Five Ways Urban Planners Are Addressing a Legacy of Inequity
Sometimes community trauma is born of natural disasters or other unexpected events. But in America’s cities, much of the pain of the past century arose from carefully planned decisions that were meticulously mapped out in advance.
New highways that splintered or destroyed Black and brown neighborhoods. Racist zoning rules that intentionally blocked people of color from homeownership. A tendency to see even thriving Black and immigrant neighborhoods as “blighted,” and in need of wrecking-ball revitalization. With these and other actions, the urban planning profession contributed to the systemic racism and segregation that plague our cities. But today's planners are trying to atone for that legacy.
Dozens of urban planners around the country have signed a Commitment to Change statement that grew out of conversations at the 2020 Big City Planning Directors Institute, an annual conference organized by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy that brings together top planners from America’s 30 largest cities. “After the murder of George Floyd, it really crystallized that, as people who impact people's lives, invisibly and visibly, planners needed to be on the right side of history,” says Eleanor Sharpe, Philadelphia’s deputy director of planning and zoning —particularly given “the fraught history of our profession.”
The resulting pledge, crafted by staffers from several cities and hosted by the City of Philadelphia, has two parts. “One is to acknowledge the harm that our profession caused, and is still causing,” Sharpe says. In Philadelphia, for example, highway construction bulldozed or bifurcated neighborhoods of color like Chinatown and Nicetown, and redlining—whereby lenders and others systematically denied mortgages based on race—left lasting scars by blocking access to a key source of intergenerational wealth. “Most analysis of where social issues mushroom in our city, when mapped, align with redlining maps of years past,” Sharpe says. “Redlining still has a stranglehold on our city decades later.”
The second part of the statement focuses on the future, committing the signatories to investments in housing, open spaces, transportation, environmental justice, and public services, among other actions, “with the goal of creating inclusive, equitable communities.” The pledge also prioritizes preserving and strengthening the culture, businesses, and institutions of communities of color, and preventing displacement caused by new investments.
While the public pledge has honed planners’ focus on racial equity, cities everywhere are still struggling to provide equal access to opportunity, and any progress in dismantling entrenched systems of inequality is often slow and incremental. The seeds of today’s systemic racism and inequities were sown decades ago, says Jessie Grogan, associate director of reduced poverty and spatial inequality at the Lincoln Institute, “and the tools that planners have in their toolboxes also take decades . . . it’s not a profession with a lot of quick fixes.” But just as the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is now, so it is with planning a more just future. In that spirit, here are some of the ways urban planners are working to restore trust, right historical wrongs, and advance racial equity in their cities.
Zoning for Equity
With the nation’s housing crisis falling hardest on low-income people and communities of color—who are more likely to experience homelessness due to the shortage of affordable housing—American Planning Association President Angela D. Brooks says reforms that lead to more housing are crucial to improving equity, in part because any conversation about equity rings hollow to someone with no place to live. “It's something we could easily solve and fix, and the first step is really resolving to create more units of all tiers of housing, so people have a decent, safe, affordable place to live,” Brooks says.
That’s one reason Emily Liu, director of Louisville Metro Planning and Design Services, has been focused on updating the city’s zoning rules.
In 2020, Liu and a team of volunteer planners and community members came up with 46 ways they could improve equity in their city; six of the policies stood out as “things we could move on quickly,” Liu says. Among them was allowing Louisville homeowners to build in-law apartments, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), by right.
Some of those initial efforts received little or no opposition—like allowing urban agriculture on any lot—but loosening restrictions on ADUs did generate some pushback. Organizations like the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, and United Way helped produce educational materials and op-eds to counter some of the misinformation that circulated in the community, Liu says, helping to get the change passed. “This was definitely something we couldn’t do by ourselves. There was a lot of support from outside organizations and citizens.”
Previously, adding an ADU had required securing a conditional use permit; now, accessory units are allowed by right in Louisville, as long as they meet some basic standards, and can be rented out if the owner lives on site. “The great majority of them are approved in office by our staff, and it only takes a day or two, it's very easy,” Liu says, noting that the city saw a tenfold increase in ADU applications in the first year after the zoning change went into effect.
Liu also managed to get front setback requirements reduced from 25 or 30 feet down to 15 feet, freeing up more space for potential ADUs. And she pushed for a small but meaningful change that will allow for duplexes on lots smaller than 5,000 square feet if they’re zoned for multifamily use. A mere 6 percent of the city is zoned for multifamily homes, Liu says, and among those lots were “10,000 parcels where, in the past, you were zoned multifamily, but you were not allowed to build even a duplex” because the lot didn’t meet the minimum size requirement.
