Everyday Destinations

Encouraging Active Living Through Community Events

Planning Approaches to Encourage Physical Activity in Small and Rural Communities

Community events create temporary destinations by bringing people together in public spaces to highlight community assets, such as town history, small businesses, and local artists. They include regular ongoing events, such as farmers markets and weekly event series, and specialty events, such as outdoor concerts, street festivals, and parades, many of which can be made accessible through active transportation.

Community events offer multifaceted health benefits that extend beyond encouraging physical activity. Events create opportunities to build social cohesion among community members, which can contribute to improved mental health. These temporary destinations may encourage community members to visit more permanent community destinations, such as shops, parks, and other community facilities, enhancing local vibrancy.

Community events may also support the local economy by increasing exposure to small businesses. Planners and affiliated professionals can encourage event-friendly communities by creating public spaces suitable for gatherings and supporting community organizations interested in hosting an event. Read more on how partners can work together to encourage events in their communities.

Equity Considerations

With adequate planning and collaboration, community events can connect all residents and encourage physical activity, all while celebrating a community's special character.

Organizing groups may choose to conduct public participation activities to help plan more inclusive events. Inclusive events celebrate community diversity and offer opportunities for racial, ethnic, and other minority groups to elevate valued cultural activities, such as art, music, and performances.

Events can encourage community member participation, regardless of age and ability, by adopting inclusive design. Organizing groups can boost participation by hosting events in different neighborhoods, and increasing access to temporary walkable spaces in communities that may lack accessible everyday destinations. To reduce barriers to inclusion, communities can encourage organizations to provide low-cost admission or free events, which might be possible through partnerships or public investment.

Communities may also choose to support small businesses that contribute to community events by integrating educational opportunities focused on business development, permitting, and certification processes. Further, communities may choose to create cultural affairs committees, which play an active role in coordinating partners, elevating local assets, and seeking representative cultural activities that create a welcoming environment for everyone (Torrington n.d.).

A farmers market in operation during Covid-19.  A farmer behind produce tables at a farmers market.

Farmer's markets: Community events, such as farmer's markets, encourage community members to build connections with local vendors, purchase healthy food, and be more physically active.

Connection to Small and Rural Towns

Community events provide opportunities to highlight local priorities of small and rural towns, such as preserving community character, supporting social interactions, and expanding local vibrancy. Community members play a key role in creating these temporary destinations, considering that local practices, crafts, and art are key event components.

In small and rural communities where residents have a strong preference for traveling by car, events can normalize walking to destinations through temporary activities that demonstrate the appeal of engaging with spaces (Walljasper 2019). Community events have a strong connection to local economic development activities, particularly when they are carefully co-located with permanent community assets, such as small businesses, institutions, and green spaces.

Case Example: Athens, Georgia

The West Broad Farmer's Market is a community cultural event that highlights the history of Athens, Georgia. Organized by the Athens Land Trust (ALT), the weekly farmer's market brings African American heritage, institutions, and history to the forefront through community events and annual celebrations. Examples of events include Juneteenth celebrations, the Athens Heritage and Urban Agriculture Festival, and MLK Day of Service activities.

Before creating the market, ALT started the West Broad Garden in 2012, on a half-acre farm that was previously a community school with garden plots. ATL opened the West Broad Farmer's Market in 2013 to provide access to healthy food and economic opportunities for residents (Athens Land Trust n.d.). As of 2019, the community garden is physically located next to the West Broad Farmers Market thanks to a partnership with the Athens Housing Authority.

In addition to market activities, ALT engages in multiple activities to keep low- to moderate-income residents in Athens-Clarke County, including homeownership programs and cultural heritage preservation activities in two Athens neighborhoods facing gentrification pressures. Together, these community cultural events and commitments to housing affordability enhance everyday destinations and affordable housing in Athens.

Strategic Points of Intervention

Practitioners have a variety of options to help their communities integrate community events into their practice. 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 growth area identification 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 context and constraints. The links at the end of actions provide more guidance materials and examples from small and rural towns across the country.

Community Visioning and Goal Setting

  • Identify the value of special events to create favorable conditions for festivals, farmer's markets, and other cultural events.
  • Collect community member insights on preferred events during public engagement activities.
  • Adopt a vision statement and goals, such as applying for grant opportunities and adopting land-use regulations that permit special event activities, that support safe and accessible events. These components can be developed as part of a subarea or functional planning process, including cultural and economic development plans.

