Making Urban Spaces Equitable Places for All

Inequity is often viewed through the wide lens of socioeconomic and racial disparity, but it manifests itself in more places than one might expect. It’s built into every aspect of a person’s daily environment — even, for example, in something as mundane as the amount of time it takes to get to the grocery store. 

As a part of its quarterly Limitless series, global design firm HKS recently hosted a panel to discuss inequity in the built environment and the cooperative effort necessary to improve it.  

Dan Noble, HKS President and CEO, gave opening remarks. Erin Peavey, Health and Well-being Design Leader at HKS, moderated the panel, which examined the city of Dallas as a setting for the creation of healthier and more equitable development and redevelopment. Panelists were Dr. Maria Martinez-Cosio, Dr. Christopher J. Dowdy, Dallas City Council Member Jaynie Schultz and Murphy D. Cheathum II. Dr. Lorin Carter, founder and CEO of C Suite Equity Consulting, was the keynote speaker.  

“A lot of people don’t intuitively understand the relationship between health, well-being and the built environment,” Peavey said. “They don’t understand that the way our cities are designed is this constant underlying influence.” 

Inequity Manifests Itself in More Ways Than You Might Expect

As the Dallas area experiences a population boom that could earn it the title of the third-largest metropolitan area in the country in the next decade, its southern half hasn’t experienced the same rapid development as the northern half. Much of that area was labeled as “hazardous” by the now-defunct Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency founded in the 1930s that is often viewed as the creator of the practice of redlining. Redlining is a discriminatory practice of withholding loans or other financial resources from neighborhoods based on residents’ race or ethnicity, marking them with redlines that show their status. 

The inequity that oppressive systems like redlining have created is, in many ways, limitless. In her keynote speech, Carter expanded on the concept of social determinants of health.  

“This is not high blood pressure or whether or not you have asthma,” Carter said. “These are all things (like) … where you’re born, how you grow, you work, you live and age, and all the wider sets of forces, systems and constructs that we live within … that impact our overall quality of life.”   

Carter presented a series of maps that illustrated a variety of social determinants of health in the Dallas metroplex. The maps closely resembled the ‘30s-era redlining map, with the most negatively affected areas in present-day Dallas having been marked as undesirable for development nearly 100 years ago.  

For example, according to a 2010 map by the city’s Office of Economic Development, almost all prominent business headquarters are located on Dallas’ north side, with many located in areas that are difficult for residents of South Dallas to reach without personal transportation. A job proximity index map showed that residents of South Dallas and parts of East Dallas live near significantly fewer job opportunities than residents of North Dallas, and another map showed that most racially/ethnically concentrated areas of poverty (R/ECAPS) are in South Dallas.  

Carter also highlighted a study by University of Texas health systems that revealed major differences in life expectancies by ZIP code in Dallas and demonstrated an interactive map with color-coded sections of average life expectancy.  

Dowdy, Vice President of Strategy and Larry James Fellow at Forest Forward, also noted the study’s findings.  

“Depending on where you’re born here in Dallas, that can take five or 10 years off your life, which is arbitrary and horrific,” Dowdy said.  

Cooperative Solutions for Building Equity in Urban Environments

The panel agreed that extensive collaboration during the design process with the communities a development plans to serve is vital to building equity in those communities.  

“Sometimes we forget that communities and residents that live and will live with the changes are also experts in what they need,” said Martinez-Cosio, interim dean of the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington.  

Martinez-Cosio also noted that although efforts to include community stakeholders in the development process are well-intentioned, some burden residents more than they give them a voice.  

“We’re all billing for our time (to attend these community meetings), but we expect residents to sit and attend these night meetings without daycare, without getting time off work,” Martinez-Cosio said. “We expect them to do all this to rectify part of what we’ve created.” 

Dowdy noted that marginalized communities may not trust developers or local government after being let down and “de-resourced” in the past, so it may take years to cultivate the relationships necessary for true collaborative and equitable development.  

“We need to think about all the things people need, not just drop in a shiny project and say we’re done,” Dowdy said. “We need to think about how to, over years and years, develop trust and struggle alongside and think through different strategies so that we can develop the cultural and economic enterprises that are going to make the most sense for that neighborhood to give them power over the things they’re going to enjoy.” 

Cheathum, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager for the Americas at global commercial real estate services firm CBRE, noted the power of the private sector in helping to effect change. 

“Private business, private equity and private investment are always going to lead the way,” Cheathum said. “Government policy is great. Nonprofit is great, but we all know private dollars lead government policy.”  

The Dallas City Council is contributing to addressing inequity in the built environment through its Racial Equity Plan adopted in 2022, said Schultz, City Council member for District 11 and chair of the City Council’s Workforce, Education and Equity committee.  

The plan’s “racial equity indicators were our checkup. Now we know the prognosis, and we are beginning to have conversations that, for years, we avoided as a city,” Schultz said. 

What Individuals Can Do to Help

While the panel explored the need for a well-rounded, collaborative effort among city leaders to build equity in underserved communities, individuals — especially young people — can still make an impact on their own.  

Dowdy highlighted how easy it can be for passionate designers to unintentionally lose their spark for meaningful work when faced with the potential to earn large sums of money. He called on designers to keep in touch with the desire to make a difference.  

“A life in solidarity with the people who really deserve your attention is a life repairing the damage we’ve done to these communities,” Dowdy said. “It’s up to us to learn our trades but also to keep our character.”  

Cheathum, who now works for one of the world’s largest real estate services and investment firms, said he didn’t know real estate development was an industry until he was 27 years old. He believes professionals can help bring sustainable wealth to low-income communities by exposing people to professions they wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. 

“What you all can do individually is show people — who look like you or don’t look like you — your profession, the skills it takes to do what you do and put them on a path to go generate that revenue and income, and then reinvest that income wherever they choose to live.”  

View the full panel discussion below.