In times of dwindling public resources and increasing income inequality, data and maps can help tell the story of why our communities matter and where we need to prioritize our investments to make sure everyone has access to the people, places and things they need to thrive.

Cities and regions across the country are interested in investing in and building new mass transit systems and revitalizing urban neighborhoods around them. These efforts, known as “transit-oriented development” (TOD), can provide a significant boost to economic development and increase access to opportunity. But they can also have negative effects, including the displacement of existing low-income residents and small businesses as rents increase, the elimination of bus routes that overlap with new transit lines, and the shifting of resources away from communities farther from transit.

Given the potential outcomes, how can regions ensure that we make smart and equitable decisions about how and where we invest resources?

To answer this question, several regions ( Portland, New York City, Denver, Los Angeles and Atlanta) have launched Equity Atlas reports to map out the existing inventory of housing, jobs, schools, grocery stores, parks, hospitals and other amenities communities need to thrive. While each Equity Atlas is led by different actors and focuses on different outcomes, the key component is mapping, usually at the regional scale, with the transportation network as a core component.

Uses in the Field

Equity Atlases are information tools. They provide data that shows how communities are connected by transit and other transportation modes, and highlight where regions are falling short in providing access to opportunity for low-income populations. In particular, the tool provides a way to visualize the spatial relationship between disparate issues like affordable housing and good jobs.

That said, the information contained in an Equity Atlas can be used in different ways by different stakeholders. Looking across all five regions, at least three trends in how Equity Atlases are used can be found:

1. Bringing Together Stakeholders. By visually mapping the relationships between different issues, stakeholders can better see, for example, how preschool facilities are laid out in a region and how they intersect (or don’t) with where people work. In this way, the Equity Atlas can bring together regional stakeholders by helping them visualize how their resources and capacity could be better leveraged by working together. For example, the Denver Regional Equity Atlas served as the call to action for forming Mile High Connects, a collaborative of nonprofits, funders and financial institutions that want to ensure that the region’s $7.8 billion investment in expanding the transit system will improve access to opportunity for all. While all of these groups had been working on social equity issues for years, the Equity Atlas helped them see how their work intersected.

2. Driving Advocacy & Case-Making. The information in an Equity Atlas can also be used to bring attention to equity issues. In many cases, it helps identify communities vulnerable to displacement or gentrification because of new real estate and infrastructure investments. This is the case in Los Angeles. The LA THRIVES collaborative is using their Equity Atlas to make the case for greater investment in affordable housing near transit by highlighting spatial disparities in existing affordable housing stock. Advocates have also been able to identify where existing policy needs to be enforced better, e.g., the City of LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance. Similarly, Atlanta’s TOD Collaborative is using the Equity Atlas to call out the region’s jobs-housing divide. In Atlanta, most low-income workers live in the western and southern parts of the city, far away from the region’s jobs in the downtown and northern parts. By mapping job access disparity, the TOD Collaborative is using the Equity Atlas as a tool to convince local leaders to prioritize affordable housing and community investment near MARTA stations so that low-income workers can live closer to the region’s jobs.

3. Steering Investment. Lastly, the data and maps contained in an Equity Atlas also have the potential to help decision makers adjust their activities and investments accordingly. In Denver, creating an equity atlas has helped investors in the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Fund identify sites near transit for affordable housing investments, highlight gaps in e xisting small business and neighborhood incentive programs, and promote the use of a healthy food financing fundfor sites near transit stations that are within food deserts.

The Equity Atlas 2.0: What’s Next?

The Equity Atlas is a relatively new tool, with a great deal of excitement about its uses and implications. While each region is in the process of evaluating how effective their Equity Atlas has been, we can already see how the tool is evolving to meet the needs of local stakeholders.

In an ideal world, the Equity Atlas should monitor and respond to neighborhood changes over time; it should be a living document updated regularly. It should also provide information to show regional interconnectedness and spatial disparities in access to opportunity. However, policy and investment decisions are usually made at a more local scale, so more detailed information on a particular community or specific site is usually needed.

Reflecting this reality, both Denver and Portland recently updated their Equity Atlas reports as interactive online tools that allow users to create maps, layer datasets on top of each other, and zoom in on neighborhoods or corridors. The online tools provide greater flexibility and access to the data and maps for advocates, researchers and policymakers who may not have the capacity to find the data on their own. They also provide a centralized portal for information on community demographics, economic, education, health, and other data.

Overall, the Equity Atlas brings a very valuable data-driven perspective to community development and social equity issues, and puts data and maps in the hands of those who would not otherwise have them. In times of dwindling public resources and increasing income inequality, data and maps can help tell the story of why our communities matter and where we need to prioritize our investments to make sure everyone has access to the people, places and things they need to thrive.

Links to Equity Atlases:

Denver: www.denverregionalequityatlas.org

Los Angeles: www.losangelesequityatlas.org

Portland: www.equityatlas.org

Atlanta: www.atlantaequityatlas.com

New York: http://prattcenter.net/research/transportation-equity-atlas

Bill Sadler is a consultant for the Urban Solutions Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in Los Angeles, California. Bill previously worked as a Project Manager at Reconnecting America in Denver, Colorado, leading the creation of the Denver Regional Equity Atlas and helping found the Mile High Connects collaborative. Bill can be reached at billsadler13@gmail.com