Cities, Equity Diversity & Inclusion, United States, Urban Planning

In 2016, the City of Richmond, Virginia, set out to develop a master plan that would chart a path forward over the next two decades, in time for the city’s 300th birthday in 2037. With a desire to create a more equitable, sustainable future for the people of Richmond, the city recognized that a plan was needed, but was unsure of how to best to develop one. Richmond’s planning director turned to AECOM’s experienced project and program management consultants and urban planners to help create a future that would manage growth and improve infrastructure and facilities, while also advancing equity and inclusion across the fast-growing city.

The result is Richmond 300: A Guide for Growth, a plan five years in the making that recently earned the American Planning Association’s 2021 Daniel Burnham Award as the nation’s top comprehensive plan. The master plan envisions an equitable, sustainable and beautiful Richmond that delivers a high quality of life for all residents. It incorporates such goals as creating inclusive housing, developing an equitable transportation network, fostering a diverse economy and supporting a thriving environment.

Here are six takeaways from this City of Richmond/AECOM collaboration that can help guide the development of master plans for other municipalities across the country looking to embrace a new sustainable future for all residents.

Break the mold. Typically, cities lead their master plan development, researching current conditions, developing their project scope and establishing targets before hiring a consultant to determine how to meet those goals. The planning director for the City of Richmond made the deliberate decision to move forward without these elements in place, underscoring the city’s desire for a more inclusive master plan that would consider the needs of underserved neighborhoods that historically had been shut out of these efforts.

This led to a master plan tailored to Richmond that accounted for needs voiced across all the city’s communities. While the city did not have the capacity to dedicate its personnel to the master plan full-time, AECOM embedded itself within the city, temporarily relocating their offices for the project. This close relationship allowed for open, in-person discussions between AECOM and city staff, cementing the team’s ability to serve as trusted advisors in a more meaningful, impactful way than would be possible with a traditional consultant.

Be open with the public. We were vocal about the process of creating an inclusive roadmap to guide the master plan’s development and sought input from the public from beginning to end. An example of this was how we formed the master plan’s steering committee. Typically, city officials appoint members for a steering committee before hiring a consultant, but Richmond wanted all voices to be heard. So, the mayor hosted a press conference where he asked citizens to apply for the plan’s committee and over 170 people expressed interest. The final committee consisted of 21 people varying widely in age, planning knowledge, and length of city residency. This diversity set the stage for an inclusive, transparent process and allowed us to create accessible, understandable content that resonated with our constituency and built community consensus.

Change the information flow. During the engagement process, we reversed the traditional top-down approach so that information flowed from the community up to the planners — a shift that allowed more people to contribute to the master plan.

We asked Richmond residents to send in their ‘Big Ideas.’ We received about 6,000 submissions, with over 900 vision statements that were then organized and brought to five working groups that were assigned to shape these submissions into draft maps, goals, objectives and recommendations. All Richmonders were invited to participate in these working groups with the expected commitment to attend all the meetings. Staff asked key technical experts from inside and outside City Hall to participate in the working groups as well, providing guidance and insight. Ranging between 30 and 50 unique members each, the groups worked with staff to fine tune the draft master plan during 15 meetings over five months. Once the working groups made their determinations, we brought the draft back for public review. The planning process began with Richmonders’ ideas and ended with their buy-in, giving all residents the opportunity to have a voice in the process and ownership of the adopted plan.

Shift gears when needed. We understood there would be times when a strategy or process didn’t work. To counter that, we built in time to reconsider and readjust, doing just that with our community engagement efforts.

We aimed to engage two percent of Richmond’s population — about 6,000 people. This target was intended to include people who are typically involved in planning conversations, such as residents who are active in civic associations, as well as residents from Black and Latino neighborhoods who have been less likely to be included in this process in the past.

When, after our first round of engagement, we lacked input from that second group, we readjusted our approach and hired seven residents from the communities we wanted to reach. These residents expanded input by using their community networks to discuss the plan and shared their feedback with the planning team, allowing us to build the inclusivity that was required in our approach.

Reach out for expertise. As a global firm, AECOM has a depth of resources to draw on to address specific needs that arise during the master planning process. When developing ways to address heat islands — areas that experience increased heat within Richmond’s neighborhoods — we reached out to our colleagues who specialize in resiliency and sustainability. Based on their input, we worked with local researchers who mapped out the locations of these heat islands. The researchers found that these areas aligned with disinvested, minority neighborhoods. As a result, we devised strategies for increasing the presence of and access to greenspaces, providing greater equity for these communities.

Take action. The Richmond 300 master plan encompasses 17 goals, 70 objectives and more than 400 strategies, but unless these recommendations are acted upon, it’s only a document. Richmond is investing in bringing this plan to life. The city is rewriting zoning ordinances to deliver more parks, greenspaces and housing units throughout the city. Richmond is also using Richmond 300 to guide the redevelopment of over 100 acres of city-owned land scattered throughout the city into a blend of mixed-income housing, job-generating commercial uses and open space. And plans are in the works for a deck to be built over the interstate to reconnect a Black neighborhood that was cut off from the rest of the city decades ago. These are the first of many steps the city will take as it prioritizes equity, sustainability and inclusivity to build upon its motto – “One Richmond.”  

Originally published Jul 13, 2021

Authors: Ryan Bouma , Maritza Mercado Pechin , Michael McIntyre