Measure What You Value: New Urban Successes
By Jay Renkens, MIG Principal and Director of Planning and Design Services
Planning for Denver was a success. The plan focused growth, especially housing, into four “areas of change” and protected “areas of stability.” In a few years, building permit data verified it: success! Buildings were going up and more people were, by extension, moving into the growth areas. So it seemed.
I have lived in Denver for over 7 years and worked in Denver for 14 years so it’s a City I care deeply about.
We took a closer look at the data and we found there were also a lot of demolition permits. It wasn’t actually translating into new opportunities. In fact, a lot of “scrape and build” was going on. And the net increase in the number of units was pretty small. And then we took an even deeper dive. We looked at the population; the actual number of people per housing unit had decreased. The new building had changed housing types. There was a net loss of population density in the very areas targeted for growth.
What happened? Everyone knew the area was gentrifying and becoming unaffordable for existing residents. We realized that some had thought of the Plan as a way to modernize the City, and well, there will just be some casualties along the way. If we hadn’t dug deeper than the traditional permit numbers, we might have missed that we were using the wrong measures of success.
Charlotte, North Carolina, is on all the “best” lists: best place to live, best place for seniors to retire, best place for millennials…the lists go on. Measure by the number of new housing units, number of square feet developed, high ridership on high capacity transit, signature parks, number of cranes, number of ribbon cuttings: it’s all a great success. Downtown Charlotte is booming.
But who are the shiny new towers and retails spaces serving? Is the growth equitable, does it serve the longtime residents of Charlotte? What about outside the downtown, what about the parks, how are the transit lines aligned and who do they serve?
The success serves the areas that are already wealthy, well-educated and well-served by freeways. And white.
Business as usual—our traditional measures of success—perpetuate the disparities and inequities of the past.
If we want to create places that are more inclusive and diverse, with more opportunity, we need to rethink the traditional planning process.
We can do that. First we need to understand how we got here.
In Charlotte and in many, many cities throughout the country, traditional red-lining—inequitable banking and insurance practices—contributed to racial segregation and disparities in creating generational wealth. The City’s 1947 zoning map (above, right) codified red-lining. It created single-family detached zoning. And you could only buy there if you could borrow from a bank. It doesn’t say you have to be white, but the effect is the same. That forced people of color into less expensive dense areas, usually between the white suburbs and the downtown where all the suburb-dwellers worked.
Then came “urban renewal” that declared those densely populated areas “blighted”. Entire neighborhoods were razed and replaced with civic buildings, concrete, underutilized government campuses. But at least the suburban folks wouldn’t have to travel through those “blighted” areas to get to work.
Charlotte is the second largest banking community in the United States, after New York. In the 1990s, banks began to focus on reinvestment in Charlotte. But their focus was the downtown area. They wanted a skyline that would rival any major city. And they succeeded.
I myself worked on two plans for Charlotte prior to taking on the Comprehensive Plan. Charlotte Center City 2020 and a North Tryon Vision Plan for a portion of Uptown. And wow the plans worked! That’s the success I mentioned. High-capacity transit with high ridership, shiny new buildings, restaurants and retail, residents in the downtown. It’s great!
For the wealthy. It’s all very expensive. It wasn’t built for the people who lived there. It was to attract those wealthy seniors and millennials. We had helped areas already doing well do even better.
We contributed to decades of policy, planning and programs that established and solidified one the most pronounced examples of racial segregation, geographic disparities, and income and wealth inequalities in the country. Of the 50 largest cities in the country, Charlotte has the lowest probability of upward mobility, the ability of someone to advance to a higher income class during. In Charlotte today, a child born in poverty has almost an 80% chance of dying in poverty.
But the City then did some remarkable rethinking. It started a dialogue about the disparities that were only getting worse. The initial reaction was to invest public money more equally across the community, not just in downtown, an area that’s attracting private investment anyway. Funds could be equally distributed by council district or neighborhood.
