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Regional equity — What is it? For whom? How is it reached? Are we talking about equal opportunity or equal outcome? Do we mean equity by race, income, education, health? And, how will we know when we are done?
All these questions and more were considered in May when Philadelphia was the host of a major conference, Advancing Regional Equity: The Second National Summit on Equitable Development, Social Justice, and Smart Growth, sponsored by PolicyLink and the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. For two-and-a-half days, more than 1300 people from 42 states talked about or listened to the issues our communities face. The range of issues discussed was broad: affordable housing located where the jobs are not; transportation to the jobs is difficult for the people who want them; good schools are out of reach by location or cost; and health problems are higher because of fewer medical facilities, dependence on vehicles, or other environmental factors such as diesel-fueled buses. And one session on the federal and state budget cuts advocated mobilizing not around the reduction of HUD programs but around the plan to reduce the estate tax on wealthy individuals.
Many of the panels discussed the solutions individual communities had started; for example, a Nebraskan Indian tribe is building a traditional neighborhood community, maximizing the pedestrian features, so its residents can walk to work. The tribal leaders hope that future residents will have reduced levels of obesity and diabetes if they are more active. One Philadelphia organization, the Allegheny West Foundation, has asked the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to improve the local station so that new residential and nonresidential projects can be built on neighboring lands that were once brownfields. In New Jersey, which is considered by many to be a leader in affordable housing production because of its Mt. Laurel court decisions, there is dissent. Marty Johnson of Isles in Trenton, NJ argues that being good at community development does not necessarily mean you have reached success. Regional factors cannot be ignored.
So, to answer my questions above, here’s what I know to date. Regional equity means different things to different people. To me, it means giving everyone an equal opportunity for a healthy, productive life. For that outcome, I need a good education, a job that pays me well enough to support my family, and a place to live that I can afford, that is accessible to schools, jobs, and amenities, and that is in a healthy location.
And how will we know we are done? I have been around long enough to know that we will probably never be done, but every step closer is a good thing.