What type of community do we want to be and what infrastructure is needed to get us there? Considering transportation, land-use, and equity in response to Denver’s launch of “Denveright.”
by Tangier Barnes Wright
The questions that make up the title to this piece actually come from Debra Campbell, Assistant City Manager of Charlotte, NC. I heard her speak during the “City Visionaries” event put on by the City and County of Denver on May 19th. Mrs. Campbell was referring to how they approach development in Charlotte, NC. These words stuck with me as I have been thinking a great deal about the exciting and transformative infrastructure projects currently underway in Denver. Personally, I would expand these questions to include: do we understand the priorities of the neighborhoods that stand to be most impacted? And once we do, what infrastructure is needed to achieve an outcome that is beneficial to the neighborhood and the city as whole?
During the same week as the City Visionaries event, the Live.Ride.Share Conference also took place. My purpose with this piece is not to summarize the conference, but I will say that it was a welcome opportunity to discuss shared mobility services and, in particular, the existing conditions and opportunities presented as a result of increased availability of bike sharing, car sharing, and transit .
At the conference, there was a session devoted to access and equity. Specifically, what is working and what is not working in terms of car and bike sharing when considering lower income populations and communities of color. Panelists discussed approaches to engaging with diverse populations and neighborhoods. Tamika Butler of the Los Angeles Bike Coalition suggested that a dialogue with residents about current and more relevant topics may need to take place before bicycles even get mentioned. This is a point that Groundwork Denver supports. It speaks to the importance of being flexible and nimble; allowing for a process to unfold in a way that works well for the community. It also allows time for the professionals to learn from the community and time for any assumptions about that community to be disrupted.
Guests from New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle shared their experience with how to get things done. For instance instead of initially saying “no,” say “yes” and get something on the ground. Whether it’s a bike lane, or a new form of on-street green infrastructure, get it on the ground as a pilot and worry about tweaking it and making changes later. What I took away: be less fearful of public outcry. I would suggest that if the process for developing a pilot project is carried out by taking intentional steps to meaningfully engage the residents and communities who will be most impacted, i.e. insuring equitable outcomes, fear of public outcry becomes less of an issue; all of a sudden the conversation around needing “buy in” from the community changes. It’s not about getting “buy in.” Getting “buy in” means that concepts or plans from an outsider have already been generated, without including residents. If you feel like your next step is to get “buy in” from the community, it means you have been excluding the community from your process. This is not a good foundation from which to start a project. If residents are invited to help design the process and generate ideas, allowed to define what a benefit means to them, and are invited to help plan for an outcome that suits them in addition to the city as a whole, I would think that the assumed and dreaded backlash becomes less of an issue.
Better and more sustainable outcomes are achieved when residents are invited to participate in idea generation from the very beginning. We like to say at Groundwork that it is never too early to engage residents.
I would like to now turn back to the City Visionaries event. The event served as the launch of Denver’s citywide effort to coordinate plans that will shape the future of Denver in key areas, including: land use, mobility, parks and recreational resources. This effort, referred to as Denveright, is a “community-driven planning process that challenges you to shape how our community evolves […]” in the aforementioned key areas. At the event we were asked to consider Denveright and share what our vision for Denveright is.
In light of the motivating and encouraging conversations, earlier this month around transportation, land-use, and infrastructure, I would like to share my personal vision for Denveright by first asking the following questions: What type of community do we want to be? Do we understand the priorities of the impacted neighborhoods? What infrastructure do we need to get there? My vision for Denveright is a process that establishes equitable outcomes as a standard. Equitable outcomes, as PolicyLink so nicely puts it, “come about when everyone can participate in and benefit from the decisions that impact their neighborhoods.” My vision for Denveright is a process that begins the process of planning for land-use, mobility, parks, and recreational projects by asking residents to participate in designing the process, idea generation, and decision-making. Generating concepts and alternatives in a silo and then approaching residents for “buy in” is not the best way to achieve equitable outcomes. My vision for Denveright is a process that commits to being nimble and flexible in order to more effectively work with and respond to the needs and priorities of underrepresented groups and neighborhoods. My vision for Denveright is a process that, when asking citizens to contribute, ensures people of all backgrounds, abilities, and languages can access the process through means which are convenient for them. Even if this means going door-to-door to directly engage underrepresented populations in the Denveright process.
Lastly, my vision for Denveright is a process that is designed by everyday citizens that will result in creating a vision for Denver that is representative of everyone. Denver is great! Denveright is an opportunity for everyone to create an even better city by allowing the masses to define what “better” means to them and by allowing the masses to generate ideas about implementation.