Planning Magazine

How to Create Shovel-Worthy Infrastructure

A six-point framework for building equitable access to wellbeing.

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A rendering of the gateway to the 11th Street Bridge park over Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River. The park aims to connect two historically segregated communities. Photo courtesy of OMA and SAN.

Human beings are hardwired to seek out what we define as "wellbeing": connection and belonging; safety; familiarity and predictability; purposeful and creative influence on our surroundings and future; and access to food, shelter, and other resources without shame or danger. Wellbeing is about being whole, as individuals and communities. While health and wellness are part of this, wellbeing reaches much further and deeper. It's foundational.

But while our drive for wellbeing is universal, our access to it is not. Access depends largely on our surroundings and the meaning we make of them — whether our public spaces are inclusive, for example, or when a highway is a barrier to building community and opportunity. For too many people and communities, infrastructure is a constant marker of inequality, not of progress.

The default to pursue shovel-ready projects has contributed to many of the inequities planning now seeks to address. But with the recently enacted bipartisan infrastructure bill, funding and policy reforms are on the way for hundreds of new and established programs. With presidential initiatives like Justice 40, which promises to deliver at least 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate and clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities, the new law gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things differently.

Whether, how, and where we build will not be neutral. As described in our recent essay "The Infrastructure of Wellbeing," our choices will generate healing or harm that lasts decades. A new, nationwide focus on shovel-worthy projects would address and repair harms of the past while moving us toward a future that prioritizes equitable access to wellbeing.

But to define "shovel-worthy," we need guiding principles and metrics that help us imagine better options, draw meaningful comparisons, and make improvements.

Early in the pandemic, a nationwide group of public officials and community leaders came together to develop a reparative framework grounded in what drives wellbeing. The resulting Wellbeing Blueprint consolidates knowledge and examples of good practice to guide and judge the decisions we make, from health and human services to education to infrastructure and other arenas. Below, we outline a framework that can be operationalized as a screen and as a solution generator to guide new capital investments. These six interdependent principles focus us on what the built environment should provide us all — and how to make sure it delivers.

1. Start with the why: wellbeing.

Begin with why we build at all, with what matters to people: the interdependent, foundational aspects of wellbeing, like belonging, safety, stability, purpose, choice, and meaningful access to tangible resources. Projects won't reliably create equitable access to wellbeing unless we attend to it from the outset. How are these elements defined and experienced by communities? How would a proposed project expand access to those things? For whom, and how exactly? Asking these questions consistently helps mitigate the tendency of outside experts to decide what should matter to people and to diminish the importance of the wellbeing we all are hardwired for. This principle also draws on one of planning's core aspirations: to promote quality of place.

2. Design and build with, not for.

Join stakeholders in creative dialogue about how infrastructure design and implementation choices can enhance the lives they lead — and, even more so, the lives they want to lead. Relevant at each phase of planning and implementing a capital program or specific project, this principle emphasizes a process of collective discovery, public recognition, and learning, starting with uncovering the community-defined assets and needs an investment must address. This helps produce a better, more inclusive outcome. And sometimes, that outcome is a determination of where not to build, in line with the third principle below.

More than consultation, this principle calls on us to share the reins that funders, regulators, and professionals have often held tightly in the past. As Jainey Bavishi, director of the New York City Mayor's Office of Climate Resiliency, told us, "The process of design is often as important as the constructed project when it comes to achieving inclusivity, connection, and an acknowledgment of historical harms."

3. Repair and regenerate.

Low-income communities and communities of color, both urban and rural, have long been stripped of their economic, cultural, and natural wealth. They have also been disproportionately burdened by harms like over-surveillance, environmental degradation, and inadequate physical and digital infrastructure. This makes them all the more vulnerable as economic, social, and climate crises converge.

That's why harm reduction isn't enough. We must aim for reparative and regenerative justice, and our consistent practice should be maximizing benefits for those who have historically been harmed, not just outside investors or new consumers. For example, as former prisons are being redeveloped across the country, the communities most impacted by mass incarceration are becoming a driving force in determining what happens to the facilities and the land. In this process, instead of launching a project by determining what is needed ex-ante, the design process is guided by resident demand, not just market demand.

The elevated 11th Street Bridge park’s Environmental Education Center Plaza. Rendering courtesy of OMA.

