Urban Planning for Social Equity

By: Steve Noto & Patrick Murray

Much like the New Urbanism push that has occurred over the last 25 years, designing communities for social equity has seen urban planning return to its original intentions from before the post-World War II suburban boom: building communities for all.

One could strongly argue that the needs of communities have changed significantly over the last 100 years; however, the requirements of thoughtful urban planning and urban design have not. The consideration of every user, human, and living thing that will utilize the public and private spaces of a community must continue being the most vital concern in community design. Without that consideration, we risk a fundamental breakdown of human society, human interaction, and daily quality of life.

Collaboration is key to the art of urban planning

From a policy planner’s perspective, placing design into words is our form of art; not all planners are designers, and vice versa. However, we must rely on each other to ensure that community design outcomes are met, for both the client and the day-to-day user. Without the words that are placed in staff reports, development orders, or basic site data tables, the intent of a community design runs the risk of being lost. It should be said that inclusive design, or designing for all, must take into account a litany of items: connectivity, lighting, seating, multi-generational housing, transportation, socio-economic needs, education, open and play space, signage, sensory considerations, eco-aware landscaping, culture, economic differences, and job opportunities, just to name a few.

Mixed-use principles encourage inclusive community design

Master planned communities that incorporate mixed-use principles are one of the great tools of modern planning to ensure that new and existing communities are designed inclusively. A recently approved project in the City of Minneola, located in Lake County, Florida, is a great example of incorporating inclusive design in the form of housing mix, community connectivity, job opportunities, natural amenities, and open space for all. The project, known as Minneola Ridge, is a 439-acre master-planned PUD that will be providing single-family attached and detached housing, as well as multifamily housing, a commerce park, and 40 acres of open space and preserve. The planned mix of housing allows for a variety of entry points to the market by providing a range of price points, types, and sizes.

Most important to this project was providing seamless development transitions between the proposed project and future commercial, civic, and residential communities immediately adjacent to it. This was accomplished through design features such as appropriately designed and placed pedestrian trails; community amenities available for users of all different needs; and thoughtful architectural character, scale, and form. The preserved and improved open and environmental spaces, known as Teardrop Lake Park, provide full community access to the planned green space. All of these design features and requirements have been written into vested development orders which will ensure that the community remains a community for all during the life of the project.

Local and state policies are catalysts of affordable and community-centric housing options

From a more policy-driven perspective, in Florida, a new law known as the Live Local Act has been adopted in order to encourage more affordable housing options on parcels not traditionally zoned for multi-family use, i.e. commercial and industrial. The specific requirements of the law are best read about separately; but, from a zoning perspective, it states that multi-family projects which meet certain affordability thresholds are now allowed to be constructed on parcels that are commercially or industrially zoned, without a public hearing. Other allowances for height, density, and parking, have created a situation where dense housing projects can be constructed in areas that may not have been originally planned as fully inclusive communities. As a result of this dynamic, cities and counties are trying to craft codes to best meet the needs of their communities.

RVi planners develop design standards that prioritize social equity access, safety, and inclusivity

An existing Florida client in Osceola County is the City of St. Cloud, which requested that the RVi planning team create standards within their Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan to both encourage the projects and create design standards that ensure communities are protected but designed within inclusivity in mind. For example, the city had an existing density bonus program that was requested to be expanded with performance standards for Live Local Act projects. The standards that were recommended are related to inclusive community design: accessibility to transit, expanded landscaping, mixture of uses, an increase of open space, and publicly accessible civic space. Additionally, policies requiring safe and accessible pedestrian connectivity, community-based civic spaces, and flexible parking standards were recommended, irrespective of density bonus requests. The spirit and requirement of the act is to streamline affordable housing projects, which also required code and policy updates to trim review times, and establish administrative review and approval processes.

Social equity can be achieved through thoughtful and intentional planning and design

In sum, creating a carefully designed concept plan and setting development standards and guidelines for a community at the start of a project allows for a complete, fully-formed community. A blend of various housing types, along with appropriately and thoughtfully designed open and civic spaces, allows for a diverse and thriving socio-economical neighborhood. These neighborhoods provide a multigenerational community that provide the opportunity for residents with different personal, economic, and social backgrounds. Specific project architecture should promote and enhance pedestrian opportunities to utilize public and common spaces. Street networks should be safe and interconnected while supporting multiple modes of transportation. A wide variety of jobs and employment options with easy access to those opportunities  is key to economic vibrance.

Inclusive communities are created with the objective of promoting and encouraging a sense of belonging, place, and community. Each and every project should be thought of so broadly, not in a bubble. Otherwise, we will have failed at our job.