Fostering Social Equity: “Equity Needs to Be Normal”

How can planners foster social equity in their communities? That question drove an engaging conversation between panelists and audience members at the “Fostering Social Equity” session at NPC18 in New Orleans.

APA President Cynthia Bowen, FAICP, moderated the panel that included Jess Zimbabwe, AICP, executive director of the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership at the Urban Land Institute; Majestic Lane, deputy chief of neighborhood empowerment for the City of Pittsburgh; and Carlton Eley, senior environmental protection specialist at the U.S. EPA.

The panel discussion was the second event in a three-part educational series on social equity and planning.

Equity Is Essential

The panelists agreed that although the profession has evolved and the present-day relationship between planning and equity is complementary rather than adversarial, more needs to be done.

Eley observed that, in the past, planners often gave equity issues short shrift. He encouraged the audience — and all planners — to accept responsibility for the past and tackle uncomfortable issues in the present, asserting that “Equity needs to be normal.”

Planning for equity also is bigger than housing or an “equitable” planning process.

Zimbabwe discussed the trend toward consolidated planning departments and the importance of community and economic developers collaborating toward shared goals. Lane reminded the audience that approaches to growth, equity, and development cannot be the same everywhere, particularly where drastically different conditions exist among city neighborhoods. He added that while equity often is considered a housing issue, it also is integral to education, parks, the environment, transportation, and employment.

Getting it Right in Pittsburgh and KC

Panelists explored urban projects and emerging policies that exemplify how planning can foster social equity.

Lane brought up his home city of Pittsburgh, where the predominantly African American community of Larimer was being left behind while surrounding East End neighborhoods grew. With institutional support, a community group created the Larimer Vision Plan and received a $30 million grant to pursue its goals.

Lane emphasized that it is important for residents to feel empowered and show the city, developers, and institutional powers what they want in their community. Otherwise, they risk learning about already-developed plans in a public hearing.

Eley pointed to the development of Kansas City’s Jazz District in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an example of an equitable development and creative placemaking project that was framed by cultural assets rather than housing. Instead of locating the Jazz District downtown as originally proposed, planners worked with the community around 18th and Vine where Kansas City’s jazz scene was born and thrived. Community members, planners, and the city government worked hand-in-hand to restore the neighborhood, focusing on its cultural heritage.

Voice vs. Engagement

Panelists and planners in the audience drew a distinction between engaging a community and “hearing its voice” at town halls and public meetings and via “general agitation.”

They concluded that to truly achieve engagement, planners must work with community members to elevate “big-picture” thinking about equity, development, and community needs years before proposals for redevelopment emerge.

Questions asked during the lengthy discussion period touched on gentrification, tax incentive programs, land trusts and land-banking strategies, rural and tribal equity, and much more. A video of this engaging session will be available from APA Learn, APA’s new online learning platform, late this summer.

Fostering Social Equity and Inclusive Growth, Part 3

Keep the conversation going with four distinguished panelists in the finale of APA’s three-part series on social equity. A free webinar on Tuesday, May 29 (from noon to 1 p.m. CT), will highlight resources, solutions, case studies, and best practices to use in everyday community planning.

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We encourage you to email questions to education@planning.org so the panel can incorporate them into the webinar.

Top image: Panel discussion from "Fostering Social Equity" educational session at NPC18 in New Orleans. From left: Cynthia Bowen, FAICP, Majestic Lane, Jess Zimbabwe, AICP, and Carlton Eley. Screenshot from PSAV video.


About the Author
Dustin Calliari is APA's senior content marketing associate.

May 21, 2018

By Dustin Calliari