Good Planning Requires a Commitment to Equity

At FHI, we are keenly aware of the weight that our profession bears and the responsibility entrusted in us by our clients and the communities where we work. Staying conscious of this commitment requires us to take the time to fully understand all stakeholders in the study area and to maintain our commitment throughout the planning process. Doing so results in better projects, stronger communities, and a higher standard from which we all can benefit. One core value that is front and center for all our planning projects is the concept of equity.

What is equity?

Equity is a word that is commonly spoken during the planning process. We see it in the stated goals and objectives of studies, plans, and projects. We hear the word equity at conferences and presentations. We read it in newsletter headlines, even this one! But defining equity isn’t easy, and measuring it is even harder.

Equity can and should take many different forms. The equal solution may not necessarily be the equitable one. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation explains that expecting the same solution to “work universally is like expecting everyone to be able to ride the same bike.” The equitable solution considers each person’s position in society and empowers them to get where they need to be on their own terms.

Image reproduced with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a New Jersey-based philanthropic foundation dedicated to building a national Culture of Health. More at:

Equity isn’t a goal, it’s the foundation

Best serving our clients and constituencies means not just focusing on the outcomes of the planning action but ensuring that the start and end of our efforts rest on a foundation of equity. In practice, this means identifying and building a public process designed around those most tied to the built environment; who for whatever reason don’t have the ability to “vote with their feet” should things not go their way. As planners we have a deep responsibility to see and accommodate all people in the decision-making process to work together to build a better shared future.

Ok, but how does this actually work?

Planners at FHI are facilitators. Our work products are the synthesis of labor and decisions made not by us, but by the people who entrusted us to adequately represent them when the print hits the page.

Here are four tips to managing an equitable process:

  • 1) Start by identifying all potential stakeholders and communities that could stand to benefit or be negatively impacted by the planning action. Have they already engaged in the planning process? If not, why haven’t they? What do they need to participate, trust, and take ownership in the process?
  • 2) Ask participants to identify the problem and how they experience it. Step back and allow participants to present the full scope of the issue and all of its manifestations. Whose experiences are similar, and whose are distinct? To what degree does the problem limit access to opportunity or a healthy quality of life?
  • 3) Check for existing solutions. Have the people impacted by the problem already found a solution? Is it sustainable? Scalable? Does it work for everybody? Those most affected may have already identified a solution or a vision for overcoming the problem. Share this finding with others and facilitate a discussion on how to create a solution that works for everyone and gratifies their hard-labored ingenuity and resilience.
  • 4) Use your positionality and technical expertise to amplify voices and connect people to resources. The planner has a lot of power and our voices go a long way. Keep detailed notes and consistently echo back what you hear from participants to ensure everybody is on the same page. Check in often: has everybody had the opportunity to say their peace and benefit from the process? What additional resources or support do they need to be included and meaningfully engaged?

Building equity in planning takes time and patience. It requires all involved to regularly self-reflect. At FHI, we do our best to keep these tips at the forefront of our words and actions during the planning process. Here are a few project examples where we kept equity front and center and where project success has resulted.

Equity in Action- Three Projects and What We’ve Learned from Them

Jessica Ortiz, Senior Planner, Facilitates a group of Spanish speaking residents in Warren County.

Warren County Transportation Technical Study

FHI worked with Warren County, NJ to revisit past technical planning studies in the region for the Warren County Transportation Technical Study. We identified which studies were still relevant to the rapidly changing community and which transportation needs were not met by these studies.

One of the biggest challenges in the planning industry is figuring out how to communicate complex and nuanced ideas. It doesn’t help when you don’t even speak the same language. In the United States, the built environment is typically designed to meet the needs of English speakers. It is hard, if not impossible, for those who speak English to fully comprehend and anticipate the challenges that this poses to people who do not speak English well.

“The input we received has allowed the client to identify and adjust the plan to the needs and concerns of these unique communities.”

