Social Equity: The Forgotten Leg of Sustainability

'Equity Planning' Helps Communities Bring Everyone Along

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Jordan Yin is a professor of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University.

Bruce Seifer led Burlington, Vt.’s economic development efforts for more than three decades and is now an author and consultant.

Posted: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 4:32 pm

Sustainability is commonly described as a “three legged stool.” There’s economic prosperity, ecological integrity, and then there’s that third leg….

Hmmm… it’s sometimes the hardest to remember, and it can certainly be difficult to define, but the sustainability stool just doesn’t stand without social equity. The concept is that everyone in a community – not just those on the “A List” – need the opportunity to participate and thrive in order for that community to sustain itself indefinitely.

In cities like Burlington, Vt., Portland, Ore., Cleveland, Seattle and many others, social equity is woven into the fabric of urban planning and design.

Norman Krumholz, who served as planning director for the city of Cleveland from 1969 – 1979 under three different mayors, was one of the earliest practitioners of equity planning. Whereas traditional planning practices tend to focus on land use issues and development of a city’s downtown area, Krumholz has described the primary goal of equity planning in quite different terms, as “to provide a wider range of choices for those… residents who have few, if any, choices.”

Jordan Yin, a professor of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University – where Krumholz is currently a professor emeritus – added context to Krumholz’s definition: “[T]he Cleveland plan [developed by Krumholz and others in the 1960s and 1970s] focused on generating city policies and community partnerships intended to address concerns related to housing, poverty, neighborhood revitalization, and racial discrimination … [I]t marked a major turn in thinking for the urban planning profession.”

In an article slated to be published in the “Journal of Planning Education and Research” in 2015, Krumholz presents a number of examples of U.S. cities currently making gains in social equity. For example, he said Montgomery County, Md. requires private developers to build mixed-income housing. Minneapolis-St. Paul has a fiscal disparities plan that gives back to poor communities more than they contribute into a tax-sharing fund. Los Angeles and other cities have “community benefits agreements” that provide for concessions to poor communities as compensation for the adverse effects of development projects. Federal laws and other government initiatives may also further social equity aims, Krumholz said.

“Portland, Ore. is about as close as we’ve yet come to a model for equity planning,” Krumholz said. Yin agreed, saying, “[T]he city of Portland's recent comprehensive plan (‘The Portland Plan’) strikes a clear focus on issues of both equity planning and sustainability with their simple plan motto of ‘Prosperous. Educated. Healthy. Equitable’ – and, while Portland is best known as a green city that has long-followed sustainable development practices, their connection to Cleveland-style equity planning is unmistakable.”

Yin, who recently published a book titled “Urban Planning for Dummies,” identified a comprehensive plan as one of the most important elements of a city’s ability to serve residents equitably. Yin has published a useful “On-line Guide to Big City Plans,” with links to existing plans for the largest 100 cities in the United States. (Surprisingly, not all cities have formally adopted them – Yin pointed out Houston, Chicago and Boston as examples.) He believes that achieving progressive plans for all 100 cities is an attainable goal.

Of those that do have formalized plans, “My general observation,” Yin said, “is that relatively few cities have comprehensive plans that focus on long-standing urban concerns, such as poverty, discrimination and neighborhood decline. Most local comprehensive plans address a standard list of items - such as land use, transportation, housing, etc. - in ways that often address narrow, technical problems, but often ignore (perhaps inadvertently) the needs of the entire community.”

Yet even a plan doesn’t go far enough. In addition to a comprehensive plan, Krumholz and others said equity requires responsive leadership, citizen engagement and reliable data.

Burlington, Vt., gets mentioned on a lot of Top 10 lists - Most Livable Cities, Best Downtowns, Lowest Unemployment Rates, Best New Jobs – and the city of 40,000 is home to some of the biggest names in business – Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, Burton Snowboards and Bruegger’s Bagels, for example.

But Burlington’s accomplishments are the product of decades of careful strategy and intent by leaders and residents alike. Many say the turning point for Burlington came in 1981, with the election of Mayor – now U.S. Senator – Bernie Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist who literally knocked on doors seeking input from constituents. He and other city leaders swiftly set about establishing a comprehensive strategic plan for Burlington. They prioritized, among other things, establishment of a community development division responsible for reaching out to and including all residents in the planning process and execution.

“We always stuck with a set of principles,” said Bruce Seifer, who led Burlington’s economic development efforts for over three decades and is now an author and consultant.

“Our goal was to ensure full participation by everyone in the community,” he said. “We had organizations of the community, by the community and for the community, and we provided staff support for that.” More than 20 nonprofit community groups were created to address citizen concerns and give everyone an opportunity to provide input.

Seifer, who recently co-authored a book called “Sustainable Communities: Creating a Durable Local Economy,” said the achievements Burlington has made in zoning, city services, infrastructure and other areas, can be boiled down to one simple idea: “Ask people what they want. Help them get it.”

While Seifer said there is “no cookie-cutter approach” to fostering an engaging and equitable relationship between citizens and local government, Burlington has four key components: a comprehensive city plan that has been adhered to over time, leaders with a genuine desire to serve residents, residents who recognize and act on their ability to make their city more livable and equitable, and the data to back it all up.

Krumholz has hope for the future of equity planning. “The United States is fast-becoming a minority-majority nation,” he observed in his JPER piece. “In fact, many cities already have that distinction. I believe this increased diversity will produce political conditions making a more liberal response possible not only in planning but in all the institutions of American society.”

In the video below, Krumholz says he thinks Cleveland can be a prototype for how equity planning can turn rust-belt cities around.

Seifer, too, is optimistic. “People really want the best for their community,” he said. “What they’re looking for is support, direction, advice … There are good bones in our cities and towns. They need direction.”

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