Plan Making

  • Create a policy basis for community events through local plans by describing how this approach can help communities achieve goals and contribute to a vibrant environment that promotes physical activity.
  • Identify suitable event spaces/sites that connect to other existing destinations by active modes of transportation and are easily accessible by all.
  • Identify opportunities to support and expand community festivals. The Santa Monica Creative Cultural Plan highlights the importance of providing technical assistance for smaller events, including hosting workshops sharing information on program support and increasing access to these events as opportunities to advance cultural events.

For model comprehensive plan policies for protecting farmers' markets, please see this resource from ChangeLab Solutions: From the Ground Up: Land Use Policies to Protect and Promote Farmers' Markets.

Regulations and Incentives

  • Support strategies that remove barriers in the permitting process, such as reducing permitting fees, to help community-based organizations create community events that may scale up and lead to new community traditions and celebrations.
  • Encourage elected officials to adopt zoning regulations specifically addressing community festivals to reduce ambiguity on the connection between land use and events (Nolensville 2020).
  • Consider establishing frequent events such as farmers markets as approved uses in the zoning code (Wooten and Ackerman 2013).
  • Encourage development review incentives, such as fee waivers and expedited plan review, that increase access to everyday destinations.
  • Reduce regulatory barriers for events by allowing temporary or seasonal uses in specific zones (Wooten and Ackerman 2013).

Public Investment

  • Prioritize funding for projects that shape open public spaces, such as parks and plazas, into amenities that can accommodate community gatherings near everyday destinations.
  • Invest in destination amenities that encourage residents to walk and take part in community events, such as restroom access, seating, and landscaping that provides shade.
  • Create grant programs to cover staffing and labor expenses associated with hosting an event (Mankato n.d.). Communities may choose to offset expenses for some entities, such as nonprofits, to support community vitality and advance local goals (South Bend n.d.).

Potential Partnerships

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 adaptive reuse 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.

  • Integrate community member insights as a vital part of community event planning. Community members can contribute throughout all parts of the process, ranging from creating processes to implementing events.
  • Connect with cultural affairs departments to select strategies that could support community events.
  • Collaborate with special service districts that serve commercial areas and are interested in amplifying existing community events or creating new ones.
  • Encourage community institutions to partner on events by highlighting assets, providing historic context to traditional events, and sharing gathering spaces.
  • Build partnerships with parks departments to support community events by sharing gathering places and connecting activities to green spaces and physical activity.
  • Involve small business associations, who may be able to recommend vendors, recommend ideas for events, and partner to host community activities.
  • Coordinate with transportation agencies to implement strategies that protect pedestrians and event attendees, paying close attention to reducing interactions between cars and people, such as identifying event sites, coordinating street closures, and securing transportation options to safely transport event attendees.
  • Identify opportunities to collaborate with fire and police departments to develop additional guidance on maintaining attendee safety during events.

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 activepeople@cdc.gov. By directing us to such articles you can help other small and rural communities become more active and healthier.


This image is the logo for Active People, Healthy Nation, a national initiative to help Americans increase physical activity levels.

Active People, Healthy NationSM is a national initiative led by CDC 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.


Athens Land Trust. n.d. "The New West Broad Community Garden."

Inclusion BC. n.d. "How to Make Your Event More Inclusive."

Mankato (Minnesota), City of. "Special Event Support Grant."

Metropolitan Area Planning Council's Arts & Culture Department. n.d. "Arts Uses Regarding Zoning and Permitting." Arts and Planning Toolkit.

Nolensville (Tennessee), Town of. 2020. Town of Nolensville Zoning Ordinance.

Silber, Bohne, and Carole Rosenstein. 2010. Live from your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Arts Festival. National Endowment for the Arts.

South Bend (Indiana), City of. n.d. "Special Event Committee."

Torrington (Connecticut), City of. n.d. "Cultural Affairs Committee."

Walljasper, Jay. 2019. "Getting Rural America Back on Its Feet." Planning, December.

Wooten, Heather, and Amy Ackerman. 2013. From the Ground Up: Land Use Policies to Protect and Promote Farmers' Markets. ChangeLab Solutions.


Top Image: MICHIGAN MUNICIPAL LEAGUE/FLICKR.COM (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). A Family Plays Connect Four at Convert Capitol Avenue Week

About the Authors
Jo Peña is a research associate with APA.
Sagar Shah is a planning and community health manager with APA.

December 21, 2021

By Johamary Pena, AICP, Sagar Shah, PhD, AICP