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Five Key Considerations for Embedding Equity in Economic Development Planning

Smart Growth America’s 2024 Equity Summit was the inaugural in-person version of the event, featuring inspiring speakers who offered real talk on how planning can better incorporate equity and address the trauma of injustice. The range of attendees, including urban and transit planners, academics, activists, and nonprofit leaders, provided opportunities for peer learning and strategies that look beyond existing systems. Below are five quick takeaways from the conference: 


Climate is a central component of equitable planning, no longer an ‘elective’.

Person holds a sign that reads 'Climate Justice Now!'

Climate was central to all discussions, instead of just being featured in a specialty session. Every panel included climate leaders who spoke directly to built environment challenges, as well as the momentum of youth movements. Several of these panelists identified as Gen Z, recognizing not only the need for climate advocates in planning but youth representation as well. 

The long-term tension between the need for action and best practices for paced planning remains challenging.

Planning at the speed of trust emerged as a theme through several conference presentations and practitioner discussions. For instance, in CityFi’s workshop “Addressing challenges in equitable planning and implementation with actionable solutions,” planning practitioners reviewed engagement methodology, including the expectation-setting process. Following this framing, the workshop challenged participants to work through a scenario around a bike lane plan. Just after groups established initial ideas, a twist was introduced that revealed community members from the scenario were unhappy with the process and distrusted the planners. After groups worked through a revised engagement approach, CityFi revealed their strategies in this scenario which included pausing the planning process, involving a mediator, sharing food, and then establishing a feedback loop for future engagement. 

Culture provides a comfortable place to begin planning conversations.

Main Street in Allegheny County, PA.
Main Street in Allegheny County, PA.

Culture’s role as a meeting ground from which to begin conversations about future visions resonated and struck me as similar to the mechanisms of Main Street planning. I’ve long found that main streets possess spatial power as they provide common meeting grounds for planning, an increasingly shrinking typology of space. Connections became especially clear in the “Cultural organizing as reclamation and resistance” panel, especially when each of the panelists noted small business advocacy connections. For instance, Jenn Tran of Viet Place Collective noted the connection between small business districts and cultural identity. Viet Place Collective is an advocacy organization centered on uplifting and upholding the Vietnamese community in the DMV. Spatially, they are especially focused on the future of the Eden Center, which, as home to more than 100 Vietnamese and Asian Pacific Islander small businesses, serves as a cultural hub.  

Reflecting on cases like this prompts practitioners to rethink our arts and culture work as less of a reward for communities after population or economic stabilization and more of a basic planning need and means towards achieving relationship-building in a community. An arts and culture approach is also scalable, as seen through Fourth Economy’s recent Allegheny Together work in small municipalities. 

Arrested mobility is an essential concept to consider across all planning.

Charles T. Brown, of Rutgers Bloustein School, speaks about arrested mobility during his presentation.
Charles T. Brown's presentation on Arrested Mobility.

Charles T. Brown, of Rutgers Bloustein School, impressively incorporated data, narrative, and humor while presenting on the concept of arrested mobility. Charles T. Brown defines arrested development as “the assertion that Black people (other minorities) have been historically and presently denied by legal and illegal authority, the inalienable right to move, to be moved, or simply exist in public space. This results in adverse social, political, economic, and health effects that are widespread, preventable, and intergenerational.” Brown went through examples and experiences of transit-related violence faced by Black pedestrians, cyclists, public transit riders, and drivers. The concept of arrested mobility should be incorporated in planning, particularly transit planning and plans that consider ‘safety’ as a recognition of how white privilege exists in the built environment. 

Environmental, transit, and housing justice are foundational to democracy.

From the keynote address, democracy and civics emerged as central themes to the future of equitable planning. This was particularly potent sitting in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., but the message was hardly centered around voting campaigns. In fact, the discussion pushed the idea of civic engagement far past the ballot box. Speakers and professional planners reframed ways to think about planning, challenging attendees to discover who asked for a plan when beginning the process. The idea of political determinants of health emerged as more direct and casual than social determinants of health. The connection to politics as a cause was an important reminder that planning and economic development are not apolitical, especially as equity policy is under judicial attack. 

For more on these topics, consider reviewing the reports referred to at the conference: Small business displacement network toolkit, Dangerous by Design, and Foot Traffic Ahead.


Equity is essential to our work. Fourth Economy’s Equitable Community Planning Toolkit includes activities and resources, such as workbooks, to aid practitioners and community leaders. Additionally, Fourth Economy has a series of blogs on advancing equity in topics such as outdoor recreation, placemaking, small business development, and housing. 


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