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We can think differently to create more equitable outcomes in city building

May 13, 2021

By Beth Elliott

4 ideas for project leaders to champion racial and social equity

As we think of how we want to shape the places we live in, equity and social justice have rightfully become greater priorities in many communities across the United States. This has been on everyone’s mind here in Minneapolis, where the tragic killing of George Floyd spurred widespread awareness of racial injustices in cities across the world. Communities of color continue to demand inclusion in decisions that affect their daily lives, but now with an even more prominent voice. 

As we look to reinvest in our physical and social infrastructure, more attention is being paid to prioritizing support to communities that have been historically overlooked—and deliberately discriminated against—in how our cities were built. The American Jobs Plan specifically prioritizes infrastructure funding using equity-based criteria. If we, as project leaders, champion the same in our projects, our clients will not only be positioned for federal funding but we will be also be offering improvements in communities that could benefit the most. My personal desire as a planner and project leader is to always advocate for city planning and building efforts that benefit ALL residents, not just those with the loudest voices and best political connections.

Equity is a driving force in my work. I have spent most of my career working as a planner in the public sector in the heart of Minneapolis. Many cities in the United States were built based on discriminatory practices, policies, and regulations that concentrated communities of color in neighborhoods with substandard housing, lack of quality education and job access, and close to freeways and polluting industries. To that end, I have focused my planning work on better understanding how I can be an ally in reversing the effects of this history. I’ve come to view this through the lens of improving access—access to the city planning process itself, access to information in a complicated bureaucracy, access to choices in where to live, and access to the physical amenities that make a neighborhood truly livable. 

The scale is now tipping towards improving the health, safety, and amenities in marginalized communities that have been historically left behind. This is something we are starting to see more as a top priority in city building projects. 

As I continue to strive for racial and social equity values in the projects that I manage, I have the opportunity to learn from how other Stantec leaders are doing the same. There is no perfect model, but there are ways to adjust the project management cycle to make equity an integrated part of the project itself, and ultimately part of the outcome.

Outreach teams for 25Connects in Cleveland, Ohio spoke directly to segments of the community through Spanish-only engagement meetings.

1. Get creative to meaningfully engage diverse segments of the community

One of the best philosophies in engaging communities is to go to where they are versus making them opt in to coming to you. Recognize that people have barriers to participation, such as time, family commitments, language, accessibility needs, mistrust of government, and a host of others. That means we sometimes need to get creative in our engagement strategy. For example, I find that involving artists in our engagement processes, or even expressing ideas through storytelling and hands-on drawing, creates inviting ways to participate.

In 25 Connects, a transit-oriented development plan for West 25th Street in Cleveland, our team recognized that the corridor cut through five distinct communities with a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Knowing that 21% of households spoke Spanish at home, we worked with the client to build a bilingual engagement strategy—which was a first of its kind in Cleveland. We began with a bilingual process as we might do in other cities, but we quickly learned this was not the best way to engage these residents since they weren’t showing up to initial meetings. 

The team quickly shifted to Spanish-speaking events where residents were more comfortable not only with the material and topics but providing their insights and opinions. By setting metrics for engagement at the beginning and a suite of tools to proactively engage the community, we were able to show the client and stakeholders how we could meet the community where they are most comfortable, regardless of language or culture.

There is no perfect model, but there are ways to adjust the project management cycle to make equity an integrated part of the project itself, and ultimately part of the outcome.

2. Deliberately build teams that represent the diversity in a community

Work hard to have your team represent the community, both through broader reach inside your own consulting company and through local teaming partners. Project teams should be representative of the communities in which they work. That means setting up a process that starts as early as recruiting, through the project team selection, planning, and design. My colleague Carla Artis describes this in more detail in her blog post on building industry diversity. This initial work to build strong teams can not only lead to lasting partnering relationships, but we can also support the growth of local small businesses.

Launching a mentor-protégé program is one strategy that helps bring in subconsultant partners. Phase One of the Red and Purple Modernization Program in Chicago is an example where we worked with the Walsh-Fluor design-build team and several of our certified Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) design consulting firms on the project. Participating in the mentor-protégé program on this project not only helped to improve community representation on the project, but it helped elevate each small firm’s visibility in the consulting community, build their portfolio, and qualify for important certifications.

Layering sidewalk repair data in Boston told us a more fulsome story, resulting in a different approach and more equitable outcomes.

3. Use data collection and analysis to tell a story beyond cold facts

Any data collection process is not just about representing facts but telling a story. Our projects have a unique opportunity to rectify the uneven conditions found in our cities by layering together demographic data with geographic details like parks, schools, and transit. This helps to show which demographic groups benefit from amenities and which ones lack that all-important access. 

As an example, the City of Boston was using their 311 system and then a smartphone app to generate requests for sidewalk repairs as part of a complaint-based system. After Stantec was hired to analyze the requests, our team realized they were coming from privileged areas of the city with good sidewalk conditions. So, we worked with the City to create a new data analysis method to rate sidewalk repairs and then make those repairs where investments could make the most positive impact. The City has since adopted this same equity-based data practice for other infrastructure improvement systems.

4. Design alternatives and recommended strategies that elevate traditionally underserved populations

An equity lens throughout a project’s process will make the case for equitable project outcomes. By directly engaging these communities where discriminatory practices occurred and studying the costs and benefits that city building has had over time to segments of your study area, you will have built a compelling case for strategies in the communities that need the most support.

This was the case with the I-526 Lowcountry Corridor WEST project in North Charleston, South Carolina.  The interstate widening and interchange improvement project goes through a densely developed area of low-income and minority neighborhoods that were previously impacted when I-26 and I-526 were originally constructed between the 1960s and 1990s. These neighborhoods are still dealing with the physical and social effects of the original construction. Without comprehensive mitigation, this project would disproportionately impact these communities again.  

The project included an environmental justice analysis, community mitigation plan, social needs assessment, and community impact assessment. Coupling this extensive equity-based needs analysis with a strong and inclusive engagement strategy overcame barriers to participation, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Comprehensive mitigation and engagement strategies were used for the I-526 Lowcountry Corridor WEST project in North Charleston, SC.

Learning from each other as we move diversity forward

Each of these project leaders decided to be a champion for the communities they work in. This is not easy, nor should it be. It takes time, effort, transparency with our clients and community members, the ability to really listen, and building trust through every step of the process. 

Every element of scoping out a project—when seen through a lens of promoting equity—can achieve strong results in empowering all community members to guide the future of their neighborhoods. As project leaders, we can always do better. Let’s use this as day one in our journey in embedding racial and social equity principles throughout every element of our projects.

  • Beth Elliott

    As the downtown planner for the City of Minneapolis, Beth has spent 15 years working on capital and facilities planning, in-fill development, historic preservation, and public participation methods.

    Contact Beth
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