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How Do Other Regions Plan for Growth?

How Do Other Regions Plan for Growth?

The Capital Area RPC is working with local communities to prepare a framework to guide growth in the region over coming decades. An important step in this process is to learn from the experience of other regions in the country. This article describes the similarities between plans in other regions, how they are implemented, and implications for the Greater Madison region.

CARPC staff examined growth planning in 15 regions across the US. Regions were selected from those identified by the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) as “peer regions,” regions similar to Greater Madison in size and characteristics, and recommendations by urban planning professors. Five of the selected regions did not prepare comprehensive regional growth plans, instead adopting transportation plans or, in one case, a policy guide.


For the 10 regions that prepared comprehensive growth plans, two common elements were evident. First, many plans organized regions into community or broad land use types. For example, the Twin Cities Met Council’s Thrive MSP 2040 classifies municipalities based on their function in the region. Minneapolis and St. Paul are Urban Centers. As one moves out from the center communities become Urban, Suburban, Suburban Edge, Emerging Suburban Edge, Rural Center, Diversified Rural, Rural Residential, and Agricultural. These classifications are distinguished by varying densities. The Urban Center, for example, has average net residential densities of 20 units per acre, while Suburban Edge communities have 3 to 5 units per acre.

The Twin Cities Met Council’s Thrive MSP 2040 classifies municipalities based on their function in the region.

The second common element is the use of a hierarchy of centers and corridors as an organizing framework for growth. Centers are generally described as walkable with a more intensive mix of uses than surrounding areas. They include a metropolitan center, typically the downtown area of the largest city, that serves as an employment, living, shopping and cultural center for the entire region and a hub for regional transit systems.

Smaller centers draw people from smaller portions of the region, such as a city or a neighborhood. They have lower intensities and mixes of activities and lower levels of transit service. Some centers are identified by their predominant activity, such as university campuses or business parks. Outside of centers and districts are other uses including neighborhood or single-family residential, rural development, agriculture, and natural and open space areas. In Wasatch Choice 2050, for example, the Wasatch Front Regional Council organizes the Salt Lake City region into four categories of mixed-use centers and four types of centers or districts based on primary activities.

Wasatch Choice 2050 organizes the Salt Lake City region by primary activities.

Regional plans seek to focus growth in centers and along corridors in order to advance goals such as increasing access to jobs and services, converting less rural land to urban uses, reducing infrastructure costs, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation uses. The Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2050 for the Seattle region “has an ambitious goal of attracting 65% of the population growth to the region’s growth centers and high-capacity transit station areas.”

The Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2050 aims to attract 65% of population growth to centers and along transit corridors.

It’s not just larger regions like those above that seek to focus growth within centers and corridors. The Des Moines Area MPO’s The Tomorrow Plan also uses a hierarchy of centers to organize and guide development.

The Tomorrow Plan of Des Moines uses a hierarchy of centers to organize and guide development.

Closer to home, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission also identifies the metropolitan center (Mixed-Use City Center) while organizing most remaining areas into various types of neighborhoods, rural development, agriculture, and environmental areas.

SEWRPC’s Vision 2050 also uses a hierarchy of centers to organize areas of the greater Milwaukee region.


How regional entities implement their plans depends, to a large extent, on their level of authority over regional land use. In the US, local units of governments typically make land use and development decisions. The Twin Cities, Portland, and Seattle regions are among the few exceptions where states have granted authority to regional governments. Their implementation tools include enforcement of local and regional plan consistency.

Regional governments with advisory plans, such as in Wisconsin, implement those plans by engaging and assisting local communities. They strive for robust community participation to create plans that meet community as well as regional needs, thus building support for implementation. They also provide resources and assistance to local communities to integrate regional goals into local plans and policies.

The Salt Lake City region exemplifies this approach. The non-profit Envision Utah led the regional planning effort that brought together public officials and private sector leaders who led a large-scale public participation process. The resulting plan drew widespread support. The Wasatch Front Regional Council established The Transportation and Land Use Connection program to provide technical assistance and planning grants to local communities seeking to implement regional goals. The region has seen significant success towards implementing the plan and achieving measurable progress towards its objectives including more compact growth along regional corridors, reduced infrastructure costs, and better air quality.


A “centers and corridors” framework for regional growth seems well suited to the Greater Madison region. Many local comprehensive plans adopted within the last five years or so include some elements of this framework. Common among such documents are “planned mixed-use” areas that have similar characteristics to centers that serve the community or portions of the region. The City of Madison’s recent comprehensive plan update, Imagine Madison, employs a hierarchy of existing, emerging, and potential centers connected by corridors.

Identifying communities by their role and function in the region could also inform a development framework for this region. Understanding the functions and defining characteristics of different communities could help ensure that a regional framework does not present a one-size-fits-all approach, instead recognizing that different types and scales of development are suitable for different parts of the region.

Finally, learning from what works for preparing and implementing advisory regional plans should guide our process. CARPC drew from the Envision Utah model to carry out the A Greater Madison Vision initiative. Like the Salt Lake City process, AGMV brought together a broad group of public and private sector leaders to explore future options. It engaged the public through a large-scale survey with more than 9,200 responses which identified public priorities for growth. CARPC has been working to apply these public priorities to engage local officials and their constituents to prepare a regional growth framework.

CARPC invites you to follow our regional development framework process on our website, through our newsletter, and on Facebook. Staff is available to meet (virtually for now) with local officials, leaders and organizations to about this process and listen to your thoughts, ideas and concerns.