Six Ways Planners Can Help Communities Bridge the Racial Wealth Gap

Racial wealth inequality has far-reaching impacts on the health, safety, and quality of life of Black people and communities, and the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession are only amplifying the issues that planners have been grappling with for decades.

Recent protests for racial justice have further awakened leaders to the need to address and correct long-standing disparities.

Achieving equity means not distributing resources equally but ensuring that community investment corrects for and repairs historic inequality by investing in people and communities that have been most neglected.

The term "reparations" often refers to payments to descendants of enslaved people, but cities recently have started using the concept to direct investment to communities and neighborhoods of color to narrow the racial wealth gap.

"Today, the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family. White college graduates have over seven times more wealth than Black college graduates."

Promoting Equitable Outcomes with Planning

On July 14, the city of Asheville, North Carolina, unanimously passed a resolution supporting community reparations for Black Asheville. The resolution directs the city manager to develop short-, medium--, and long-term plans to address the creation of generational wealth and boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community.

Earlier this year in January, Evanston, Illinois, adopted a reparations program funded by a tax on newly legalized recreational marijuana and established a committee to determine how to spend the money.

In both cases, the specifics of how money will be distributed to Black communities are still to come. However, the resolutions illustrate that more communities are recognizing that policies have created and perpetuated wealth and economic opportunity gaps, and it is their responsibility to correct them. What are planners' roles in this shift?

Although planners may not have the authority to redirect funding to economic development, transportation improvements, and housing initiatives in previously underfunded communities, they do offer a big-picture, interdisciplinary lens and expertise that can play a pivotal role in increasing equity.

Equitable Community Planning Strategies

Here are six things you can do to advance more equitable outcomes in your community:

  1. Educate yourself on the history of racial discrimination and the outcomes of those policies on Black people and neighborhoods in your community. Keep informed about current approaches that communities like Asheville and Evanston are taking.
  2. Listen to Black residents and community leaders. Reach out and develop or deepen existing relationships, and be a facilitator who helps bring community members to the tables where conversations about their neighborhoods are taking place. Understand where you may lack cultural or community expertise and bring in members of the community to fill that gap.
  3. Connect with people who drive decisions on funding and community investment and who may already be talking about or championing these ideas. Build a network of professionals and elected leaders who can work together to drive change.
  4. Use planning expertise to identify where and what type of investments will meet the desired outcome of narrowing the racial wealth gap. Help to drive reparative investments to the communities that need them; tools like mapping and other data analysis and visualization can be pivotal in taking cities from resolutions to effective actions.
  5. Advocate for racial equity in the projects for which you do have influence. Identify current and future planning projects, developments, and decisions and incorporate equity into the processes, analysis, and recommendations that you make.
  6. Integrate racial equity into all aspects of planning work for lasting and transformative impact. Focus on addressing racial equity in each intervention you undertake, including visioning and plan-making. (See the Five Strategic Points of Intervention.)

Disparities in wealth and economic opportunity have wide-ranging impacts, as the pandemic has highlighted. The disproportionate numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in minority populations are not happening by chance — it is the outcome of historical policies and practices that often carry racist intent. Addressing the racial wealth gap will improve health equity; after all, economic stability is a key area of social determinants of health that planners can influence.

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate economies across the U.S. and local government budgets get tighter, it becomes more important, not less, that remaining funding is used to correct historical disinvestment and provide communities the resources they need to ensure their residents may thrive.

This is a moment for planners to lead community reinvention — not just to help communities recover, but to reimagine what can be done to make them more equitable, more resilient, and more livable.

Ethics and Equity

The AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and the APA statement on Ethical Principles in Planning both affirm that planners have "a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged." Equity is a planner's responsibility, and as communities commit to righting the wrongs of past injustice and taking action to achieve racial equality, planners will play an essential role.

Hear more from planners about the importance of centering equity in their work in APA's video series, Voices of Equity in Planning.

Top image: View of Asheville, North Carolina, and mountains beyond the city. Photo by Ken Lane; shared on Flickr by GPA Photo Archive (CC BY-NC 2.0).

About the Author
Karen Kazmierczak is APA's senior marketing manager.

July 28, 2020

By Karen Kazmierczak