Can cities plan for equity? These southeast Michigan communities are leading the way

Municipal master plans set the tone for how communities handle many important issues like land use, transportation, housing, and recreation. But some municipal planners are just beginning to figure out how to use the city master plan work to set meaningful goals for advancing social equity in their communities.

That's according to "Are We Planning for Equity?" a study published in November in the Journal of the American Planning Association by Wayne State University researchers Carolyn Loh and Rose Kim. Loh and Kim developed a plan equity evaluation tool and used it to analyze 48 comprehensive plans from communities across Michigan, measuring the degree to which they incorporated practices and recommendations to advance equity.

Loh says a master plan can incorporate equity into its goals in many different ways. Housing goals can stipulate a wide range of housing sizes, price points, and types that appeal to people of diverse income levels. Transportation goals can emphasize the importance of public transit, particularly adjacent to new housing developments, for those who can't afford a car.

Plans can establish goals for climate resiliency, taking steps to ensure that marginalized residents aren't disproportionately exposed to flooding or heat vulnerability. Economic development goals can seek to ensure that development benefits lower-income neighborhoods instead of just favoring high-rent downtowns. 

"Are you recommending accessible housing for a variety of folks, that's in a safe place, that's connected to a transportation system that's going to let them access the things they need?" Loh says. "If you had it in one sentence ... that's what you're looking for."

However, Loh and Kim found that plans highlighting equity were decidedly in the minority in Michigan. Only 46% of the plans they analyzed contained one or more of the words "equity," "equality," "fairness," or "justice." And of those 22 plans, six only copied the same boilerplate language on mobility equity. Only 24% of plans analyzed included recommendations specifically pertaining to equity, although 54% included general recommendations that could also have an impact on equity.

As a former planner herself, Loh was unsurprised by many of the results. But she says she was "shocked" by how few of the plans – only 42% – that incorporated a housing goal addressing affordable housing, workforce housing, and/or fair share housing.

"So many of the plans didn't even have something that played lip service to that goal," Loh says. "That really surprised me. I just thought that was standard, whether you really believe in it or not, and there were so many communities that weren't even willing to say it."

Incorporating equity ‘a lot more explicitly’

Loh identifies several comprehensive plans from across Southeast Michigan that does address equity in varied, yet meaningful, ways. 

One such example is Ypsilanti, where Loh says "it's clear that there's a commitment to equity and it just goes throughout the entire plan." The 2013 Shape Ypsilanti master plan references equity in its "guiding values," and treats equity as one of three key values (alongside environment and economy) in judging whether various strategies meet sustainability goals.

Bonnie Wessler, a project manager in the city's Department of Public Services, was a planner for the city during the development of the 2013 plan. She says the plan's emphasis on equity was driven in part by a robust public participation process. Wessler says former planner Teresa Gillotti led an effort that engaged a broad swath of the community through focus groups, charrettes, walking tours, and other events spread across the city. She also notes that Gillotti built on preexisting strong relationships with neighborhood and church groups, inviting them into the process rather than simply advertising public input sessions and expecting people to show up.

"Flyering is fantastic, but if somebody doesn't trust the government, they're generally not going to show up to a public meeting or trust you with their comments," Wessler says. "There's a lot of personal relationships that go into really getting honest feedback, and lots of honest feedback."

Loh and Kim's research affirms Ypsilanti's approach. The researchers found that communities that sought to engage the public through multiple modes – for instance, focus groups, public meetings, online surveys, or individual interviews – were more likely to emphasize equity in their plans. In fact, they found that for every additional mode of public participation, a plan would have 14% more equity-focused recommendations.

"I think going out and meeting people where they are, especially people who might be less comfortable or less able to participate in the traditional public participation methods, can be really critical in making sure you really have representative voices in that process," Loh says.

Equity is emphasized even more in a draft update of Ypsilanti's master plan that will likely go before the Ypsilanti city council this spring. The update focuses on a significant expansion of the plan's sustainability section. Wessler says that reflects growing mainstream acceptance of climate change's disproportionate effects on lower-income neighborhoods, whose residents may be more susceptible to extreme weather events.

"I think we're incorporating equity a lot more explicitly," Wessler says. "Before, we knew that we needed to help center certain voices in certain discussions and bring more people to the table, generally speaking. But it wasn't explicitly framed as an equity push. Now, with more people understanding what equity is and understanding its value, it's a lot easier to explicitly talk about it in a document that ultimately should be accessible to the public."

A ‘toolbox’ for equity

Loh says that "one of the challenges in trying to get people to think about equity is getting people to think about it as something that their neighbors are already doing and they should be doing too." However, she points to Livingston County as a good example of a master plan that takes exactly that approach. 

