Access Doesn’t Equal Equity: Including Diverse Perspectives in Land-Use Planning

Special thanks to Connie Longmate, Megan Miller, Lauren Moore, Sally Greene, and Allison De Marco

Findings from a recent project by students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill indicate that elected officials should use a racial equity toolkit when creating policy.

What is the group?

During the fall semester of 2017, fourteen students in a course at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work used a racial equity assessment to provide local governments with examples on how to improve outcomes in planning and policy-making. This service learning course, “Tools for Financial Coaching: Financial Literacy, Poverty, and Racial Equity,” allowed students the opportunity to speak with elected officials from Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, and Orange County to better learn about local policies that impact community members at risk of or who are currently experiencing homelessness.

One team of students elected to analyze the use of the American Legion Road Property, an $8 million plot of land purchased by the Town of Chapel Hill in December of 2016. The council members recognized that the American Legion Road Property process did not include sufficient representative voices and that there was concern in the community about the steep purchase price and the lack of a clear strategic plan for funding the project. Town council members recognized the necessity of diverse input from community members and other municipal departments, so they created a Task Force to present options for the use of the American Legion Property to the council.

A three-member student team used the Racial Equity Toolkit developed by the Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative to analyze the process in determining the use of the American Legion Property. As part of the Racial Equity Toolkit process, the group collected information in a variety of ways, including traditional research, in-person conversations with council members, and concerned community members, and analyzed town council data to complete the steps of the framework. The students identified the impacts the proposal might have on communities of color and then collected the necessary information and data to understand the policy’s reaches. This expanded racial equity lens supported broader conclusions concerning who is impacted by the policy and how they are affected.

Major findings

Despite the fact that 27.2% of Chapel Hill’s population consist of people of color, the conversation and decisions around the American Legion Property were almost exclusively among White communities. The Task force of 13 people consisted almost entirely of White members with the sole person of color being Council member Donna Bell. Further, the students found that a Black resident had applied to be on the Taskforce but had not been selected, and that no further attempt was made to include other residents of color in the decision-making process.

The students also concluded that the methods used to collect community input did not reflect an inclusive process. A charrette took place during traditional working hours, and an electronic survey was sent out that was not accessible to those without computer access. This lack of inclusivity therefore resulted in a plan that excluded communities of color. And although the park land was designed to be accessible to all groups, voices of color were not included in the decision-making process. This could result in the creation of a space where communities of color do not feel welcome, which would only further the gap in accessible resources for communities of color. Using these discoveries, the student team made recommendations for how the town can avoid perpetuating racial inequity in the future.

Moving Forward

The American Legion Property proposal is still a work in progress. However, the student feedback spurred conversations within the community and among elected officials about the future plans of the American Legion Property as well as the identified needs of the community. One increasing concern is the lack of affordable housing. Housing prices are on the rise in Chapel Hill, and residents who are largely people of color are being forced out. One of the few remaining affordable housing options in Orange County, a mobile home park, is currently at risk of closing down, an event which would leave many without a home. This issue is urgent, but the students are concerned that the Chapel Hill Town council members will be too slow to act.

On November 29, 2017, the Chapel Hill Town Council meeting included an agenda item to receive the Second American Legion Road Task Force Report and consider the recommendation. Individuals experiencing homelessness, advocates from the Community Empowerment Fund, and other supporters of affordable housing came to give public comment. At the close of the meeting each of these constituent groups left feeling disappointed, unwelcome, and that White voices continued to be prioritized over voices of people of color and to dominate the Town’s priorities. Chapel Hill’s Mayor, Pam Hemminger, emailed the group after the event, thanking the students for their perspective and offering an explanation as to why events unfolded the way they did. While the group appreciates the Mayor’s commitment to the issue, to date there has been no evidence that the voices of the underrepresented are having an impact on the shape of the conversation. In the words of John Rawls, investment in the least advantaged in our community will be the most advantageous for all.

Though constituents and political leaders are eager to see change happen, it is imperative that projects and policies are analyzed using the Racial Equity Toolkit. It is the responsibility of political leaders to understand and address racially inequitable policies and practices that can affect communities who do not have a prominent voice in the decision-making process. And the first step in doing so is by engaging community and listening to their voices and perspectives.


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