Staff spotlight: Toccarra Nicole Thomas, Director of Land Use and Development

Aligned left is Toccarra's headshot, where she smiles at the camera wearing a black blazer, and underneath is her name and title. To the right is a quote that reads "“In doing this work, I think about how I’m changing people’s lives. If I can convince even just one community to change the way they design their spaces so that everyone has a chance to thrive, then I’m making a difference. That’s my reason.” Smart Growth America's logo is in the bottom right corner.

Toccarra Nicole Thomas, AICP, joined Smart Growth America as the Director of Land Use and Development in June 2022. She is also the Executive Director at the Form-Based Codes Institute. We talked with her about her personal and professional values and experiences when it comes to racial equity in smart growth as well as her outlook on some exciting new projects for the year.

How has your background and experience led you to the Land Use and Development team at SGA?

I was always interested in the built environment, land use decisions, and equity from a young age. I just didn’t know that the questions I was asking were about urban planning. For example, I grew up asking questions about why my majority-Black hometown was poor when we had world class amenities such as the Port of Palm Beach and a ton of Fortune 500 companies. It always stood out to me that no one in leadership positions looked like us and that none of the money flowing through my community stayed in my community. And while I played SimCity heavily and asked these kinds of questions, I didn’t truly internalize that urban planning was a profession until I went to college and my questions were answered in a “Cities of the World” class. This class in college changed everything because it helped make those connections for me and is what inspired me to get my Master of Arts in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Florida with a concentration on affordable housing and a Minor in historic preservation.

After graduation, I worked at a community redevelopment agency in South Florida, which led to me founding and managing my own small, Black- and female-owned planning consulting firm. While it was lucrative, I feared that it wasn’t sustainable, so I went back to graduate school and obtained an MBA in supply chain management with a focus on finance. After an interdisciplinary career which ranged from managing all ocean logistics for Chrysler (now Stellantis) to managing the credit card dispute process at BB&T, I realized it was time to go back to what I knew I always loved: planning.

After leaving BB&T, I returned to planning with a leadership position at the County of Lake, California, and then I took my talents to the City of Redding, CA. However, my true love is thought leadership and technical assistance, which led me to SGA.

What are some projects/opportunities that you are looking forward to this year?

Like I said, our thought leadership and technical assistance work in housing attainability is something that I love and is where all my energy is; I believe that housing is a human right and being able to advocate for and develop solutions to eliminate the zoning barriers to affordable housing—while also working to eliminate racism from the planning profession—is where I thrive.

This year, we’re delivering a technical assistance program and guidebook to help communities eliminate zoning barriers to development and effectively deliver housing that is affordable to all, which is a key component of a healthy community.

We are also re-launching FBCI programming with a laser-focus on racial equity. We’re working with the FBCI Steering Committee to create and deliver a webinar series that focuses on addressing racism in the planning profession, while also advancing efforts to eliminate racism from the theory and practice of land use. Incorporating more racial equity and housing attainability will be at the core of FBC educational offerings. Euclidean zoning (which is the primary land use regulation in America, approximately 98% of incorporated communities have some form of euclidean zoning) was explicitly created as a tool to advance segregation and racism, and we’re expanding our classes to help develop solutions to eliminate racism from zoning. All of the educational programming will help democratize planning, and it will work in concert with our technical assistance and thought leadership offerings. For example, we are scoping the creation of a DIY code audit that will allow communities to see just how equitable—or inequitable—their current zoning laws are, with the ultimate goal of providing support to address their findings.

Both of these opportunities will help return power to practitioners to ensure they are supported at the counter in the face of racism. They can also help advocates working to eliminate systemic racism from their community’s land use decision-making. Finally, they’ll help us build capacity so we can reach more communities who want to achieve this goal of eliminating racism from their communities and become more fiscally sustainable (since racism has a financial cost).

What does Black History Month mean to you? How do you celebrate?

Black history is American history, and for us to move forward as a country, in general and specifically for SGA to advance racial equality, we have to tell that full story. To me, it’s not just about highlighting the Civil Rights Era (which is extremely important) but about telling the full story of Black history in America—what came before and after the Civil Rights Era. There’s so much history that has been lost because Black history has not been valued by America. For example, Black historical sites that are significant after the Civil Rights Era were not preserved. As a matter of fact, the majority of Black, historically significant sites were intentionally targeted for removal by urban renewal and divisive infrastructure projects, and the erasure of these sites gives the impression that the only significant Black historical sites are Civil Rights-adjacent, and that is simply not the case.

There is so much Black history to share and preserve and we must openly and loudly advocate for the preservation of Black history, including Black, historically significant sites. I use this time as an opportunity to elevate these aspects of Black history and Black female history. It’s important to honor positive examples and instill hope.

Describe the importance of equity in the context of smart growth.

In the grand scope of things, if you don’t have people with different lived experiences at the table, you won’t achieve an equitable built environment. Equity is equality. And the lack of diversity in the profession has led to stagnant communities. For example, our communities have been shaped by one voice, leading to a built environment that only serves able-bodied persons. The fact that I am here serving as an active thought leader with the space and support to talk about these topics creates valuable visibility and will ultimately create an equitable built environment that supports all, not just a select few.

Where we live is so important and impacts so many aspects of our lives. The way we have designed our places to live here in America tells people they are not worthy. So in doing this work, I think about how I’m changing people’s lives. If I can convince even just one community to change the way they design their spaces so everyone has an opportunity, then I’m making a difference. That’s my reason.

Who inspires you in your field?

Growing up, my idols were Dr. Mae Jemison and my mom, both Black women who inspired me to dream big. In the field today, Kristen Jeffers; Dee Powell; Jerome Horne; Mitch Silver, FAICP; Angela Brooks, FAICP; Veronica O. Davis, PE; and Gisla Augustin, MURP are just some of the people who inspire me on a daily basis to be a better planner. Additionally, it’s the younger generation of planners who energize me. I see so many hard-working individuals, including those mentioned earlier and many others whom I don’t have the space or time to name, who have day jobs, passion projects, do consulting on the side, all in the name of making our communities better places for all people. It’s amazing to see how scrappy they are and that they’re doing what it takes to make things happen.

Describe your vision for the future of land use and development within the smart growth space.

The future of the Land Use and Development team is deepening our bench in anti-racial work. It’s one of SGA’s programmatic priorities and throughlines, and in the year ahead, our team will be leading the way by really leaning into anti-racist work and working to ensure that affordable housing is available for all.

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