Last week, Smart Growth America hosted our second annual Equity Summit, with each of the three days curated and led by one of our three teams, respectively: land use and development, transportation and thriving communities, and economic development. With a phenomenal lineup of speakers, panelists, and Smart Growth America staff, there were plenty of tidbits of knowledge to take away from the Summit. Here’s what a few of our own staff heard.
Chris Rall (he/him/his) — Outreach Director, Transportation for America
I attended the transportation-focused session on Day 2 of Smart Growth America’s Equity Summit this year, and I’m still puzzling over what it means to truly engage the public in street-design decisions. Keynote speaker Vignesh Swaminathan, a.k.a. “Mr. Barricade,” is taking such a unique approach to education about infrastructure through the medium of social media. Don’t let the signature dance moves and endless twirling of his magnificent mustache fool you. Vignesh thought deeply about how to connect with new audiences about the struggle to make our streets safer and more accessible to everyone before he embarked on his whimsical TikTok journey. His use of quick-builds in the street projects he develops, which gives people a way to consider new designs without having to interpret engineering documents, is also making engagement accessible to people who’ve been historically excluded from the process. One thing is clear: there is room for lots of experimentation in how we as a nation gather input and implement street projects. The implications for creating more inclusive communities and saving lives are significant.
Beth Osborne (she/her/hers) — Director, Transportation for America
The message I heard from many speakers was twofold. One, we cannot allow fear of gentrification to prevent investment in the communities that need it most. As Martin Muoto said, “the opposite of gentrification is economic segregation.” Both Martin and Majora Carter made clear, all communities need investment, and we need to involve the people of the community in any development and act up front to ensure that they benefit directly from that investment. But failing to invest is not support. As Majora Carter said, “Poverty is not a cultural trait.”
Benito Pérez (he/him/his) — Policy Director, Transportation for America
The Equity Summit was quite the event not to miss with thought provoking conversations on the implication of equity in the built environment. The first day, what stuck out to me was a discussion from Dr. Marshall Shepherd, making note that practitioners of the built environment need to take stock on climate resiliency not just as reflecting on the past climate experiences (which is the status quo), but being cognizant of the present (discussion on the distribution of current heat islands in cities) and the future (how do we build our built environment to withstand more climate extremes while also managing the user experience equitably).
On the second day, I was moved by the work Keynote speaker Vignesh Swaminathan, a.k.a. “Mr. Barricade,” has been pursuing on leveling the playing field in public involvement and how its approached. The traditional public involvement process that many practitioners take in transportation is structurally inequitable with inconvenient times, format, and information accessibility. By taking to quick-build demonstrations and streetside (plus social media) conversations on the built environment, Mr. Barricade has democratized the transportation public involvement process for practitioners to follow.
Day three, the work that Michelle de la Uz shared with listeners was moving. Like Mr. Barricade, Michelle’s Fifth Avenue Committee has democratized information access (especially with the example of breaking down the updated zoning proposal in a way for the community to meaningfully respond and shape the proposal to benefit the community) and social program access for long time residents to invest in and better their community. There is a lot to take in and definitely worth revisiting not only the conversations held by the latitude of amazing speakers at the Equity Summit, but the conversation amongst listeners in the chat that merit continued dialogue in the months and years ahead to advance equity in the built environment.
Stephen Kenny (he/him/his) — Outreach and Policy Associate, Transportation for America
“Often, oral history is considered invalid as data” – Dr. Regan Patterson.
I’m sure many people who consider themselves equity-minded (including myself) have never thought about this truth about our world, but the 2022 Equity Summit was packed full of these often-marginalized perspectives. We heard from experts about the racist history of stormwater drainage, 311 call geographic data, complex engineering terminology, and community member compensation for engagement work. Our speakers and panelists brought their A game, bringing concrete examples from their communities and explaining complex topics in accessible ways. I monitored the Zoom chat function during the event and witnessed people actively changing their minds about key topics and making plans to make their communities more equitable. It was a powerful atmosphere.
Jared Klukas (he/him/his) — Program Associate, Thriving Communities
“Sometimes you don’t choose the opportunity, the opportunity chooses you.” – SoLa Impact founder Martin Muoto.
One of the most compelling takeaways (although there are many more) that resonated with me while attending the Equity Summit is the power of collective, unified action. Because that is what smart growth is all about. The Equity Summit was filled with meaningful stories and conversations woven together by climate scientists, grassroots organizers, thought leaders, and attendees who all share the same passion for wanting to see a more equitable and resilient future for everyone. This idea of collective action felt throughout in the Summit speaks volumes as to how important representation is within everything pertaining to smart growth. Zelalem Adefris, one of the panelists on the land use and development day, said that “If a solution excludes people, it’s not a solution.” What arose from the three days full of knowledge, expertise, and technical experience is the belief that the path forward is not one that can be navigated individually, but one that must be taken all together, step by step.
Jamie Zouras (she/her/hers) — Program Manager, Form Based Codes Institute
From gathering weather-climate data through citizen science, to meme-ifying infrastructure to increase public awareness, to leveraging capital for social impact agendas, the Equity Summit facilitated critical discussions that make one thing clear: smart growth practitioners must take things into their own hands and think outside the box to create safe, climate resilient, and transit-accessible places without displacing those who have previously been left behind. We begin by prioritizing compensated community member engagement in decision-making to impact policy and create empowered leaders.
Helen Hope (she/her/hers) — Communications Associate
The interdisciplinary nature of all three days stood out to me — one might call it “smart growth”-ness of the Summit. When development is talked about in the news or in reports, often it is seen as numbers and dollars. I appreciated that over the course of the Summit, we got development from a variety of perspectives. Majora reminded us at the start of the Summit that community is a value, and that beauty and talent can be retained in revitalization efforts. This was bookended by Martin Muoto when asked how we can ensure that displacement doesn’t happen in the future; he responded that intentionality is essential, and that “the opposite of gentrification is economic segregation”. And in another panel, there was emphasis on both qualitative and quantitative data — not just the dollars and cents, but the stories and social fabric of a place as well. All these perspectives are important — and without taking action on all of them, I don’t think you can truly call something equitable development. The work we do at Smart Growth America brings all these frames together: through our teams, our priorities, and how we get it all done.
Chris Zimmerman (he/him/his) — Vice President, Economic Development
Equity has to be built into development plans with intentionality. We can’t assume that “a rising tide will lift all boats”, that growth will be good for everyone. History has shown that not only do some not benefit, but have been harmed. We need to incorporate explicit strategies to prevent displacement of residents and businesses when new investment discovers long-neglected neighborhoods and corridors.
At the same time, we have to be intentional about growth, too. As Majora Carter reminded us, “concentration of poverty tends to exacerbate” all the problems of struggling communities. People want to be able to continue to live in their communities, but they also need more access to opportunities to earn better incomes and build wealth, and to enjoy an improved quality of life — to “participate in the trajectory of their neighborhood” as it improves, to quote Majora Carter again. As Martin Muoto noted, “the opposite of gentrification is segregation.” Stopping “gentrification” is not an equity policy. We need to embed equity into a policy framework that recognizes that change will occur, and leverages it in ways that ensure that benefits are shared with residents of historically-marginalized communities.
You can meet the full team working for the smart growth movement at smartgrowthamerica.org/our-staff.