In a previous blog, I outlined how the Equity Atlas is a useful informational tool with potential to influence investment decisions and policy outcomes. Ideally, the Equity Atlas can also help evaluate progress toward social equity over time as transit lines open, as development decisions are made, and as policies are passed. It is also a flexible tool that can help with casemaking for advocates, with fundraising for community development nonprofits, and with benchmarking to track neighborhood change as new transit lines or major developments come online.
Since working on the Denver and Los Angeles Equity Atlases, I often get questions from other regions wanting to know what it would take for them to create their own Equity Atlas. The Equity Atlas has some universal applications to social equity issues in our built environment, but there is no universal approach or dollar amount it would take to create one.
My best advice to those considering creating an Equity Atlas is to first answer the following three questions:
1. What critical issues does your community or region face? Many often think that an Equity Atlas is a one-size-fits-all strategy, but that’s not really true. When thinking about launching an atlas, you need to think about the overall issues facing your community or region; this will shape how you develop the mapping and organize the data to be mapped. In both Denver and Los Angeles, major mass transit investments were the impetus for the analysis, since the regions wanted to maximize the opportunity. Leaders were then able to leverage the transit investment with other resources, including affordable housing financing streams, business incentive programs, workforce training, grocery store investment and other community development resources. In Atlanta, the issues the community is facing are the legacy of geographic inequality and lack of investments in housing, transportation and other areas. Atlanta stakeholders used the Equity Atlas to advocate for better policy and investment decisions. By identifying the critical issues facing the community upfront, regions can better focus the analysis conducted through the Equity Atlas report.
2. What data and mapping resources do you already have available? In most cases, the collection of new data won’t be a realistic starting point. Instead, Equity Atlases largely repackage existing data. So after identifying the critical issues, it helps to take an inventory of what resources already exists and which of those are actually accessible. Access is critical here, since the public use and sharing of certain data can be limited by confidentiality concerns. Overall, there are several cost and capacity implications to this question. With a sense of what resources both currently exist and are accessible, you can begin to understand how much work will be needed to repackage that data and what organizations you will need to bring in for support. You will also be able to begin identifying which organizations or government agencies may potentially provide staff time or resources to the project (e.g., are there graduate students that can add capacity?). In Denver we learned that by taking the lead on the first iteration of the Equity Atlas, we were able to get support from the local Metropolitan Planning Organization for the second iteration. By understanding what data resources are available, regions can begin charting the path needed to get to an Equity Atlas that is usable by decision makers, community groups and others who would benefit from the ability to pull quick data points or maps when needed.
3. What end goal do you want to accomplish? Depending on its implementation and execution, an Equity Atlas can be used to help change policy outcomes and investment decisions, or it can end up being just a trendy tool that a few people use and that ultimately becomes obsolete. By identifying the end goal at the beginning, regions can be more intentional about using the Equity Atlas as an accountability tool. Communities are constantly changing, so if you’re focused on long-term policy changes, you’ll have to think about updating the Equity Atlas regularly to keep it relevant and useful as a tool. To get to that point, both Denverand Portland turned their Equity Atlases into websites to make them more interactive and expand the amount of data and information available. Still, there are important capacity considerations since these sites were expensive to create and will require regular maintenance and data updates to keep them relevant. If regions are clear about the end goal they seek to achieve, they will be able to better shape the Equity Atlas to be an effective tool for their local context and regional vision.
The Equity Atlas has great potential to drive long-term policy change and inform investment decisions. But it is not a one-size-fits-all solution and needs to be tailored to each region’s particular needs, existing data resources, and target end goals. These are all important considerations to take into account as regions explore launching an Equity Atlas.
Links to Equity Atlases:
Los Angeles: http://www.losangelesequityatlas.org
_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 firstname.lastname@example.org _