It might seem fair and equal to divide public money by Council district. But that ignores the fact that places that are doing well will continue to do well without public funds. It’s the places that have not seen the same amount of investment in the past that need more investment now. Equal isn’t equitable. Equal won’t allow those areas of disinvestment to ever catch up; they’ll just keep falling further behind.
Now that kind of thinking of course got some pushback, people saying: “If we give them more, we get less.”
But, the counter argument to that is if we can prop up the underserved communities, help those communities achieve a better quality of life with more educational, economic and recreational opportunities, that’s better for the entire community. All of Charlotte will benefit.
When we worked on the Charlotte 2040 plan, we changed the planning process. We layered an equity lens on the entire process. In all phases and all tasks. We knew we needed to change the mindset of many in the Planning Department and Planning Commissioners, Council Members and some community leaders about a better way to do business.
Rather than the traditional Existing Conditions report, we developed three foundational studies to lay the groundwork for Charlotte 2040:
- Policy Audit Report that analyzed 30 City/Area/County plans for how effective they were, how they address inclusion and diversity, and whether the policies were applied equitably.
- Growth Factors Report, looking closely at how growth will affect the types of communities and types of jobs, where and when. We also looked at comparable cities that had already seen the type of growth we’re expecting in Charlotte and how that growth affected prosperous versus disinvested communities.
- Equity Atlas that used 70 sets of data, with 26 indicators of success in 300 neighborhood planning areas to pinpoint inequities and what policies, planning and funding should be directed where.
It became very clear that there were tremendous differences in the City. The north, the south and parts of the southwest and southeast of Charlotte are the wealthier, white areas.
And every indicator we looked followed that pattern. That included proximity to transit in relation to jobs, proximity to parks and grocery stores, home renovations, education, jobs per acre, commercial square foot per acre, the conditions of pedestrian and bike facilities, among many more.
We did an overlay of all the indicators with vulnerable populations.
And we went to the community with 500,00 interactions, 4,500 voices, over 330 key stakeholders, using over 20 different engagement methods. It was a massive amount of outreach and the community really felt their concerns and needs were heard and acted on.
That led to the four Guiding Principles for the Plan: authentic, equitable, integrated and resilient. There are 10 big policies ideas organized into four big categories: mobility, neighborhoods, health and environment, and economic resilience and opportunity.
The 2040 Plan is bold. For example, one goal is “Housing Access for All.” To increase access to diverse housing, we abolished single family detached residential zoning, allowing other types of housing in all areas.
One of the amazing results of really talking with the community was the level of community engagement went way up, and it remains strong, with many Community Task Forces that continue to work on issues like equitable mobility, anti-displacement and even the tree canopy.
Charlotte is now using Equity Metrics to map place types that address gaps and priorities, updating zoning code and map zoning districts, and refining through Community Area Planning.
When we took the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan to the Council for approval, it passed 6-5. That was a little heartbreaking—to have the vote still be so close after all that work. But, maybe, it was a good sign. This is a big change; in rethinking planning we are doing something monumental.
So we just need to start. We need to get enough people on board in enough cities. And the new urban “success” will eventually show that this is the right thing to do—for everyone.
This is an excerpt of a lecture originally made for Building a Better Bend, presented by the City of Bend, Oregon, in October 2021. You can listen to the full presentation for more details.
Jay Renkens (AICP) is a planning and design leader with national experience in downtowns, transit-oriented development, streetscapes, land use and higher education. While researching health and motivational theory, he was struck by the significant influence the environment has on people’s choices and behaviors, and he has sought to shape environments for the better ever since. Jay’s holistic approach optimizes social, economic and physical wellness for the greatest number of people, integrating equity into planning and design to address the unintended consequences of gentrification such as displacement and the losses of culture and authenticity. He has contributed to transformational change in communities throughout the country including Denver, Boston, San Antonio, Portland, Charlotte and Spokane.