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A Commitment to Change

February 17, 2022 by admin

Nick Norris, Director, Planning Division | Salt Lake City

If you have read any urban planning related publication in the last two years, you know that social justice is becoming a frequently discussed topic.  It is undeniable that the planning profession has played a role in segregation; one of the first court cases discussed in any land use law class is the Village of Euclid vs Ambler Realty Company.  That case reaffirmed the police power to segregate land uses.  Unfortunately, segregating land uses led to segregating people.

In subsequent years, residential zoning that dictated what housing types could go where set the stage for decades of segregation, with new zoning rules added to zoning codes requiring larger lots with wider lot width requirements, large setbacks, and minimum home sizes.  Other types of homes, like apartments, were typically not allowed in residential neighborhoods.

In recent years, a new light has been shed on the role that urban planning, specifically zoning, has played in segregating our cities.  Last year, a group of planning directors from around the country created a document called “A Commitment to Change.”  The document is intended to shed some light on the past actions of the profession and commit to working on reversing the damage that has been done.  As stated on the commitment to change website, the statement reminds us that the urban planning profession should be working on:

  • Creating communities that are culturally diverse, livable, and accessible.
  • Preserving, strengthening, and celebrating the culture, assets, institutions, and businesses of BIPOC communities.
  • Promoting the health, economic, social, and cultural resilience of BIPOC communities.
  • Championing housing choice and economic diversity.
  • Addressing environmental injustice.
  • Removing biases from their organizations.


You can read the full Commitment to Change document here:  A Commitment to Change

But reading or signing the document is only the first step.  Making the changes is much more difficult, especially when it comes to convincing a community that long standing zoning policies should be changed.  So, what can planners do when their community is not ready to change?  Here are some ideas.

  1. Track how your community is changing. Tracking the difference from each census is relatively easy to do.  This gives you an idea how the demographics of your city are changing. Is the percentage or number of people that identify with a specific race or ethnicity changing?  What about the number of school aged children? Understanding how the demographics are changing will help you understand if your current land use profile will support future needs.  For example, if your city has a lot of people under the age of 18 (most cities in Utah do), those kids are going to need places to live in the next 5-15 years.  Does your zoning support the construction of housing to accommodate that?  Do you know what types of housing will be needed? Are there restrictions on renting?  Do you know how long it will take to build the amount of housing? Housing is a critical piece of creating diverse and livable cities.  Providing this type of data will at least give the decision makers the info they need to address future housing needs.
  2. Talk to small business owners to identify what barriers they encounter. Many zoning codes restrict things like outdoor use and temporary signs, things that may be important for small businesses.  When a city requires a new business opening in an existing space to provide more parking than what exists, it instantly reduces the number of business types that can occupy the space.  With the changing world of retail, does your zoning code allow a variety of uses that may be able to fill retail spaces?  Things like small scale food production or small-scale manufacturing can fit into former retail spaces without creating much of an impact.  Removing barriers and being more flexible with land use particularly helps those who are not native English speakers.  Government documents and forms are confusing and intimidating for those that are not familiar with them, imagine what it is like to navigate documents and forms from one language to another.  Now imagine doing that with zoning regulations.  If there is not support for changing your codes, work on improving your forms.  Removing these barriers helps create a more accessible permitting process. Doing it probably will not win an award, but every planning office can make improvements here.
  3. Consider different engagement activities to discuss different planning topics. One thing that we have done in the past in Salt Lake City is host a summer planning series, where we have small walking tours and discussions about different planning topics in our city.  We talk about density, public spaces, what mixed use and walkability mean, the importance of our urban forest, historic preservation, and any other planning topic that is related to an issue the city is facing.  This kind of engagement is more interesting than sitting in a charrette or workshop and more enjoyable.  We learn from the community about their neighborhoods and what works or doesn’t work, and the community learns about city policies and decision making.  The biggest benefit is creating a relationship and building trust with the community.  When you have that relationship and start to build trust, it is far easier to start discussing more difficult topics.

These are just a few things that can help start the discussion about committing to change and creating more welcoming and accessible communities. At the end of the day, planners don’t control what decision makers are going to do.  But you do have influence.  And even if your idea to add more inclusive policies to your general plan or remove a housing barrier in your zoning code doesn’t go further than your boss’s desk, just having the conversation is a start.  The community may not be ready for it (most aren’t) but if we don’t try, nothing is going to change.

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