT Our Future early on acknowledged the wide variety of smaller areas that make up the tapestry of the CONNECT region. The region includes commercial corridors, residential and mixed use neighborhoods, industrial and employment centers, rural hamlets, institutional campuses, and many other types of subareas. These were generally characterized in a “place type” palette presented as “CONNECT Our Future: Place Types and Community Types,” a report published as part of the CONNECT project. Place types are physical descriptions of different kinds of built or natural environments that identify and describe different development patterns, types, and intensities prevalent in the region. The place-types palette may be used by communities within the CONNECT region to update their comprehensive plans, as initial step in characterizing and identifying special areas for potential detailed planning, and to develop subarea planning. The place-types palette may also be helpful to subareas considering “what they want to be like,” thanks to its detail in describing the functional as well as descriptive characteristics of various place-types.

Subarea plans have the advantage over larger-scale planning efforts to engage issues and residents on a close-up, personal scale and to respond with tailored solutions. For this reason, public participation is an important component of the subarea planning process. Input from residents should be solicited throughout the entire process and should inform the vision, goals, and strategies for the future of the subarea; many communities find that participation in subarea planning is much stronger than participation in community-wide planning efforts.

Ready to get started?

Using the Tool

Similar to other types of plans, subarea planning is a multi-step process that may be conducted in several ways, using a variety of techniques. The basic planning tasks involve area definition, public engagement, visioning, data collection and analysis, identification of opportunities and constraints, synthesis of findings and recommendations, and action plan. A subarea plan is almost always initiated and led by the local government, and for this reason the steps described below are provided from this perspective. However, subarea planning efforts could also originate in a public concern. For example, a neighborhood anxious about encroaching development might approach and receive support from the local government to prepare a plan. In such cases, the local government might limit its role to one as process facilitator or technical advisor.
  • Begin by identifying and selecting a subarea (or subareas) in need of detailed planning. Criteria for selection may include the presence of unique development issues, such as evidence of disinvestment or the presence of significant opportunities for infill or redevelopment. The selection may also be influenced by specific concerns of residents, such as changing character or infrastructure improvement needs, or planning for fixed-guideway transit.
  • Define the geographic edges of the planning area by looking at the place-specific characteristics that differentiate the area and its natural, historic, or man-made boundaries.
  • Identify and reach out to key planning area leadership to gauge interest and get support for the planning process. Develop a step-by-step work program, public participation strategy, and schedule.
  • Collect and analyze data on demographics, land use and zoning, market and development trends, public infrastructure and facilities, natural environment and other current and projected conditions of the planning area.
  • Convene planning area stakeholders (i.e., anyone who lives, works, or owns a business within the area) to present the current conditions assessment, confirm the key issues and concerns and to establish the specific vision and goals for the subarea plan. The subarea plan vision and goals should build upon and be consistent with the community-wide vision and goals, as may be expressed in the community’s comprehensive plan.
  • Conduct additional stakeholder meetings (e.g., workshops) to present the findings of the existing conditions analysis and facilitate consensus on opportunities, constraints and priorities. Use input received from the stakeholders to develop future subarea concepts. These may include land uses (location and mix), development intensities, circulation and connectivity, open space, and other aspects of physical development such as design character.
  • Synthesize the input results into a preferred subarea plan concept. Obtain additional public feedback on this preferred concept before proceeding to develop the subarea plan report. The report could include the following elements:
    • Overview, including the rationale for the planning effort, definition of the planning area, and a description of the process (in particular the public participation process).
    • Existing conditions analysis.
    • Vision and goals.
    • Summary of the synthesis of opportunities, constraints, and priorities.
    • Framework of recommendations (e.g., principles and guidelines) for each potential element of the plan: land use and zoning, circulation, infrastructure, open space, etc.
    • Action plan/definition of implementation strategy.
  • In addition to a graphic representation of the land use concept, a subarea plan could include other illustrations of the type of physical environment proposed for the subarea, e.g., 3D renderings. These illustrations help to visualize and understand the extent and scale of future change envisioned for the area.
  • Submit the subarea plan document to public review and endorsement – and adoption if appropriate, as well as possible amendment of the community’s comprehensive plan.

