Planning with Underserved Populations Interest Group

Who Are We Planning For?

Planning with Underserved Populations is an American Planning Association Interest Group whose mission is to give voice to people who are often (usually unintentionally) missing from the planning process and plans implementation.

We believe that the planning profession should cast the widest possible net to serve as many people from myriad situations and circumstances as possible. While planning cannot solve all problems in society, we strive for intentional awareness and thoughtful practice in the planning and implementation process to improve the overall quality of life in our communities.

Our work spans every American Planning Association topic area which is why "underserved" is defined broadly, depending on planning interests and needs of our communities.

Join the Interest Group

If you plan with underserved populations and would like to share your work, please email Rick Stein.

Getting Started: How and Why

By Kyle Ezell

The idea for this interest group started in a 2017 studio course for seniors and graduate students I instructed called Planning for Autism. ...

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The goal of the course was to focus on policy/zoning, programs, and big ideas to improve the built environment for autistic adults to thrive. Our advisory contact in the studio was Rick Stein, AICP, a board member for our "client" Autism Living, a Columbus, Ohio, nonprofit organization. Rick has a son on the ASD spectrum and is obviously very interested in the topic. My teaching assistant was Gala Korniyenko, a City and Regional Planning PhD student who focuses on policy making related to access to transportation infrastructure for disabled individuals. (Gala is particularly interested in complete street policies and whether they include people with disabilities related to a place's walkability.) The studio was an eye-opener for me — both professionally and personally. (It was for Rick and Gala, too.) We all found the content to be extraordinarily challenging and rewarding on many levels.

If you are a planner, you know that planners generally want to help people. This studio course focused on helping autistic adults, but its primary goal was to offer planners effective tools and policies to encourage autistic adults to thrive in their communities. Taking the research from the studio, a policy and design charrette will be held this March that will hopefully conceive an ideal real estate development site plan and effective zoning codes and other innovative planning tools relative to helping autistic adults thrive. Providing planners with similar tools and policies for underserved populations is the focus of the Planning with Underserved Populations Interest Group.

Attempt to Connect

During the term, Rick, Gala, and I looked for an American Planning Association division where resources and professional connections could be made related to underserved people. We thought that since we were addressing planning and mental health issues — even though we didn't believe that a mental health APA division existed — that our best bet would be to reach out to an APA division for people with physical mobility needs. There was no such division or interest group.

It hit us that "underserved populations" goes far beyond the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act and spans every other APA division and interest group. Planners in the Small Towns Division, the Housing Division, Technology Division, Public Schools Interest Group, and Arts and Planning Interest Group (... and all the rest!) confront issues associated with the addicted (an underserved population) and mentally disabled (another underserved population) and so many others. Filling this void, we moved forward with our proposal.


In the weeks before we submitted our proposal to APA Divisions Council, we spent time reading and consulting professionals. We talked to people in counseling education, neuroscience, read about people who work with ex-convicts, collected a literature review on the opioid crisis and planning issues, talked to people who serve elderly populations, the infirm, the lonely, and others.

We also had discussions with academics, laypeople, and reached out to some professional planners. More than a few of our advisers were concerned about lumping unrelated populations together, and while understandable, we decided that "underserved" creates a broad brush that is beneficial because it keeps opportunities for effective outcomes as open as possible.

We realized the high levels of sensitivity (especially in the mental health fields) regarding terms that can seem appropriate to some but are very offensive to others. One adviser suggested that because of the wide net cast that this interest group sounded a bit like a social engineering interest group or else a bit patriarchal. While these kinds of opinions are inevitable, focusing specifically on what we planners can contribute — the methods and tools of planning — is the only way for planners to credibly approach improving the built environment specifically for humans in need.

While our outreach was very informal and not as comprehensive as we would have liked, it was clear to us that varying opinions are welcome and appreciated when starting this kind of group for planners.

The Hope

Planners come from diverse situations and backgrounds, and I (and we) hope that this interest group is represented well with underserved professional and citizen planners. It is very important for underserved planners to have a voice within the profession to steer infrastructure design, movement, housing choices, recreation opportunities and community form.

It may be equally as impactful if members of APA — from generalists to specialists in any sub-discipline — will join this interest group. Awareness and intention in the planning practice means more autistic adults may be able to thrive and experience more independence among many other outcomes for underserved populations you plan with.

Who knows what else — and for whom — can be achieved!

You can decide to contribute what you can and how you can — so in the spirit of good intentions please feel free to define "underserved" as you choose.

Kyle Ezell is Professor of Practice, The Ohio State University's City and Regional Planning Program, Knowlton School of Architecture.

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