Planning for People: Smart Growth Strategies for Equitable Development

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.