The county's master plan, adopted in 2018, devotes an entire chapter to social equity. It identifies several key "trends," or social equity issues within the county, as well as best practices for how those issues are being addressed by municipalities and other organizations within the county and/or state. Kathleen Kline-Hudson, director of the county's planning department, describes the document as a "toolbox master plan," designed to act as a resource for the county's cities, townships, and villages.

"We act as educators and facilitators to all the local units here, and we hope that this influences their documents as well," she says.

For example, the plan highlights the county's growing population of residents aged 65 and over as a trend, noting that the community must plan for those residents' unique needs. As a best practice, the plan details the Livingston Leadership Council on Aging's participation in the state of Michigan's Community for a Lifetime program, which guides communities through a process to become an "aging-friendly community." Although the county itself has completed the program, the plan encourages the county's local governments to do the same.

"We figured that the more we can put in local examples, things that one of our townships is doing that another township could replicate, we will be making a greater impact," Kline-Hudson says.

The plan also highlights aging in place, access to core services, pedestrian mobility, safe routes to school, and financial hardship of the working poor as other equity issues affecting the county. Kline-Hudson admits that the plan does not address racial equity, in part because the county is not very diverse. Census data shows county residents are over 96% white. However, Kline-Hudson says the county is considering expanding the plan.

"This year has been certainly a learning experience for all of us," she says.

‘It's in your face, easy to see, and easy to understand’

Another way to emphasize equity in planning is to find new ways to draw attention to populations that otherwise go overlooked. Such is the case in Fenton Township, whose 2018 master plan includes a map that shows the percentage of families in poverty by block group in the township. The map shows those families are concentrated in the upper southeast corner of the township, where as many as 33% of families live in poverty. 

Michelle Bennett, an associate at planning firm Beckett and Raeder, worked on Fenton Township's master plan. She notes that people generally consider the township to be "a very wealthy area." In one way, that's true; the township's median household income is $73,247 and it has a relatively low poverty level of 7%.

"But we want to make sure that that's not the dominant narrative," Bennett says. "As planners, we're not looking only at all residents, but at spatial analysis too. So 'Is there poverty?' would be the first question, and then 'Is it concentrated in certain areas?'"

Mike Deem, the township's zoning administrator, says it's not unusual for a master plan to include demographic analysis, including information on poverty rates. But, he says, "it's not easily understandable" in that format.

"It's just hidden away in the text," Deem says. "Pictures are a lot easier to understand than the words. When it's just out there in color, you can't ignore it."

Deem says township officials made a pointed choice to present the information in a clear, graphic format. Among other things, he says the map will help guide officials' decisions in using Community Development Block Grant funds, hopefully directing more dollars where they're needed most in the township.

"Having a tool like this, where it's in your face, easy to see, and easy to understand, helps you make those decisions easier," Deem says. "It helps you remember that you need to consider this in your decision-making."

A long way to go

Despite a few bright spots, Southeast Michigan governments still have a long way to go when it comes to fully incorporate equity into their planning efforts. Some of the reasons for the lack of focus on equity go much deeper than individual planners or planning commissions themselves. 

Loh says many planners have tried for decades to advocate for equity in varying ways. Researcher Scott D. Campbell presented equity as one of three pillars of planning in an influential 1996 article. However, Loh says, it can be hard for planners to "make the case" for an equity focus in their plans because "the planners are not the decision-makers."

"Planners are the advisors to appointed and elected officials," she says. "And appointed and elected officials may have different priorities. Their priority may be to maximize their tax base, and that may not lead to much of a commitment to social equity because they don't see that as furthering that particular goal."

Loh says that this often leads to plans that disguise equity goals as an efficiency or economic benefit, making equity an "ancillary" part of the plan rather than a goal in and of itself. 

"It's a pretty common thing to either sneak it in or to say, 'We can do this thing and it has all these benefits and by the way, it's kind of the right thing to do anyway,'" she says.

Loh says "sneaking it in the back door is better than nothing," but she hopes communities will begin to prioritize equity more explicitly in their plans. Her research suggests that things are heading that way; newer plans had more equity-focused recommendations on average than older ones.

"I'm really hoping that, when communities are updating their comprehensive plans or master plans, they look at the land-use decisions they're making in a different way and really make equity an organizing principle of those plans," she says. "I think there are huge opportunities here to make cities more welcoming, fairer, more inclusive places, and I hope that learning about equity and learning about how plans can be made more equitable inspires people to do those things differently."


Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere
Signup for Email Alerts