Pushing Ahead with Inclusive Planning in North Carolina; A Toolbox for Local Governments to Address Inequality

Author: Nate Baker, AICP, Associate at Clarion Associates

Conversations about equity dominated the American Planning Association National Conference held in New Orleans in April. Inequality has risen to the forefront of policy discussions, spinning off debates around the usual suspects: access to opportunity, gentrification and displacement, affordable housing, transit, economic justice, and other issues that affect vulnerable communities. Equity even influences other aspects of the human condition, such as isolation and despair.

Inequality is not a new topic for planners, but the modern challenge of inequality as it relates to race, wealth, and income – is a unique one for planners. Unlike many previous urban crises like urban renewal, sprawl, and exclusionary zoning practices, the origins, scope, and perpetuation of 21st century inequality extend beyond the power of the planner, the borders of the planner’s jurisdiction, and the powers of local government. This leaves planners and policymakers scrambling to assemble tools that help alleviate inequality’s symptoms without addressing the origins of the crisis. 

Luckily, there are ways North Carolina planners can help local governments alleviate disparities and promote fairer cities that serve everyone. Planners’ understanding of the interrelationships between complex issues and their context-sensitive solutions makes them uniquely qualified to play a key role in this process. Inclusive planning at the local level is a powerful tool for dealing with the symptoms of inequality and more communities are taking steps to diagnose the problem and find solutions. Their concerns about inequality are not misplaced; many communities we’ve worked in have seen median wages stagnate, and commute times and costs of necessities increase.

Increasingly, planners and officials are recognizing and identifying the challenges facing their cities as they look to address equity. Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute provides a call for truly responsive and inclusive planning, focusing on walkable urbanism, higher density infill development, social equity, environmental justice, and multimodal transportation options. Several local governments are making inclusive planning a focus in their community-wide planning, including their comprehensive plan process. One example is the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan process currently in its first phase, which includes an approach based on three overriding principles concerning inclusive planning: 1. Authentic and Equitable Participation; 2. Interwoven Equity; and 3. Integrated Framework for Growth, Development, and Community Design. 

Surprisingly, there are few definitions available for inclusive planning so we constructed one that we think will be useful for communities looking to implement inclusive planning approaches. We define inclusive planning as a two-pronged process 1) involving a fair representation of citizens providing meaningful and educated input and 2) where planners advocate for greater equity in public policies that address the multiple objectives of urban planning including sustainable development, housing, transportation, economic development, and environmental justice.

What are inclusive planning approaches?

Here is a brief list of high level inclusive planning approaches that some communities have begun using. We’ll dig into each of these a little deeper in future posts.

Genuine public engagement

A public workshop in Columbia, South Carolina, for the Compass Columbia comprehensive plan.

The literature on public engagement approaches in planning is nearly inexhaustible. Yet, public engagement in planning processes often fails to reach a significant number of stakeholders, and those that do participate are often not a truly representational cross-section of a given community. Susan Fainstein, a research scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Design whose research and writing has focused on the distributive effects of urban development strategies, points out in her book Just City, that citizen-engagement does not necessarily result in better planning, especially without a robust public education process or overrepresentation of one group over others.

Modern planning approaches use a blend of online and multiple in-person outreach tactics. Combined with effective education of planning influences, strategic analytics that track who is providing input, and a meaningful and transparent platform, genuine public engagement provides important data points to both influence policy in a way that improves choices for people and sets the stage for effective implementation. Participatory budgeting is one tool that has begun gaining traction in multiple communities, including Greensboro and Durham.

A pop-up intercept event in Kannapolis, NC, during the Move Kannapolis Forward 2030 Comprehensive Plan. Since adopting the plan, the city has begun the process to codify the plan’s new policies through an updated Unified Development Ordina


Making housing affordable

With fewer federal and state resources available for funding low-income housing, local governments are stepping up and collaborating to fund these projects using local funding sources. Accurately diagnosing the most pressing problems and then crafting a patchwork variety of creative tools and policies, some local governments have found ways to help stimulate the development of affordable housing to their middle-income and low-income residents, and in some cases, provide it themselves. This year, the APA-NC Affordable Housing Task Force was established to generate local case studies, regulatory tools, programs, and funding mechanisms to help assist communities with affordable housing. This information could help chip away at the growing need for affordable housing across the state.


Beyond affordable housing: Healthy and affordable lifestyles

While housing is typically a household’s largest expenditure, costs associated with transportation, health care, child care, and education have risen during recent years, and policymakers are increasingly aware of the multiple impacts of the geography of jobs and housing. That’s why it is important to look beyond housing affordability, and examine the far more complex but relevant questions around affordable lifestyles and making sure citizens have healthy and active ways to get around. Increasingly, affordable housing within transit-oriented development has become recognized as a fundamental strategy for making the most of subsidized affordable housing.


Work, Wages, and Evolving Trends in Economic Development

The national unemployment rate is at an historic low while worker productivity continues to climb. Yet, many people are working more jobs for longer hours in more tenuous circumstances, and they are facing longer commutes, stagnating wages, and underemployment. Many of these challenges increasingly need to be addressed by creative planners in urban, rural, and suburban contexts.


Human Services and Social Safety Nets

Social safety nets? Isn’t that just for the federal government to worry about? Where federal or state governments have not acted, some local governments are providing, or plan to provide, critical services for pre-K, health care, elderly services, and other important social services. These investments have occurred in both politically red and blue cities and states, reflecting the potential long-term cost-savings that can be derived from investments in these services.


Zoning, Density, and Property Tax 

One of the first steps in addressing inequality at the local level is to fix broken land development rules that might prohibit walkable cost-efficient development, like small-lot housing. Updating land development ordinances to remove barriers to and incentivize good development allows naturally-occurring workforce housing and affordable lifestyles. Understanding and addressing property taxes and valuation is a related strategy, and communities have discovered challenges arising from land speculation, student housing, and a variety of other factors that require creative and tailored solutions. 


Looking ahead

These are important tools and concepts, and much planning work is being done to advance practical tools and information for addressing the modern challenges associated with inequality. Local policymakers continue to seek ways of harnessing limited resources for addressing complex problems. Future posts will include more detail and case studies of how communities are using inclusive planning to address inequality and related challenges. Comments and experiences from your community are appreciated.


Further reading:


The New Urban Crisis

Just Cities

Radical Cities


Making Equity Planning Work

A Better Way to Zone