Cities, Infrastructure, United States, Urban Development

Our communities are suffering from illness, social isolation, limited access to resources, unemployment and economic downturn. Yet, not all communities are experiencing these pains equally and the injustices are especially devastating for low-income communities of color. One of the most visible examples of inequity is in public infrastructure. We can begin to address the stark injustices facing our nation by examining the role infrastructure policy, practice and investment play in creating an equitably built environment.

As architects, planners and designers, we can use data-driven tools and analytics to create an equity-based approach to infrastructure. To be successful, this approach should include proactive development of policies, practices and strategic investments to reverse disparity trends based on race, gender, sexual orientation or income. In order to create and facilitate more equitable infrastructures and societies, cities must analyze when and how decisions are made and how these decisions impact the most vulnerable communities. Here, we share how policy, practice and investment can help reverse infrastructure inequality.

Acknowledge the structural bias and lack of social equity in the current systems

To achieve more equitable communities, we must first acknowledge the current and historical disparity in the distribution and access to infrastructure and services, which disproportionally effects certain populations. It is critical that the larger community recognize and buy in to the efforts needed to mitigate the disparity and improve equity for all. We must also set specific goals and adopt policies to set this in motion.

Develop and adopt an equity-based framework for key decision-making

Not only can we embed equity into infrastructure decisions and prioritizations, we can make those considerations and the decision process visible through an equity-based framework, or Equity Lens. By viewing development options through an Equity Lens, key decision makers can understand the equity implications of each action as well as resulting performance and cost. The Equity Lens can be applied to individual projects as well as broader programs which will allow capital planning budgets to fund projects which address equity issues and performance gaps.

Use data-driven tools to incorporate equity in infrastructure decisions

With the right data-driven tools, incorporating equity-based thinking in planning and programming projects can become an intuitive and straightforward part of the process. With automated tools to guide city engineers, planners and policy makers through an equity-based process for project and program development, we can help achieve important equity goals and outcomes. When these tools are aligned to existing workflows, are user-friendly, transparent and accessible, cities and agencies can make decisions that are not only cost effective and high-performing but can also help to reverse disparity.

Track progress over time

While we cannot solve decades of inequity overnight, we can make progress working together on small and large efforts, incrementally and persistently. By tracking progress through real quantifiable metrics, creating department and agency accountability with regular reporting requirements and review by City Councils and the public, we can propel meaningful change in our communities.

Empower the community

Communities need a real voice in this process and should participate not just through engagement and outreach for a plan, but also in setting specific equity outcome goals. A regular equity dialog between citizens, policymakers, and project engineers is essential. Discussions around education, awareness, and citizen advocacy can positively affect how equity considerations drive critical infrastructure decisions. If we can create a system for continued feedback and channel that into the evaluation framework, we can not only empower our communities but begin to create equity in our built environments.

Project Highlight:

Baltimore’s Equity-Based Project Prioritization Tool

In Baltimore, we are working with the Department of Public Works to prioritize capital investment for infrastructure projects. Which projects should move forward? Equity is the priority. By using this online tool developed by AECOM, the Department of Public Works can view projects through an ‘Equity Lens’ which aggregates data such as percentage of disadvantaged and/or minority populations within the project area and enables the City to evaluate multiple locations. Each potential infrastructure project receives a scorecard for project performance, equity and combined performance and equity to help the City make the most equitable infrastructure investment choices.

Originally published Mar 15, 2021

Authors: Avinash Srivastava , Emily Schwimmer , Garrett Harper