Where has it worked?

Area Plans and Small Area Planning Study program - Raleigh, NC

Image Source: Raleigh4u.



Dan Becker, Manager, Long Range City Planning
Planning & Development Department

About the Program

The City of Raleigh has a long, successful track record of working with subarea plans as part of its comprehensive plan process.

The 1989 Comprehensive Plan introduced this planning tool as one of several ways to “manage and shape growth” and included plans for four types of areas:  neighborhoods, small areas, corridors and watersheds.

In 2007, the city undertook an update effort, conducting a thorough policy audit that established a baseline for determining which policies and actions from the 1989 plan should be carried forward, deleted, updated, merged or redirected to other documents. In addition to updated and new plan elements, the resulting 2030 Comprehensive Plan contains 22 area plans brought forward and updated from the 1989 plan. These area plans were created “through focused, community-based planning efforts” and “include policies too detailed and area-specific” to be included in the more general citywide plan elements. Moving forward, the city has updated its planning procedures to replace Area Plans with small area planning studies, to be undertaken as part of the Department of City Planning’s work program for defined areas requiring more focused study. While these studies will be used to develop amendments to the comprehensive plan, they will not be incorporated into the plan in their totality.

Why it works

Raleigh’s area planning process works for several reasons:

  1. The area planning process is community driven.
  2. The planning process has standardized requirements regarding its scope and process, while allowing adaptations to meet the needs of specific areas.
  3. The concept of area plans is substantiated throughout the comprehensive plan, by way of policies and actions within the Land Use Element, Future Land Use Map, Economic Development, and Implementation Elements. In particular, the Implementation Element provides the necessary guidance for how the city will handle future area-specific studies, including guidelines for selection and prioritization of the study areas, purpose and content of the studies, and how it will treat existing area plans (Policies IM 4.1-4.3 and corresponding actions).
  4. When a particular area within the city is identified as requiring additional study, City Council directs Planning staff to initiate an Area Study to clarify, provide further detail, or to provide more in-depth analysis of the implications of proposed policy changes to an area.
  5. An area study leads to a set of actionable recommendations, which may include: Land Use or Zoning amendments, new plans for open space, updates to the Arterials, Thoroughfares and Collector Streets Map or the Greenways Map, future transportation or other capital projects, urban design guidelines, or additional studies.

Small Area Planning Program: How We Plan - Denver, CO

Image Source: Nisenson Consulting LLC.



About the Program

Denver’s small area plans are clearly and rationally nested within larger scale plans (e.g., comprehensive & regional plans) and cover three different geographic scales: neighborhood, corridor, and district regardless of the size of the area. Denver has also created a separate category for areas surrounding transit stops and stations. There are currently 62 completed small area plans.

Why it works

Making Denver livable for its people now and in the future is the overarching vision that guides all of the city’s planning efforts, whether they cover a small area, such as a transit station or neighborhood, or the entire city. Each plan is the result of a collaborative public process, led by city planners and involving residents, business owners, community groups and other stakeholders. When creating plans on a small scale, the goal is to achieve a balanced, multi-modal transportation system, land use that accommodates future growth, and open space throughout the city.

The city has established a set of criteria for selecting areas for small area planning, including:

  • Evidence of disinvestment and deteriorating housing – high vacancy, unemployment and poverty rates
  • Significant change is occurring or anticipated
  • Public facilities and/or physical improvements need to be addressed
  • Opportunities for substantial infill or redevelopment are present
  • Opportunities arise to influence site selection, development or major expansion of a single large activity generator
  • Transit station development opportunities

Pp. 154-155 of the city’s Blueprint Denver plan describes a list of tools for implementing small area plans, including regulatory tools such as zoning, landmark districts protections, and view protections.

In addition to a robust community participation process, the keys to the success of Denver’s small are plans include:

  • Tying small area plans back to larger city plans (e.g., Comprehensive Plan 2000 and Blueprint Denver).
  • Standardizing the small area planning process, format and tools to ensure that all small area plans fit within the context of the broader goals of the city-wide plans.
  • Understanding when small area plans are the correct scale of planning to coordinate “shared” aspects within a community, such as parking and stormwater management.