Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 27 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editor: Brooke Mercaldi
Contributing Author: Rhea Mallett [*]


Equity-Based Comprehensive Plans: Land Use Policies to Correct Past Disparities 


Comprehensive plans provide a vision for a better community to which zoning must conform. An equity-based plan challenges practices that disproportionately impact some of the population and prioritizes resources for areas experiencing equity disparities to provide similar opportunities throughout the community. Recently adopted plans highlight innovative approaches when planning is viewed through an equity lens.


Equity-Based Plans Must be Inclusive

Past land use policies helped to create the neighborhoods suffering widespread inequities today. Comprehensive planning can reverse past wrongs by creating a blueprint for land use law reform. This equitable planning works when community engagement is inclusive of all voices, including those usually underrepresented.

Charlotte, North Carolina’s comprehensive plan, Charlotte Future 2040, exemplifies how community engagement is the foundation for an equitable path forward. “In order to create a comprehensive plan that is successful and meaningful, the values of the community must be central to the process and outcomes. This understanding is at the heart of…the Plan.”

Charlotte first identified disparities by mapping demographic, development, and environmental patterns that disclosed correlations between neighborhoods with the lowest incomes and highest percentages of non-White residents and past explicitly racist land use policies. Its public engagement process included “groups representing all segments of Charlotte’s population, including those we don’t hear from often enough – people of color, youth, non-English speaking residents, and those with lower incomes.”  Innovative approaches, including virtual engagements during the pandemic, resulted in more than 500,000 interactions with over 6,500 voices through 40 different methods, including 477 key stakeholders. Community engagement did not stop after the plan was adopted; residents will weigh in on land use as the mapping and rezoning continues.


Creative Land Use Solutions Address Economic Inequity

Minneapolis 2040: The City’s Comprehensive Plan details the devastating, intergenerational social inequities created by prior policies and provides remedies through equity-centered land use. Nationally, Minneapolis has the greatest unemployment gap between Black and White residents, which is connected to income disparities that “are predictable outcomes of educational disparities” and reflect the lack of housing opportunity. These disparities are “rooted in overt and institutionalized racism that has shaped the opportunities available to generations of Minneapolis residents.” Inequities “rooted in race, place and income” impact healthy development and lifestyle, as evidenced by the city’s infant mortality and premature death rates.

The 2020 plan provides a comprehensive approach to improve health outcomes for disadvantaged residents, including increasing job opportunities and incomes for Black and Indigenous populations. Minneapolis has a disproportionate underrepresentation of Black- and Latino-owned businesses. Proposed land use regulations will expand business opportunities for people of color. These include removing barriers to innovative and alternative uses of space for small-scale entrepreneurs, developing strategies to include affordable commercial tenant spaces for small businesses in new developments, minimizing displacement of small businesses in buildings being redeveloped, and reducing barriers to their relocating in the new development. Similarly, because of the significant educational disparity between people of color and their White, non-Hispanic counterparts, the plan recognizes the critical need for jobs providing living wages for unskilled workers. The plan identifies and zones areas of land used specifically for business types that provide higher salaries than comparable industries.


Reconnecting a Divided City

Richmond 300: A Guide for Growth is an equity-based comprehensive plan adopted in 2020. Richmond, Virginia was the subject of a highly publicized article detailing the segregation that resulted from its decades of racist land use policies. Richmond’s history includes its prominent role selling enslaved people during the 19th century, the destruction of a historically Black neighborhood for a highway in the 1950s, and the destruction of a predominantly Black neighborhood in 1970 when structures containing 800 businesses on 350 acres were demolished. Given Richmond’s history of segregation, the plan’s emphasis on “connectedness” is significant and almost apologetic. Richmond’s overarching goal is reconnecting neighborhoods through a network of streets, bridges, highway caps, greenways, and trails. Transforming streets and creating new neighborhoods with increased access for all includes mandating that zoning amendments require developers to construct sidewalks, plant trees, preserve open space and provide bicycle parking. Parking regulations would also be amended in line with the neighborhood’s needs. Large developments would be required to tie into existing streets and prohibited from creating cul-de-sacs that obstruct the grid network of roads needed for equitable mobilization.


The Future is Bright

Additional communities are developing equitable comprehensive plans. For example, Montgomery, Maryland’s plan will “systemically dismantle the institutional racism that exists…and prevent it in the future.” Cities are also realizing that their existing plans are not sufficiently equity-focused. A review of Newport, Rhode Island’s plan found that it was “deficient through its omissions” and that the plan needed to be corrected to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion. Similarly, Washington D.C.’s plan “fails to address racism, an ongoing public health crisis in the District.

While racist land use policies contributed to current wealth, education, housing, and health inequities, creative equity-based planning can help correct these disparities.


For additional resources, the Gaining Ground Information Database is free and features best practice models used by governments to control the use of land in the public interest. Please direct your search toward the Healthy Communities topic.


[*] 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
  26. A New Era of Equity-Based Comprehensive Planning…Finally



To subscribe to the GreenLaw Blog, please go to https://greenlaw.blogs.pace.edu/ and click on the “Subscribe” envelope.