Those are just a few examples of how small but crucial zoning changes can begin to address inequity. In February, APA released its Equity in Zoning Policy Guide, a user-friendly resource that lays out dozens more specific recommendations to help dismantle systemic inequities through three different aspects of zoning: the rules themselves, the people involved in drafting them, and how they’re applied and enforced.
“It really focuses on the ways that bias and historic patterns of segregation are reinforced through zoning,” Brooks says. “But it also offers specific ways to change drafting and public engagement, mapping, and even the enforcement of zoning regulations to dismantle barriers and expand opportunity.”
Other cities, such as Minneapolis, Portland, and Arlington, Virginia—and even some states, like California, Oregon, and Maine—have managed to pass more sweeping upzoning measures that allow for ADUs or small multifamily homes on almost any residential lot. Atlanta and Denver, among others, are also in the process of making major zoning reforms.
Liu’s department is now working to engage and educate the community around missing middle housing—conducting walking tours, for example, through Louisville’s oldest neighborhoods, to show residents how duplexes and triplexes were once abundant in the city before being zoned nearly out of existence after World War II. “The goal is to see where we can allow this by right,” she says, noting that such smaller, denser homes “are naturally occurring affordable housing.”
Planning departments are also getting more active in expanding their reach beyond the older, wealthy, white male homeowners who tend to dominate public input sessions—and making a concerted push to connect with residents who have been missing from the conversation.
“A big part of it is going to where people are,” says Washington, DC, Planning Director Anita Cozart—and being “relentless” about it. That means attending community festivals, block parties, and youth group meetings to seek input on any specific plans in the works, or to simply let people know how to engage with the department. “If we have a meeting and somebody says, ‘I didn't know this process was happening, where's the outreach been?’” she says, “we’re calling that person up, and asking them about their networks,” and the best way to connect with them.
For more than a decade, Philadelphia has offered a Citizens Planning Institute, which teaches residents about the city planning process and how they can be a part of it—“and at some point, take that knowledge back to their neighborhood, and leverage it in some way that's useful to their community,” Sharpe says.
The program has become so popular, staff can’t keep up with demand. There are currently two cohorts a year—a spring and fall session with 30-plus people in each—but upwards of 200 people typically apply.
“We’re setting up citizens for success, we're pulling the veil down,” Sharpe says, “so people can understand what's going on, and how things happen in government.” The program’s 700-plus alumni live all over the city and can help improve communication at neighborhood meetings. “They can act as our translators,” she says. “There's a trust factor there that doesn't necessarily exist” between residents and planning officials.
Renters, meanwhile, who are more likely than homeowners to be people of color and have lower average incomes, have long been ignored in zoning or development discussions. So in Louisville, when a project involves a public meeting, the city now requires applicants to notify nearby renters, not just abutting homeowners. “Their landlord may live in California, but they’re the ones who live here, who will be impacted by proposed development,” Liu says.
As a renter herself, Brooks favors such efforts and says cities should pursue other channels of communication as well. “In the age of social media, there are so many ways we can get notice out to people that it is irresponsible, and just inexcusable, not to be utilizing more creative ways,” she says. “Even if I owned my home and you sent me a letter, there's a high probability I won't see that until long after your meeting.”
Evaluating Everything Through an Equity Lens
Several big cities, including New York and Washington, now require change-of-use or other development applications to include some form of racial equity impact report. Such an assessment injects a measure of accountability into the process that has too often been missing, based on a simple question: Will the proposed change make progress toward advancing racial equity, or will it worsen existing inequities?
Assessing the potential racial equity impacts of new development or zoning changes as part of the official planning process is a simple but important step, Grogan says. “Making sure that you think about the equity impacts of every project is a practice that doesn't necessarily cost anything, and can add a lot of value to the day-to-day planning work,” she says.
New York City’s Department of City Planning partnered with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to create an interactive Equitable Data Development Tool that maps out neighborhood-level displacement risk and disaggregated data on race, economic security, housing market pressures, health outcomes, and other key indicators. Applicants submitting a newly required racial equity report as part of their land-use review must cite relevant data from the tool and include a narrative statement that explains how their project and its neighborhood context “relate to the city’s commitment to affirmatively furthering fair housing and promoting equitable access to opportunity.”
In Philadelphia, where Mayor Jim Kenney tasked all city departments with creating racial equity action plans, Sharpe says the city is trying to incorporate equity analysis into the capital programs budget cycle, asking agencies that receive capital funds to explain how each dollar will contribute to or dismantle systemic racism. “We’re trying to very much embed it in the culture and the philosophy of how work is approached,” she says, noting that it’s still a work in progress.
