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Development, Equity and Self-Determination

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Parisa Vinzant
June 27, 2019

There is no shortage of models to guide a city’s sustainability or community development planning, but the degree to which social equity is factored into that planning varies considerably. Typically, priorities of economic growth or the need to address environmental imperatives push the consideration of equity to the perimeter as though it were an unrelated issue. Too often, cities will take equity into account only when, “Prompted to do so where community-based actors and coalitions have the capacity to intervene and advocate for equity as a priority,” according to a 2015 article by Greg Schrock et. al. It is heartening that an increasing number of cities are trying to address equity, but sometimes their methods undercut their efforts and lead to ineffective outcomes, frustration for administrators and the public or even worsening existing socio-economic and racial disparities.  

Numerous attempts have been made to develop planning models or processes that take a more comprehensive approach to equity, including collective impact, triple bottom line, social bottom line, and Campbell’s planning triangle: economy, environment and equity. Yet none has emerged as the definitive model that addresses equity in a robust and meaningful way. A key reason may be that these models for the most part tinker with processes that already exist, leaving the hierarchical and transactional norm of public engagement largely intact.

The kind of productive public engagement that could achieve the collaborate and empower level on IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Administration (as referred to in the International Association for Public Participation) cannot be generated by traditional approaches, such as town hall forums, public hearings and surveys. Here, engagement is predominantly one-way: giving information to the public, gathering data from the public or allowing the public to respond to new policies introduced by the public officials.  

When the general public, and particularly communities of color, are kept at arm’s length from government procedures and decision-making, the usual stakeholders and those with money, influence or potential profits hanging in the balance are most likely the voices that will be heard around the table. According to a 1998 article by Cheryl Simrell King et. al., failure to tackle institutional barriers to broader participation in government results in inequitable access to government information, resources and decision-making. It also breeds corruption and distrust and robs government of fresh ideas and perspectives that could invigorate communities.

A promising new model for urban and community development called the Protocol appears to understand how the untapped power of the community can be harnessed to achieve more equitable planning. Created by EcoDistricts, a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, the Protocol is a method of collaboration that effectively brings together all major stakeholders—including community groups, government and private sector—to forge a shared sustainability vision and action plan to revitalize existing neighborhoods, brownfield sites, business districts, industrial lands, and mixed-use districts. Rejecting the passivity of traditional forms of public engagement, the Protocol guides stakeholders in the creation of a strong collaborative governance structure, including defining roles and responsibilities, identifying resources, developing a framework for collaborative decision-making and formulating a strategy for ongoing stakeholder engagement. Before the parties can form an Ecodistrict, they must agree in writing to make social equity one of the central imperatives of the effort (as a general term, ecodistrict represents a type of community development that integrates ecologically-sound practices with sustainability).

Another innovation is the requirement to factor equity into planning decisions and activities in four key areas—procedural, structural, distributional and cross-generational. Further, the Protocol differs from other models (e.g., collective impact) in its aim to reshape the relationships among the community, public officials, and other stakeholders (e.g., developers) to make them more symmetrical. In a phone conversation, Anna Rosenblum of evolveEA, a sustainable architecture and consulting firm based in Pittsburgh, PA, noted that a key goal of the Protocol is to, “Transform community engagement into community activation to community empowerment.” But achieving such transformative goals may require specialized expertise beyond the existing capacity or resources of an Ecodistrict. For example, before the Protocol was launched in 2016, a group of enterprising community members from the small town of Millvale, PA, partnered with evolveEA to develop its capacity to form an ecodistrict and develop its pivot plan, which laid the groundwork for pursuing EcoDistricts certification. In contrast to the majority of Ecodistricts using the Protocol, Millvale Ecodistrict, along with TNT Eco-Innovation Ecodistrict in Boston, MA, and Little Haiti Ecodistrict in Miami, FL, were formed from the bottom-up; in other words, it was the community that conceived and led the project.

The innovative framework of the Protocol, as well as improvements and refinements introduced by earlier models, have revealed an unbridgeable gap that many communities cannot cross. It is one thing to include the community at the table and a voice in decision-making. But if the community lacks the capacity to perform preliminary groundwork (e.g., identifying priorities the community can agree on or identifying potential resources and partnerships), has little experience in policy-making or has long been locked out of the process, the scale of what must be overcome in order to effectively participate is overwhelming.

Herein lies the conundrum: how can excluded and structurally disadvantaged communities empower themselves and what roles will city governments and the private sector play to support that empowerment?

Parisa Vinzant is a consultant, MPA-seeking student (Biden School of Public Policy and Administration, University of Delaware), and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Through her writing, Parisa seeks to apply an inclusion and social and racial equity lens to such topics as infrastructure and technology, revitalizing the middle class, and performance management. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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