Turning the Planning Lens Toward Equity: Data and Partnership Strategies

The equity conversation at APA's Policy and Advocacy Conference in Washington, D.C., continued on Monday at the morning plenary on new research in equity and placemaking.

Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, led the discussion, which included remarks from Aden Van Noppen, senior advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer at White House Office, and Stockton Williams, executive director at the Urban Land Institute Terwilliger Center for Housing.

As planners are aware, equity is an increasingly important topic for communities today. Unfortunately, Clarence Anthony points out, "it [typically] takes conflict for the country to have a conversation about it, which we often start but don't finish."

Anthony posed an important question for the speakers, audience members, and the planning profession: "How, through our professional lens, can we help solve the equity and inclusiveness problem?"

According to the speakers, part of the answer is data and collaboration with the private sector.

Aden Van Noppen and others in the Obama administration have turned the community planning and organizing lens toward partnering with the technology sector and leveraging data to create more just and equitable communities.

The Opportunity Project, launched in March, released 2,000 sets of government data to the public an effort to spur the development of data-based tools that will help our neighborhoods, and all people in them, thrive.

"There is such a thing as data poverty," said Van Noppen. "Imagine what we could do if we built thousands of apps on top of [government] data that show things like proximity to jobs, schools, transit options, childcare, location of affordable housing," as well as help planners identify gaps and underserved areas and populations.

To date, the project has resulted in nearly 40 tools. Twelve came out at launch, including Redfin's Opportunity Score, which shows affordable homes within a 30-minute car commute of areas with high concentrations of jobs, and Policy Map, which allows users to select criteria that matter most to them (e.g. affordable housing, schools, jobs, transportation, etc.) and then identifies areas within a city that best meet those needs.

Another 25 apps will launch in October, when the Opportunity Project will also announce a partnership with universities nationwide to use and share data.

Van Noppen emphasized the need to collaborate with the technology sector, saying many start-ups and people in tech want to be working on tougher challenges like this but don't know where to go. She singled out planners as the bridge for collaboration, particularly at the local level.

Stockton Williams of the Urban Land Institute — a primarily private-sector organization — addressed opportunities to work with the private sector to make cities more equitable, particularly in the area of affordable housing. Williams said the private sector has a vested interest in fostering equality in cities, as research increasingly shows that equitable cities tend to be more economically successful and resilient. However, he pointed out, data also shows that the urban revival currently benefits the affluent, and segregation by race and income remains a challenge.

He identified land use and zoning as the biggest opportunity to change that trend.

According to Williams, exclusionary and restrictive zoning practices, coupled with high regulatory taxes, frequently make cities more segregated by driving up the cost of construction and limiting density (i.e., multifamily units), which raises housing prices and rents, disproportionately burdening low-income households.

Williams says the question ultimately is: "How you blend and find that sweet spot between public purpose and private profit?"

When trying to encourage the development of more affordable housing options, he says there are multiple ways local planners and officials could help make the "numbers work" for developers: reduce regulation on development, eliminate restrictive or exclusionary zoning practices that limit more affordable options (e.g., pre-fab and micro-units), create new sources for capital through creative partnerships, preserve existing affordable housing stock, and created incentives for inclusionary development.

Clarence Anthony summed up the plenary well: "[Creating equitable cities] is about changing our policies and institutions. Focus on outcomes. We have to make sure our plans are inclusive for those who are worse off, those who are not sitting around the tables at our cities, and move beyond just talking about inclusiveness in our plans."

About the Author

Mary Hammon is associate editor of Planning magazine.

Top image: Equity themes were explored by the panel, from left: Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities; Aden Van Noppen, senior advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer at White House Office; and Stockton Williams, executive director at the Urban Land Institute Terwilliger Center for Housing. Photo by Ben Zweig.

September 20, 2016

By Mary Hammon