Denver’s Land Use & Transportation Blueprint “A possible step towards racial equity”

For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to sit on the Denver Blueprint Task Force. Essentially, the Denver Blueprint is an effort to establish a 20 year vision of how land use policy is designed, influenced, managed, and evolves across the city and its neighborhoods. From streetscapes, to mobility, to environmental conservation, to housing density, to commercial centers, the Blueprint probably has more influence on the future of Denver than any other visioning process. For that very reason, it was critically important that a focus on racial equity be applied to both the values of this process and in how it will be implemented throughout the city.

Values and concerns for a lack of attention given to racial equity were expressed early and often in the process. Fortunately, city staff were committed to strong community engagement and members of the Task Force included some (not sufficient) socio-economic and racial diversity. However, it wasn’t until the third year that a collection of Denver City staff and Task Force members established a racial equity sub-committee to look more closely at not just what informed the Blueprint, but what assumptions were being used in its creation and how to best guide its implementation. I had the privilege of being a part of this sub-committee. It’s important to note that Denver City staff from Planning, Public Works, and Public Health were extremely supportive and contributed to much of this work. That should not be taken for granted.

In addition to analyzing and developing comments for every policy area of the Blueprint, the racial equity sub-committee, established a set of 8 overarching recommendations central to both the Blueprint, and hopefully to an overall approach to how the city implements land use policy. Please note that while the titles of each of these come from the sub-committee, the following is my personal interpretation of them and does not represent the specific language or exact intent of the sub-committee.

1.       Be clear about the emphasis on equity: This means defining the term, what success looks like in the context of equity, and how equity will being measured.

2.       Strengthen the language [in the Land Use and Built Form-Housing Section]: Although this recommendation is specific to a section of the Blueprint, it speaks to larger issue. There are times when we are willing to demand and require change, and other times when we are only willing to suggest or ask-for. Often policies that can most meaningfully change conditions that create inequity (particularly racial inequity) use a more passive approach. We must be courageous enough to demand the more controversial changes. It is often that fear of controversy that keeps things from changing. Controversy can be an indicator that power dynamics and equity are at stake.

3.       Be aware of the impact of focusing on “Centers” and “Corridors”: Centers and corridors typically represent where there is existing investment, wealth, and influence. If we continue to emphasize those areas, opportunities for economic growth and mobility in less wealthy areas are missed. While we must remain aware of gentrification, we can’t be idle when attempting to invest in lower-income parts of a community.

4.       Responsibility and accountability must be made clear: Conceptual and values-based support for racial equity is not enough if real impact is to take place. Whether we are talking about organizations, communities, or municipalities, there must be people and/or departments whose jobs are to maintain and measure such impact from an equity point of view. Who is leading racial equity efforts in a city or your organization? If no one owns it, it will not occur.

5.       Community engagement and access must be institutionalized and maintained: The problem with designing a policy plan for the next 20 years is that there are an unlimited of scenarios that can make such a plan address issues that are out of context. The Denver Blueprint did nice job of keeping the policy recommendations high-level, however, as humans we tend to still operate from our present conditions. To overcome this, there must be an unwavering commitment and system for obtaining community input and receiving resident leadership. The people must be able to influence policy to keep it real to their current circumstances so that the plan isn’t based on our current demographics, economic conditions, gentrification patterns, and transportation technology. To keep a 20 year plan current, community must inform its implementation. This is particularly true when attempting to overcome racial inequity, which is often lost when community has no voice.

6.       Overall awareness and statement regarding gentrification: Gentrification is often considered to be an unavoidable result of market trends under strong economic conditions. However, markets are influenced by policy and without awareness and intention, we will continue to put in place policies that either advance gentrification or fail to fight it off.

7.       Using an equity lens is critical for policy-makers, decision-makers, and implementers: Previous sections refer to this in a variety of ways. However, it is important to remember that actually working towards racial equity is vulnerable to a system that operates exclusively on political agendas. To advance racial equity, we must institutionalize the value. We do that with a commitment from leadership to measure success, make investment, and speak the language we use in our outreach and implementation efforts toward equity.

8.       Build Equity into processes: Simply put, racial equity has to be integrated into analysis, design, policy, implementation and measurement. If not, it will always be the harder thing to accomplish and therefore be put aside.
Although designed for the City of Denver’s Blueprint process, these recommendations can easily be applied to other structures (organizations, cities/towns, civic groups, even family). Being willing to impact racial inequity is not enough. You have to have an intentional process that identifies and measures equity impact and the people to own that work. Without that, we operate with words, not action and current conditions remain.

The Denver Blueprint, including the racial equity section, went before City Council on Monday, April 22nd.