Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 26 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editor: Brooke Mercaldi
Contributing Author: Rhea Mallett [*]

A New Era of Equity-Based Comprehensive Planning…Finally

Over 100+ years of racist land use practices created impoverished neighborhoods where low-income communities of color experience multi-generational inequities in wealth, income, health and education. Despite “equity” being important in community planning, a recent study found equity was not the main focus of most comprehensive plans and was often not even mentioned.  However, an extraordinary development is occurring as some cities adopt equity-based comprehensive plans containing land use strategies that address this legacy of racial injustice.

Comprehensive plans direct the growth of communities through specific goals that set standards for future land use decisions. Cities adopting equity-based comprehensive plans are acknowledging their racist history and stating clear equity objectives. New York City’s 2019 comprehensive plan admits, “The legacy of segregation and racist policies continues to cast a shadow over New York City,” and recognizes the plan provides “a unique opportunity to honor our history and reject injustice in order to build a strong and fair city for future generations.” The 2021 comprehensive plan adopted by Charlotte, North Carolina explains that the city “must take responsibility for its role in creating, perpetuating, and otherwise turning a blind eye to this system of structural racism…”

Applying an equity lens throughout a comprehensive plan ensures benefits are fairly distributed and inequities are eliminated. As described in CharlotteFuture2040, “The Comprehensive Plan is crafted though a lens of equity and with a commitment to thinking of our most vulnerable populations first with a vision of helping our city become a place where all residents can thrive regardless of race, income, age, ability or where they live.”

The unprecedented recognition of past racist policies combined with clear objectives toward reversing injustices allows communities to prioritize resources and regulations promoting equity. Equitable planning means “recognizing and taking past inequities into account when making decisions,” according to Portland’s 2020 comprehensive plan, and as Denver’s 2019 comprehensive plan emphasizes, the focus must be “on the needs of our must vulnerable residents.”

These equity-focused plans universally seek to increase available housing with policies creating greater housing diversity. Minneapolis2040 focuses on housing for all and states, “This comprehensive plan is an opportunity to foster inclusive communities free from barriers to housing choice.” Minneapolis was the first city to eliminate single-family zoning altogether by seeking the “development of new multifamily housing of various sizes and affordability levels, including in areas that today contain primarily single-family homes.” Communities moving away from Euclidian zoning, such as Richmond, Virginia, are rejecting one of the zoning uses that created and perpetuated segregated neighborhoods. Richmond is allowing “accessory dwelling units, duplexes, and small multi-family residential buildings” built consistent with existing buildings in single-family areas.


This incredible shift in land use policy ­– from segregated neighborhoods reinforced by exclusive zoning to a variety of housing stock throughout all neighborhoods – is only part of an approach to reaching equity through planning.


Inadequate access to essential goods and services in under-served communities prevents healthy living and opportunities and is “due to historical inequitable policies and practices,” according to Portland. Equitable land use can improve access to healthy food, public transit, and employment.


Portland’s goal is for 90% of its residents to live within a half-mile radius of healthy food. Inventive land uses can reduce food deserts in marginalized communities. Minneapolis is expanding areas in which stores are allowed and implementing regulatory changes allowing more innovative practices such as mobile food markets, pantries, and shelves “that can bring food closer to under-resourced customers.” Richmond is changing zoning to permit urban agriculture as a right and expanding where farmers’ markets are permitted. Charlotte is reducing barriers to growing food in all districts of the city.


Equity planning also means overcoming transit apartheid in order to ensure access to employment and other opportunities. Equity-based plans, such as Minneapolis2040, recognize that public transit is “a crucial element of residents’ ability to access employment and of a vibrant economy generally.” Minneapolis promotes a variety of job-producing land uses on select public transit routes to increase transportation access to identified neighborhoods. Portland is locating affordable housing close to transit for the same purpose, and Denver is doing the same for housing developments.


Investment in communities can cause displacement of households and businesses, and equity-based planning, such as CharlotteFuture2040, recognizes that those most vulnerable to displacement “are also those who have suffered most and benefited least over decades of growth and development.” Minneapolis is designating cultural districts to prevent displacement which will allow for the prioritization of polices to “advance racial equity.” Minneapolis is also working to reduce the involuntary displacement of businesses by creating affordable commercial tenant spaces in new developments.


Because climate change risk is greater for lower-income communities, Seattle’s focus is to “ensure that environmental benefits are equitably distributed and burdens minimized and equitably shared.” Reducing adverse environment-related disparities includes encouraging and incentivizing green building practices, expanding tree canopies, reducing impervious surfaces, and reducing urban heat islands. New York City made an energy efficiency and intensity mandate possible with an original emissions trading program.


New York City, Denver, Seattle, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Portland, and Richmond are cities paving the way towards equitable comprehensive planning.


[*] Rhea Mallett is an LLM candidate at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Law Center Volunteer.

Brooke Mercaldi is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Scholar in the Land Use Law Center.


The previous blogs in the series are listed here:

  1. Reframing Sustainability: Introducing the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
  2. Planning for Public Health: A New Beginning for Land Use Law
  3. The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19
  4. Novel Coronavirus Claims Implicate Age-Old Property Rights Questions
  5. State & Local COVID-related Emergency Powers: Individual Rights
  6. COVID-Related Land Use Regulations and Judicial Deference
  7. Mediation of Eviction Disputes May Hold the Key to the Survival of Small Businesses
  8. Using Zoning to Help Eliminate Food Deserts: A Few Steps Forward
  9. Urban Heat Islands and Equity
  10. Urban Heat Island and Equity: What Can Local Governments Do?
  11. The Recovery Lease: Preventing Evictions of Commercial Tenants During the Pandemic
  12. The Role of Hazard Mitigation Planning in Promoting Public Health and Resilience
  13. Hazard Mitigation Planning: A Case Study
  14. Complete Streets: Protecting Public Health
  15. Zoning and Lease Mediation as a Way to Retain Critical Small Businesses
  16. Segregation by Law and the Racial Inequity Pandemic
  17. Combating Food Swamps to Improve Equity and Public Health
  18. The Pandemic Plan for Healthy Buildings
  19. Remediating Distressed Properties to Improve Public Health
  20. Housing, a Crucial Determinant of Health
  21. ADU Introduction
  22. NIMBY Restrictions to Poison the Prospects of Accessory Dwelling Units to Address Housing Insecurity
  23. Zoning to Fill the Missing Middle Housing Gap
  24. Old Tools to Fight Housing Insecurity: Adaptive Reuse and Infill Development
  25. Racial Impact Analyses


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