Innovating For More Equitable and Inclusive Plans

October 5, 2020
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Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to spend a week with group of graduate students and public/private sector professionals from around the country. While the topic that brought us together was historic preservation, participants came from diverse fields and included planners, historians, art conservators, museum curators, academics, community activists, carpenters, preservationists, and a building deconstruction specialistamong others. The backgroundexperienceage, race/ethnicity, and focus of the participants was as varied as the discussion topics, but one question kept surfacing: How can we help shine a light on the stories, people, and places that have been overlooked in the past?   

This is not a new question for planners or historic preservationists. Equity and inclusion have been at the forefront of discussions about the state of both practices for the past ten years or more. By and large, these conversations have centered on the need to expand the reach of our community engagement efforts and—more recently—to push for bold policy changes, such as the elimination of single-family zoning. There has been much less focus on identifying ways that planners and preservationists can help expand access to the types of information that would help inform these discussions.  

How can we change the conversation about our future by telling a more complete story about our past? What if…we routinely used comprehensive plans as a vehicle to:  

Put current conditions into historical context. 

Comprehensive plans are generally more focused on where a community is headed in the future than they are on where it has been in the past. Plans routinely document how population, demographics, housing, and land use have changed, but rarely look backwards beyond the ten- to twenty-year planning horizon. Documenting how the characteristics of the community have changed over an extended period of time would provide a more complete picture as a basis for discussion about issues like equity, displacement, and gentrification 

Document difficult history in an honest, matter-of-fact way 

Many people are unaware (or skeptical) of the extent to which redlining and other discriminatory practices have shaped their own communities. While some communities—like Minneapolis and Charlotteare starting to incorporate this type of information into their planning processes to help inform policy discussions, it is far from routine. Notably, ESRI recently made historic redlining data for 143 cities available through its ArcGIS Living Atlas with the goal of encouraging broader conversations about these issues.  An honest discussion about how government actions have helped create today’s inequities can lead to a more balanced discussion about how we should plan for the future. 

Tell the stories of the people behind the place 

Over the last decade, comprehensive plans have become more and more comprehensive in terms of topics they address. Our focus on the built environment has expanded to include the inter-relationships between people and the built environment, including health, access to services, and other factors that contribute to more equitable and inclusive communities. Recent historic preservation plans in communities like Madison go even further—providing historic context narratives that acknowledge the role marginalized populations have played in the evolution of the city, and that they continue to play today. In collaboration with preservationists, historians, and the community, these stories could be documented as part of comprehensive plans to ensure they are incorporated into policy discussions and preserved for future generations 

These are not radical proposals, and that is precisely the point. While it is essential that we continue to work to make our community engagement efforts more inclusive, and advocate for policy changes that will make our communities more equitable in the future—there is more we can be doing in our day-to-day work. As planners and preservationists, we have access to the data, information, and communication skills that are needed to help tell a more complete story about the state of our communities. We owe it to the people and places that have been overlooked in the past to do just that. Only then can communities have an honest conversation about what they would like to see stay the same, or change for the future.