Equity and Urban Planning – Engage those most directly affected by inequities

November 13, 2015 1 Comment

This is the second of a four part series, sharing some of the lessons IISC and Horsley Witten Group learned in our efforts to support RhodeMap RI in weaving social equity into its regional planning process, and particularly our facilitation of the project’s Social Equity Advisory Committee.

Lesson 2. Design the process for maximum and meaningful involvement, particularly of those who are most directly affected by the inequities, and build the community’s capacity and infrastructure to participate in the process.

If you want an equitable process, that produces plans that lead to more equitable outcomes, you need the full engagement of people who are experiencing inequities. That starts with involving residents who are affected by inequities at the stage of designing the planning process. Otherwise, by the time the planning begins, critical decisions about the process, including decision making processes, resource allocation, timelines, deliverables, and consultant / technical support roles will have already been made. And once those decisions have been made, it’s really challenging to change them. (See the list below for more details on the kinds of design decisions in which residents should be engaged.)

You also need people who experience inequities to be fully involved in the planning process. This means creating ongoing committees and working groups that can dig into the issues, bring the expertise that comes from lived experience with the issues, and wrestle together with challenging tradeoffs. They need opportunities to understand the technical issues, and space to share their ideas about how to solve problems and leverage opportunities. They also need mechanisms for contributing their expertise and ideas without having to commit to a long series of meetings.

In the case of RhodeMap RI, the main vehicle for ongoing involvement was the Social Equity Advisory Committee. Residents facing inequities were invited to events designed for the public face-to-face or online, but without dedicated resources for communications and outreach, those public engagement efforts did not reach very deeply into communities across the state.

Communities need additional capacity to support resident participation in urban planning efforts. In most communities where people are facing inequities, there is little or limited infrastructure to support community members to participate in dialogue and planning about important issues that affect them. Where infrastructure does exist in the form of neighborhood associations, community-based organizations and local organizers, that capacity is typically stretched thin. Assuming these under-resourced community organizations will be willing and able to conduct the outreach and organizing necessary to support engagement without any additional resources is a common pitfall, and one that can damage relationships with these potential partners.

Instead, planning agencies need to partner with existing community organizations and invest resources in resident engagement and education long before the clock starts ticking on a particular project. Education and conversation with community members should facilitate an understanding and familiarity with technical issues related to housing, land use and more, as well as create a clear understanding of the relevant decision making processes and how they can be influenced. With this level of support, residents will be ready to take their seats at the planning table, and planners will be ready to engage with residents when the time comes for a specific planning effort. Without it, community members typically end up “playing catch up” as they are forced to wade through high volumes of complex information on a short timeline if they want to give any input or feedback.

In addition, planning efforts need to allocate resources to outreach, education, communications, and facilitation in order to support participation by people who experience inequities. In addition, technical resources need to be available to support the residents as they explore alternative models for housing and economic development that are designed to achieve equitable outcomes.

For more in this series of lessons learned, check out:

This series builds on a workshop designed by Nate Kelly of the Horsley Witten Group and Cynthia Silva Parker of IISC.


Key Process Design Decisions in Which to Engage People who Face Inequities:

  • What staff and consulting roles will be needed for the planning process, including organizers, interpreters, facilitators, and others necessary to support broad-based engagement, as well as technical consultants?
  • Does the project budget ensure that adequate resources are invested in the public engagement process and in the process of discovering solutions that will achieve more equitable outcomes?
  • What working groups, commissions, task forces, and other groups will be involved in developing and adopting the plans? How will residents be involved in each? If there is a separate working group focused on equity issues, how will its members overlap with and interact with other groups in the process?
  • Who is making which decisions? What is the relationship between the various working groups, staff and consultants?
  • Does the project timeline ensure adequate time for community engagement to inform the issue framing, vision, solutions, and priorities within the plan?
  • Does the team of consultants and resource people have expertise in equity as well as technical expertise? Does everyone supporting the process understand and support the goal of weaving equity into the planning process and the plans themselves?
  • What are the multiple ways to engage members of the public, including ongoing participation in working groups or committees, periodic participation in public events, online options, and informal dialogues?
  • What is a communications strategy that will support the various forms of community engagement in the planning process?
  • What strategies, including communications, organizing, public education and network building, can the process employ during the planning process to begin to build public support for the plans?

1 Comment

  • Charles Kemp says:

    I really like what you have to say about including people that are directly involved in the communities so that you have the most help. I think it would be really nice to have the community plan and help instead of just a few people who have noticed the problem. It would make the work go a lot better.

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