In recent years, there has been a proliferation of new methods to identify, measure, and map issues of social and regional equity. Yet it is not always clear how best to use these methods to inform advocacy and policy change. The UC Davis Center for Regional Change (CRC) has taken up this challenge, combining innovative mapping tools, collaborative research, and technical assistance aligned with regional needs, to support policy change on a range of issues, from youth well-being to environmental justice and regional equity.

One area that the CRC has recently focused on is the implementation of California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, Senate Bill 375. Passed in 2008, the bill requires metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to develop Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCSs).[1] The goal of each SCS is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by coordinating land use and transportation planning, providing adequate affordable housing, and improving public transportation. Transportation planners at each MPO analyze the performance of their SCS using complex simulation models that provide estimates of future travel patterns and greenhouse gas emissions. To comply with the law, per-capita emissions from the plan must be less than a target set by the California Air Resources Board.

The bill’s primary aim is to reduce driving; it contains no explicit requirement to analyze existing equity conditions or to ensure equitable conditions in the future. However, it does create a wider mandate for regional-scale planning aimed at reducing urban sprawl and redirecting growth and investment to dense locations well served by public transit. Sprawling patterns of development and overinvestment in highway infrastructure have led directly to current patterns of regional inequity. To the extent that SB 375 is intended to reverse these historical trends, it offers a chance to improve the health and well-being of the state’s most disadvantaged communities.

Equitable outcomes are only possible if regional planners understand and embed specific elements into their SCSs. However, they often lack the policy mandate, data, and capacity to do so. California’s San Joaquin Valley (SJV) is a case in point. Implementing SB 375 has been particularly challenging in this region. Despite the valley’s substantial agricultural production and wealth, it is beset by acute social, political, and economic disparities. In particular, many of the region’s poor and unincorporated communities lack strong political representation, are short on essential services, and are physically distant from urban job concentrations. These communities could greatly benefit from an equitable implementation of SB 375. However, most of the SJV’s MPO planners have limited technical resources to develop SCSs with strong social equity components. Other challenges derive from the difficulties of coordinating the work of planners and community advocates across all eight counties, when each county-scale MPO is developing a separate SCS.[2]

This is where the CRC has stepped in. Beginning in 2011, CRC faculty and staff have continuously engaged with diverse coalitions of social equity, environmental, and agricultural preservation advocates in the SJV. The goal has been to provide social equity planning tools and technical assistance to develop the area’s SCSs to help meet the needs of the SJV’s most disadvantaged communities.

Specifically, the CRC has: a) conducted a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) of proposed SCSs in two counties; b) reviewed MPOs’ environmental justice analyses in three counties; c) provided strategic advice to inform advocates’ engagement in regional planning; and d) offered resources for MPO planners to integrate social equity considerations into their work. These efforts have helped achieve key victories. By calling attention to health disparities and transit access deficits in disadvantaged communities in Fresno and Kern counties, the HIA has led to new commitments from the Fresno MPO to study health and infrastructure needs and fund sustainable infrastructure and planning through a new grant program. In Kern County, CRC-developed environmental justice tools were incorporated by the MPO into part of their SCS.

The challenges and lessons learned from this work can be summarized in three points.

  1. Relationships Matter. Integrating social equity into regional planning is not only a technical process. Its success also depends on the development of trusting and collaborative relationships between researchers, advocates, and planners.

To build such relationships, the CRC conducted a needs assessment with community advocates to identify the kinds of technical assistance that would best support their efforts. CRC staff participated in key advocacy gatherings, small workshops, and one-on-one consultations. Pre-existing relationships between the CRC team and the SJV’s advocacy networks provided a strong platform for launching new collaborations. The CRC also worked with MPO staff to share social equity tools and data for SCS planning efforts. Staff at the Fresno and Kern MPOs later reciprocated by sharing data for use in the HIA.

  1. Capacity Matters. The complexity of the data and tools used must be matched by the capacity of the intended users to engage in their development and application within the time available for planning and advocacy.
  2. Following the initial needs assessment, the CRC team developed workshops and consultations with advocates and MPO planners to introduce tools and support their application. The novelty of the tools coupled with the urgent and shifting timelines of the policy process offered little time for advocates to fully absorb and “own” them. The short and simultaneous timeline of each MPO’s SCS development also made it difficult for the CRC to assist advocates in evaluating SCSs while helping regional planners master new social equity tools. Effective future application of the social equity planning tools will require on-going capacity building activities aimed at both advocates and planners.

  1. Context Matters. The successful implementation of social equity tools depends on the political climate and the attitudes of staff and decision-makers at regional agencies.The SJV has a relatively conservative political culture that views issues related to social equity with some distrust.
  2. Engaging directly with planning staff was helpful for addressing these challenging politics. In Fresno County, CRC Director Jonathan London was invited to speak at the kickoff SCS planning event, introducing practical methods to put social equity and environmental justice “on the map.” He also presented at a post-SCS Learning Exchange with the Fresno MPO to share lessons learned about integrating social equity into regional planning. In this and other communications with planners, the CRC framed social equity in ways that would align with local political values, emphasizing the relationship between regional equity, health, and economic prosperity.

Despite challenging political and social circumstances, the CRC and its community and agency partners have achieved notable success in shaping regional planning documents that reflect social equity values and that direct investments towards disadvantaged communities. The experience confirms that good data and analysis alone, while necessary, are not sufficient. Applied research and technical assistance must also be designed to account for the power of relationships, capacity, and context. This case study illustrates how diverse parties can work together to promote sustainable regional planning that guarantees healthy, prosperous and equitable outcomes.

Acknowledgment: The authors wish to recognize the generous funding of the Resources Legacy Fund, the many community and agency partners that made this work possible, and the editorial assistance of Dr. Krystyna von Henneberg.

[1]   MPOs are created by federal law to conduct transportation planning in urban areas with populations greater than 50,000. For more information on MPOs see: http://www.planning.dot.gov/mpo.asp.

[2]   Although most MPOs in the country span multiple counties, each of the eight counties in the SJV is also its own MPO. This fragmentation reflects the SJV’s political culture that tends to emphasize local control of planning.