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Planning for People: Smart Growth Strategies for Equitable Development

2013 August 20
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By Sara James

I’ve always taken note of the world around me, particularly how the built environment meets – or fails to meet – the needs of the people who actually live in that environment. Even before I decided to study urban planning, I questioned why environmental and public health issues and access to jobs, services, and other daily necessities were a challenge faced by some communities but not by others.

During my urban planning studies and my internship with EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities (OSC), I’ve learned that traditional planning focuses on the built environment (e.g., buildings, roads). Too often, a project’s main goal is to minimize the developer’s financial bottom line, not to maximize the residents’ quality of life. Effective planning also requires understanding a community’s social, economic, and cultural diversity. The most successful planning processes today include comprehensive community engagement, advocacy for community members most in need and an eye toward equitable development. In its recent publication, Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities, EPA identified smart growth strategies that planners, developers, and community leaders can use to build healthy, sustainable, and inclusive communities.

Community engagement event in Mariposa

The Denver Housing Authority facilitated over 120 public meetings and community engagement events and translated documents into three languages.

The Mariposa District in Denver used these strategies and was recognized last year for its accomplishments in equitable development by EPA’s National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement. (Watch the video.) Planning for redevelopment of the Mariposa District, a 17.5-acre public housing site, included more than 120 meetings, discussions, group consultations, workshops, and information sessions. Planners conducted door-to-door interviews, translated outreach materials into multiple languages, facilitated training sessions for public housing residents, and conducted a cultural audit to fully understand the DNA of the neighborhood as a whole.

Katrina Aguirre, a Mariposa resident, said she “learned how the concerns of residents could become part of the plan for the redevelopment as long as [they] voiced [their] thoughts.”  As the new buildings are constructed, Ms. Aguirre sees the effect of the residents’ involvement in the process. “Our goals and ideas have been included – which will make this a place where we want to continue to live.”

Successes like the Mariposa District are ripe with lessons that can be captured and shared with practitioners and stakeholders. That’s why OSC has been working closely with the Office of Environmental Justice to develop a new webpage, Smart Growth and Equitable Development. The resources on this page explain the challenges underserved communities face in relation to the built environment and land use decisions. They also point to approaches, like in Mariposa, that can be used to ensure that planning and development processes are unbiased, inclusive, and result in a better quality of life for everyone. Resources like these have helped me better understand and answer some of my initial questions about the built environment’s effect on the people it serves. I hope they will help you answer your smart growth, equitable development, and environmental justice questions as well!

Sara James is studying to obtain her master’s degree in sustainable urban planning at George Washington University and interning with EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. She assists EPA in researching and promoting innovative, sustainable, smart growth and equitable development strategies in communities across the country.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Marc Brenman permalink
    August 20, 2013

    People interested in this topic may want to take a look at Tom Sanchez’ and my book, “Planning as if People Matter: Governing for Social Equity,” from Island Press, 2012.

  2. Tim permalink
    August 20, 2013

    Thank you for a youth voice and a community perspective (Mariposa) on this very imporatnt topic. In looking at these issues, it seems like planning is a big part of the impacts that are happening in communities.

  3. Jason permalink
    August 22, 2013

    It’s great to see that the Smart Growth program at EPA has finally realized the value of addressing Equitable Development in the planning process. I hope you will continue to move in the right direction and begin to diversify the smart growth network as well, are there any plans to do this???

    I enjoyed the Mariposa video it contained some valuable information. One suggestion would be to increase the community voices in the smart growth award videos to allow other communities to hear about how they played a role and what value they feel was brought to their communities. Maybe follow a similar format to the environmental justice videos I viewed on this blog.


  4. Jason permalink
    August 22, 2013

    I wanted also to say how very impressed I was when I realized that this story was being shared by an intern. She showed a strong grasp of many of the issues and concepts associated with Equitable Development- Excellent Job!

  5. Kim permalink
    August 22, 2013

    I approve this Blog! in other words great information that is actually useful.

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