The elevated 11th Street Bridge park's Environmental Education Center Plaza. Rendering courtesy of OMA.

The bridge’s Capitol Hill lookout toward DC. Rendering courtesy of OMA.

The bridge's Capitol Hill lookout toward DC. Rendering courtesy of OMA.

Looking down and toward Maryland. Rendering courtesy of OMA and Luxigon.

Looking toward Maryland. Rendering courtesy of OMA and Luxigon.

4. Foster community and re/connection.

The built environment shapes our sense of who we are, what we are connected to, and our sense of belonging — all of which are essential for individual and collective wellbeing. Historically, the built environment has too often fostered exclusion and isolation. As we highlighted in our essay last fall, new federal investment in urban highway removal is one important move toward reparation and reconnecting communities, but we must think more creatively, too. Nicolia Robinson's "Four Steps to Creating Inclusive, Anti-racist Third Spaces" provides guidance here.

A new elevated park taking shape in a historically underinvested, majority Black community in Washington, D.C., illustrates this principle. Offering both a bridge and a vital public space, the project aims to connect two historically segregated communities, complete with inclusive cultural programming and linked plans for equitable job creation and small business development.

Or take Chicago's Large Lots Program. In making vacant and abandoned lots available to neighborhood residents at very low cost, university researchers have found that the project has improved cohesion, stability, and sense of place and pride. This consciously reparative project, which recalls the community garden movement born a half-century ago, underscores the interconnections among our six principles.

5. Seek out uncommon partners and solutions.

The best planning has always been multidisciplinary; think of the healthy community or creative placemaking movements. The need to reduce blind spots and develop wiser, more innovative solutions — not just more popular ones — makes atypical collaborations imperative as we work to expand access to wellbeing.

Beyond the neighborhood scale, where community development has long sought multidisciplinary collaboration, it's time for planners working at other scales — on city- or region-wide water and transportation systems, for instance — to follow suit by engaging leaders in fields like health and education. Innovation results, like in rural Allegany County, New York, where management of public bus routes is now the purview of a health development network in partnership with local governments. These transportation investments to promote equitable healthcare access represent a wonderful example of uncommon partners generating valuable solutions.

Planning for equitable access to wellbeing is particularly potent as an organizing principle. The six principles in this framework apply to health, education, caregiving, and other vital forms of "social infrastructure" that make community life and prosperity possible, just as bridges and broadband do. In addition, specific performance standards — like those in the nascent LEEP standard for equitable and sustainable real estate development — align with this principle and can help us evaluate and compare alternatives.

6. Continue pandemic-inspired innovations that work.

The fact that harmful planning leaves such a lasting legacy reminds us of the importance of taking the long view as we make major new investments. But in pursuit of solutions that stand the test of time and lead us toward an environmentally and socially just future, we must not overlook the crisis-inspired inventiveness, flexibility, and adaptive solutions born of the last two years. From dedicated bus lanes in Los Angeles to murals in Charlotte that depict and honor Black residents, this principle applies not only to the planning process, including innovative forms of digital and more culturally competent public engagement, but also broader design choices that contribute to placemaking and helping people move about their communities safely.

This interactive map shares project details that show the Wellbeing Blueprint’s principles at work.

This interactive map shares project details that show the Wellbeing Blueprint's principles at work.

In combination, these six principles can guide decision-making and valuation towards a more equitable future. Relevant applications are myriad, including scoring tools that provide a screen for all infrastructure investments; budget set-asides, structured with local political accountability, that prioritize and enhance the top investments that expand access to wellbeing; design-build guidance; and plan and project evaluations. The Wellbeing Blueprint has also launched a project to map out innovative expressions of these principles at work — in the built environment, human services, education, and other domains — across the country.

We cannot afford to let shovel-ready continue to be a proxy for the value of precious new investments in infrastructure, housing, and other pillars of the built environment. After all, what is it all for at the end of the day? By focusing on equitable access to wellbeing, we can seize an historic opportunity and make shovel-worthy our new default.

Xavier de Souza Briggs is a senior fellow at Brookings Metro. He previously served in The White House and was a planning professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Katya Fels Smyth is the founder and CEO of the Full Frame Initiative and founding coauthor of the Wellbeing Blueprint. She is a former fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and affiliate of MIT's CoLab. Submit an example to the Wellbeing Blueprint.