For the Warren County Transportation Technical Study, FHI sought to understand how this demographic uniquely experienced transportation in the region, and what the County could do to better serve their residents. We teamed up with local instructors of English as a second language (ESL) programs. With their help and expertise, we were able to more directly include stakeholders who do not speak English very well, improve our methodology and materials for an equitable planning process, and create a more inclusive work product. “The input we received has allowed the client to identify and adjust the plan to the needs and concerns of these unique communities,” said Jessica Ortiz, a Community Planner at FHI. Instructors helped to facilitate discussion and build trust between our team and their students. The experience reminded us that we are there to learn too, and that being a leader means stepping back when others have greater expertise.

Equity to me means bringing all stakeholders to the table in a safe space where perspectives can be shared and conversations can be had. I am constantly trying to get different perspectives heard throughout the planning process by finding out where those spaces are, and by creating opportunities through focus groups and interactive activities where people feel comfortable sharing.

- Jessica Ortiz, FHI Community Planner

Hartford Tactical Urbanism

Transformative change shouldn’t have to wait, especially when it comes to safety, health, and right to public resources. In cities and towns across the country, poorly designed or non-existent pedestrian infrastructure limits children, elders, people with disabilities, and folks without vehicle access, and may push them into unsafe or undesirable situations. One such example of this is when crossing the street, where a crosswalk could be missing, or the length of the crossing could expose pedestrians to heightened risk.

“Neighbors like to be involved - especially in highly visual projects with such an immediate impact.”

FHI teamed up with the City of Hartford, CT and partnered with local advocacy and community organization, Transport Hartford, to improve safety and mobility at one notoriously wide intersection. The team designed a curb extension demonstration project that included a colorful geometric design, flex posts, and a newly painted—and shorter—crosswalk. Community members from around the city volunteered to help make their hometown a friendly and more equitable place. “Call on your community, call on people to help,” said Shawna Kitzman. “Streetscape projects are a fun activity. Neighbors like to be involved, especially in highly visual projects with such an immediate impact.” Limited resources are no longer an excuse for inequitable design.

I integrate various channels for communications into each project. The way that that one population interfaces with a planning initiative can vary greatly from the next. From engaging students to minorities to the elderly, we want to connect to those who don’t traditionally have a seat at the table. We meet people where they are – in their schools, at their transit stops, or on social media to make it as easy for them to learn and share as possible.

- Shawna Kitzman, FHI Project Manager

Main Street and Charter Oak Avenue, One of Hartford's speediest and most dangerous intersections got a temporary new look!

National Cooperative Highway Research Program

The United States is an incredibly diverse nation. FHI was faced with this challenge—and opportunity—when working on a nationwide study to assess quality of life and economic benefits of transportation investment. Even the most advanced quantitative dataset could not predict how people across the country experience transportation investment.

“We needed to find questions that were very targeted to ensure we got people from a variety of backgrounds.”

To supplement this data gap, FHI conducted focus groups in New Jersey, Georgia, California, Illinois, and on the web. Focus groups are a productive and efficient means of collecting data and learning directly from those impacted by the planning action. FHI started by screening potential focus group particpants. “We needed to find questions that were very targeted to ensure we got people from a variety of backgrounds,” says Stephanie Brooks, Strategic Public Outreach Coordinator at FHI. Oversampling is one method planners can employ to make sure their research does not miss or exclude any distinct groups or constituencies. Focus groups can be designed and coordinated to collect responses from specific linguistic, occupational, income, gender, age, racial, or ethnic communities.

As a best practice, focus group organizers should recognize that their participants are the experts. When it comes to asking somebody to describe their experience, nobody knows better than they do. As such, experts should be paid for the time, labor, and service they provide. Additional accommodations like child care, covering the cost of transportation to the meeting facility, and providing food or refreshments can also boost participation among underrepresented groups.

Ryan Walsh, Manager of Community Engagement, Mid-Atlantic leading 1 of 6 focus groups held nationwide.

One of the toughest and most rewarding parts about working to bring equity into the planning process is engaging with people vehemently opposed to a project. It is important that community members in opposition have a place at the table. Part of our job as facilitators is to ensure that these voices are heard, but do not dominate the conversation. It's a very fine balance that requires both empathy and discipline. When done effectively, the result is a project that has addressed all sides of potential issues as objectively as possible and with full input from all affected stakeholders.

- Stephanie Brooks, FHI Strategic Public Outreach Coordinator