Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Resource Center

From Barriers to Solutions and Best Practices: Urban Centers and TOD in Washington

This report investigates strategies to overcome barriers to quality urban center and transit-oriented development in Washington State

Executive Summary

The Top Ten Barriers, Challenges, Solutions, and Best Practices presented in this report represent a synopsis of the most relevant strategies for addressing challenges to implementation of urban centers and transit-oriented developments (TODs) in Washington State. The principles presented in this report are derived from implementation of compact growth approaches in notable urban centers in the United States and select cities and regions worldwide.

A wide body of literature recognizes that concentration of growth in urban centers and TODs can limit negative effects associated with sprawl, and improve quality of life. In the early 1990’s, the Washington Legislature acknowledged the importance of concentrated urban development through passage of the Growth Management Act (GMA). Specifically, the GMA requires affected counties and cities to direct growth into designated urban centers, within established urban growth boundaries.

Over and above the GMA mandate, what should such urban centers look like? What level of density, amenities, and mix of uses are most appropriate? What level of transit service is needed? The answers depend on the values and preferences of communities planning for growth. All neighborhoods and centers are unique, and communities should incorporate their own values and preferences when planning for growth. Integration of local values and preferences is a central aspect of the public process and key to the creation of unique communities. However, many guiding principles should apply.

Challenges, solutions and best practices included in this report are addressed across four broad categories:

Design, Land Use and Regulatory – Challenges and Solutions: Integration of the themes addressed in this section is essential to well-designed communities. Generally, urban centers and TODs should be approached from a place-making orientation (as opposed to a nodal orientation), which leverages access from transit by channeling the highest densities in transit corridors. Multi-modal, gridiron street-networks can improve mobility, particularly for pedestrians and bicycles. Transportation demand management, traffic calming, social-cost pricing and careful parking management can help moderate the negative effects of traffic on communities. Progressive zoning and expedited permitting for progressive projects can help encourage synergistic urban centers.

Continue Diligent Attention to Resolution of Fiscal Barriers and Challenges: Fiscal barriers are enormous for both the public and private sector. The public sector is struggling to identify sources of revenue to finance needed infrastructure for urban centers and TODs. Washington State law restricts many of the financing mechanisms available in other states. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is actively researching public infrastructure financing mechanisms and has identified barriers and suggested additional sources of funding. Resolve Political Challenges: Leadership, coordination across political boundaries, political discourse, and a clear articulation of plans and public policy can help build the consensus needed to create and promote urban centers and TODs as viable alternatives to conventional development.

Recognize Organizational Barriers: Organizational barriers vary considerably depending on the mission of the respective organization. Leadership should aggressively identify constraints, limitations and institutional barriers that affect the ability of the organization to fulfill its mission or particular task. Public organizations should articulate barriers and limitations to the appropriate lawmakers, and when appropriate the public, to build political capital for change.

Demonstrable implementation of the principles offered in this report will require an integrated approach and increased cooperation among actors in meeting stated regional objectives. Too often, ideas directed at solving growth-related problems are focused on singular approaches rather than a holistic approach. Common summary terms such as "green", "sustainable" and "shovel ready" -- and their older cousin, "smart growth" -- have arrived with a vengeance, albeit often more as separate silos of ideas and inspiration than as interrelated elements of societal change.1 Successful creation of urban centers and TODs results from the intelligent linkage of complementary policies with the co­development of land use and transit services.2




  1. Wolfe, Chuck. Lessons Learned from the Development Boom. April 21st 2009. Seattle P-I. Accessed from:
  2. Cervero, Robert. (1998). The Transit Metropolis A Global Inquiry: Chapter 3 - Public Policies and the Sustainable Transit Metropolis. Washington DC: Island Press. p.81.