And in Washington, DC, planners use disaggregated data to assess “the benefits and burdens that might come from a change in zoning,” Cozart says, including the potential for displacement. The District’s neighborhood-level small area plans now feature a similar “Equity in Place” analysis, which can yield different priorities in different neighborhoods. In the wealthy, majority white neighborhood of Chevy Chase, for example, the small area plan seeks to add dedicated affordable housing and remedy the area’s long history of discriminatory land use. In Congress Heights, a predominantly Black neighborhood experiencing increased redevelopment, the focus is on anti-displacement and community resilience measures.
“We ask sets of questions, but it's a different demographic so you end up with different recommendations, different thrusts of the planning effort, even if you're doing the same things, like disaggregating the data by race, and engaging the folks who have been marginalized from the process,” Cozart says.
When San Diego Planning Director Heidi Vonblum was working on the Build Better SD initiative—an effort to support equitable, sustainable development citywide that was adopted by the city council in 2022—she interrogated longstanding policies in search of a valid reason for their existence. She and her staff would ask why something was done the way it was, and why that was, and why that was, and so on, until they reached a root cause. Spoiler: The origin stories of some policies more closely resembled a greedy villain’s backstory than that of a superhero.
“Sometimes it was a good idea at the time, sometimes it made sense based on information that planners had available to them,” Vonblum says. “And sometimes it was really wrong, and there's just no need to continue that.”
That philosophy helped Vonblum’s department make a series of changes, approved by the city council in stages over the last two years.
It began with rewriting the almost 70-year-old Parks Master Plan, and challenging traditional community engagement methods that were resulting in public feedback along the lines of, “We love it, don't change it, everything's fine,” Vonblum says. “What was interesting about that Phase One input is that everything's not fine.”
So in addition to seeking input from underrepresented voices, Vonblum and a handful of staff members drove around San Diego during the pandemic and documented the starkly contrasting conditions of the city’s recreational spaces in a StoryMap called One City, Two Realities, to better educate neighborhood groups and other stakeholders. “Parts of our city have glowing, gleaming, beautiful parks, and then we have other parts of our city that have far more people—and more children and seniors, who tend to use parks the most—that have a park, but it's got nothing to do, or it has broken playground equipment, and that's not okay.”
A key aspect of Build Better SD was changing the city’s system of collecting and spending neighborhood-specific development impact fees. These one-time fees, which developers pay to defray the cost of municipal infrastructure and services associated with the new development, varied drastically across the city, and had to be spent in the neighborhood they were raised. Per-unit impact fees were up to 50 times higher in wealthy districts, discouraging denser growth in well-off areas while simultaneously concentrating reinvestment in those same places. The city has now shifted to a citywide fee structure, where impact fees are the same across every neighborhood and infrastructure investments can be prioritized for areas with the greatest need.
Some changes were unpopular at first, and took a couple of tries to get through the city council. But they have laid the groundwork for other equity-driven initiatives. “Progress can be slow and painful, but we've made so much progress just in the last couple of years," Vonblum says. “We went from having very difficult and controversial conversations to like, boom, boom, boom—actions are happening right now,” she adds. “We're now focusing on increasing access to our coastal resources and increasing connections between communities through a citywide trails master plan,” as well as developing a master plan for a new regional park in an underserved neighborhood whose requests for green space were left on the back burner for 20 years.
As planners, Vonblum says, “we need to take an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, why do we plan for parks this way? Why do we collect development impact fees this way? Why did we prioritize infrastructure investments this way?’ Until we do that, we're not going to be able to make any forward progress to advance equity, to advance anti-racist zoning policies, and to invest equitably in our communities.”
Building the Planner Pipeline
At the most recent Big City Planning Directors Institute convening in October, Liu shared how inspired she felt by the number of other women and people of color in the room—including Sharpe and Cozart—which marked a big change from Liu’s first such conference 10 years earlier, she recalled.
But despite that encouraging shift in representation at the top, the profession is still largely white. With an eye on building a profession that better reflects the population it serves, Sharpe and other planners take every opportunity to promote planning to young people of color.
“Our staff is always eager and volunteering in high schools and middle schools, because a lot of planners heard about this later in life, and we want to say, ‘Hey, here's a legitimate profession that you can do, especially if you want to help your neighborhood out,’” she says. “It's feeding the pipeline, so that hopefully in 10 years, the more people hear about it, then the pipeline is not just producing mostly white people.”
Cozart and her team conduct similar efforts around Washington. “We've been visiting with high school students to just talk about planning and to engage them in mapping, to engage them in analyzing data that planners use, and to really think about design—the design of communities and what spaces are going to be welcoming for you,” she says.
After all, Cozart adds, given the 10- and 20-year timelines of neighborhood and comprehensive plans, those high schoolers may be the ones turning today’s recommendations into tomorrow’s more equitable urban reality.
Jon Gorey is a staff writer for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Lead image: Members and supporters of the NAACP picket against housing discrimination in Detroit in 1963. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.