Exploring Health and Equity with a Nationwide Planning Network

Regional Plan Association has been working with a group of planners, public health officials, and community advocates from 11 regions across the country to exchange methods and ideas which promote health equity into regional planning work. 

The Healthy Regions Planning Exchange is part of a broader effort at RPA to do more to promote social and racial equity within our organization and in the policies and projects we promote across the region. It is made possible through generous funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

From Nashville, Tennessee to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Planning Exchange participants represent a diverse group of organizations that approach planning from different perspectives. These groups include long-standing municipal planning associations, advocates, and grassroots community organizers and a few government officials committed to creating healthier regions.

Healthy Regions Planning Exchange Participants 

Bay Area, CA: SPUR, Urban Habitat, New American Development Center

Buffalo, NY: Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transport & Co., LISC Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo

Chicago, IL: Chicago Department of Public Health, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Metropolitan Planning Council

Los Angeles, CA: Alliance for Community Transit – LA, Thai CDC

Nashville, TN: Conexion Americas, Greater Nashville Regional Council

New Orleans, LA: Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center 

New York, NY: Community Voices Heard, Regional Plan Association

Pittsburgh, PA: Hill District Consensus Group, Just Harvest, Pittsburghers for Public Transit

Portland, OR: Gresham Redevelopment Commission, Multnomah County Health Department

Twin Cities, MN: Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, Frogtown Neighborhood Association, New American Development Center 

In April, RPA hosted the group in our offices in Manhattan for three days of discussions that  centered around how meaningful community partnerships inform better planning and how race and racism shape planning, often to the detriment of communities of color. 

Then last month, participants tuned into the first in a series of five webinars to follow up on discussions from the April conference. Webinars will take place monthly leading up to a second conference in early 2020. 

Healthy Regions Planning Exchange participants at RPA’s Manhattan offices in April, 2019.

The first webinar focused on development without displacement, examining tensions in land use decisions and preserving communities. Our three speakers, Planning Exchange participants Asad Aliweyd and Tia Williams from the Twin Cities region and our very own Moses Gates from RPA, highlighted how speculative development by bad actors acutely hurts communities of color and immigrants. They discussed how locally-driven planning efforts can better position communities to respond to displacement, and contextualized these experiences in a broader legislative and advocacy context.

Aliweyd, Founder and CEO of the New American Development Center, works closely with the Somali Immigrant community in Minneapolis. He described how this community faces barriers in securing housing in both the city center and the suburbs. The reason? Denied loans due to a lack of credit history, lower incomes, and affordable housing that cannot accommodate larger families. 

Williams, Co-Director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, shared her experience organizing the Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul to create a Small Area Plan in comic book form that envisions the future of the neighborhood as those who live there want to see it. The process brought together local artists, community leaders and residents, demonstrating how an inclusive planning process allows for communities to respond to development as pressures increase. 

Gates, RPA’s VP of Housing and Neighborhood Planning, reviewed the recent changes to New York’s rent regulations and emphasized how a broad-based coalition of both downstate and upstate cities helped tenants secure significant protections against displacement.

During the discussion, Aliweyd was asked about non-housing related anti-gentrification strategies, and provided insights on his organization’s workforce development, skills training, and financial literacy efforts to improve people’s economic opportunities. Williams described the Feeding Frogtown campaign to make healthy food more accessible to long-time community members.

Community Land Trusts (CLT) were the subject of some debate. Some participants were searching for other strategies like CLTs that lead to permanent affordability. Others suggested the land trust model may not always protect communities if the trust isn’t managed by representatives of the community, as with Native American communities, for example, where land is held in trust by the federal government. 

The Healthy Regions Planning Exchange Webinar Series will continue to reflect on questions of equity and health related to planning processes by exploring topics such as data in planning, transit equity, and environmental justice. 

Stay tuned for more about our next webinar led by Mindy Fullilove of The New School and Molly Rose Kaufman of the University of Orange which considers their 400 Years of Inequality project—remembering the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved people arriving in North America—and its connection to the history of urban planning.

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