City planning: A guide to equitable planning for your community

August 28, 2019 Beth Elliott

A meaningful and inclusive planning process creates communities that are truly designed for all residents

 

Planning the future of a city, downtown, corridor, or site is not just about collecting data and setting a vision. It’s about an outcome that benefits everyone. As our communities become more diverse, we as planners have an even greater imperative to run processes that are inclusive and not just based on the loudest opinions. We need to collect, analyze, and display data that tells the tale of past, current, and future residents—all residents. We are also in a position as both public and private sector planners to cut through the politics, to be transparent about how decisions are made, and to show others how to get themselves to the table (or how we can get to theirs).

In my more than a dozen years as a planner for downtown Minneapolis and its core neighborhoods, as well as my current role leading Stantec’s planning efforts in the Midwest, I have developed my own set of processes, procedures, and potential outcomes that make any planning process more inclusive and representative. For any planner, we are learning from best practices and the desires of the public as we develop our own professional philosophies. Here is a set of principles that I try to apply to every planning process I conduct.

 

Since planning is ultimately about preparing for future conditions, it’s important to design engagement and input processes that are as inclusive as possible.

 

Design an engagement process that is meaningful and inclusive

Planning is subjective—informed people can come to completely differently conclusions. Since planning is ultimately about preparing for future conditions, our role as planners should be to design engagement and input processes that are as inclusive as possible. The first step is to remove barriers to participation. Go to where your audiences naturally gather or spend time, such as schools, the local coffee shop, or community centers. If you can’t always go to them, draw them to you by designing community meetings that are fun, interactive, and family-friendly. I once had a colleague say that our goal was for new participants to walk away from a meeting and say: “That wasn’t so bad, I think I’ll stay involved.”

Here are additional ideas for designing a community engagement process:

  • Make it personal. This is their community, so every interaction should be about a person’s daily life and aspirations for living, working, playing, and getting around. If I’m talking to kids, I ask them how old they’ll be in 20 years and whether they would be living in the same neighborhood.
  • Involve artists and arts organizations. Social practice artists can be great partners by helping to develop engagement questions without the jargon, design activities that are fun, and brainstorm ways to get diverse ages, cultures, and communities involved.
  • Pay cultural organizations to help. Community and cultural organizations already convene members for events and activities. Pay them a stipend to act as a convening partner. In my experience, the stipend helps pay for their time and offers them a chance to feed their members during your meeting. They can also act as trusted interpreters during the conversation.
  • Format for family-friendliness. Many people can’t participate in a planning process due to family obligations. As someone with a young son, I would never be able keep him still and quiet during a long presentation. Design your meeting so parents can easily tow their kids with them, and consider setting up Legos or a drawing station in the corner. Bags of fruit snacks and crackers don’t hurt, either!
  • Accommodate language differences. Your first task should be to ask public agencies about best practices for interpreting and translating material. Next, find local cultural leaders to get their input on what methods would work best for non-English speakers in town.
  • People aren’t widgets to count. As much as possible, push back against any perspective that the most represented group should get their way. Many stakeholders (renters, seniors, non-English speakers, students) are just as invested but might have barriers to participation. When I was doing a plan for a neighborhood just outside of downtown Minneapolis, one of our priority audiences was a large population of Somali immigrants. I quickly learned that cultural customs dictate that a leader attend events on behalf of his community—we couldn’t gauge the success of our process by the number of Somali participants but rather by the interactions with leadership.

 

Go to where your audiences naturally gather or spend time, such as schools, the local coffee shop, or community centers. If you can’t always go to them, draw them to you by designing community meetings that are fun, interactive, and family-friendly. 

 

Use data to tell a story, not just the facts

While data seems objective, we as planners have a responsibility to understand how the information was compiled. Did they use demographics from the census that show consistent trend lines over decades?  Was qualitative information such as people’s likes and dislikes shown as objective fact? Any data we collect, analyze, and display should clearly show our sources so the public and decision-makers can fact-check our work. Additionally, we shouldn’t simply provide the information and leave it at that. Layer the data on top of each other to identify disparities and better understand how social policies and regulations drove upward mobility or community decline.

Currently, there is work being done to show how properties originally limited home ownership by people of color—it’s called Mapping Prejudice. During a recent project, my colleagues and I designed a data analysis exercise that layered this information with historic mortgage redlining, freeway locations, and current public health trends. The data highlighted amenity-rich areas that have historically been reserved for white single-family homeowners. While I came at this data analysis with my own professional point of view, I used legitimate sources to tell this story. I then asked the public if the data adequately told their story, and if it didn’t, I requested additional data sources from the public themselves.

 

Documentation leads to transparent decision-making

An easy first step in any planning process is to simply record participants’ feedback. Before you do that, you need to think about how your engagement activities can lead to successful documentation. Early on in a plan, I like to use an activity called the Six-Word Story. It’s based on an Ernest Hemingway writing contest and encourages participants to distill salient points into short, creative vignettes. I record these in a table or spreadsheet and then, through photos, analyze the stories for common themes. Next, I develop a draft vision based on the content. It’s a fun exercise that only takes a couple minutes to do, it’s easy to record, and it offers some profound ideas for the future of a community.

_q_tweetable:We need to collect, analyze, and display data that tells the tale of past, current, and future residents—all residents._q_

Ultimately, planners will write the plan and then a group of elected officials with likely be the final decision-makers. Throughout the planning process, it’s important for my team to be clear on how decisions are made, how the public can influence those decisions, and how we will create a documented record of community input that leads to final recommendations. I have seen many planning processes implode from a lack of transparency. Setting realistic expectations for decision-making at the onset increases the likelihood of community buy-in and success.

 

An easy first step in any planning process is to simply record participants’ feedback. Beth likes to use an activity called the Six-Word Story, which encourages participants to distill salient points into short, creative vignettes.

 

A planner’s responsibility

As with any planning process, strong voices can be heard the best. I see it as my responsibility to find opportunities to elevate other voices and empower non-typical stakeholders to better represent their perspectives in future bureaucratic processes. The tricky thing about planning is that there is no formula or calculation to a successful, livable, desirable community. Since there is not one right answer, a planner’s responsibility is to learn from every process and every unique community. While I never think I’m successful if I simply check all the boxes I’ve described above, I always ask myself if I’m doing everything I can to make planning representative of all the people we serve. If I engage in meaningful conversations with diverse stakeholders and then represent their past, present, and future stories as they were told to me, I feel like I’ve achieved my goal for running a meaningful and inclusive planning process.  

 

About the Author

Beth Elliott

Beth Elliott has two guiding principles: planning needs to be accessible, and the outcomes should elevate everyone. As the downtown planner for the City of Minneapolis, Beth has worked on several regionally significant projects in her 15-year career.

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