By Nousheen Rahman and Angela Ryan
Forward Pinellas Board adopted the Equity Assessment Action Plan on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in an effort to ensure all work at Forward Pinellas is inclusive and results in equitable outcomes for our entire community. Launched in 2020, the Equity Assessment began identifying our community needs and opportunities to help remove existing barriers to transportation, jobs, education, housing that’s affordable and other resources.
“More than 70% of our most dangerous roadways in Pinellas County are in low income and minority communities,” said Forward Pinellas Chair and Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Joanne Cookie Kennedy. “I am proud the Forward Pinellas Board adopted this Equity Action Plan to make strides to keeping all people safe on our roadways. I’m looking forward to finding solutions to ensure everyone has access to jobs, transportation, education and affordable homes.”
The Equity Assessment Action Plan is the first step to acknowledging our responsibility as planners to plan for the needs of disadvantaged people, seek social justice, and redefine our internal structure, outreach and policies, as well as the way we plan and prioritize funding for transportation projects throughout the county, and is the latest in a long line of inclusionary planning work under Forward Pinellas.
As the combined Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and Planning Council (PCC) for Pinellas County, the principal functions of our agency include conducting research and data on land use and transportation trends and conditions; facilitating planning and outreach activities with local communities; allocating funding from the federal and state government; and funding initiatives to incentivize certain planning activities, programs, and practices.
Our work has always adhered to legal obligations, such as the Executive Order 12891 for Environmental Justice, which requires that federally funded actions do not disproportionally burden historically excluded low-income and racial minority communities, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1992 ensuring our organization does not discriminate in any way throughout our planning practices. Furthermore, professional planners at Forward Pinellas are charged with the important responsibility to work towards achieving more equitable outcomes for all people and especially those from underrepresented communities.
Per the AICP code of ethics, planners have a responsibility demonstrated as follows:
“We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.”
Through the equity assessment, Forward Pinellas sought to exemplify this statement by looking at our policies, practices, and the results of our work to ensure our products work toward a more socially, economically, and environmentally just atmosphere in Pinellas County.
“At Forward Pinellas, we are ethically bound to serve the public interest work to achieve more socially just decision-making not only through our agency’s mission, but also the AICP Code of Ethics,” says Forward Pinellas Executive Director, Whit Blanton, FAICP. “This assessment is the first step to looking introspectively at our work as an agency and working to break down barriers for everyone, especially those from underrepresented communities in Pinellas County.”
To fulfill these responsibilities, Forward Pinellas specifically designed the equity assessment to include outreach processes that would allow us to engage with community members and members of the public throughout the county who have been historically excluded. We recognized early in our assessment that we must understand the varying needs around our diverse county and find innovative strategies to connect with people to hear their opinions and concerns. Albeit our work is far from over, through our equity assessment we conducted a community survey that received over 465 responses, conducted more than 20 listening sessions with stakeholders around the county, and attended 8 community events spreading the word about our work. We also conducted two focus groups with students from St. Petersburg College, from which we received incredibly valuable feedback.
Below is a ‘word cloud’ of the feedback we received across those methods of communication. The size of the words or phrases in the graphic indicate the frequency with which these were heard. As seen by its size on the graphic, the most notable feedback we received was that there is a lack of opportunity across the county. We learned during our work with the public that lack of opportunity in no way coincides with lack of aptitude, lack of resolution or lack of industriousness. We heard from community members that their uphill battle for opportunity is associated with their lack of transportation, access to work and education, a lack of affordable housing, as well as a lack of access to healthy food, to name only a few.
Our community outreach was coupled with an internal analysis of our work as well. In addition to other findings, we documented that 70 percent of the county’s High Injury Network (areas with high amounts of pedestrian, bicyclist and automobile crashes and incidents) are in the equity emphasis areas, which have above average minority populations, limited vehicle access, or above average number of minorities with limited English-speaking households. However, equity emphasis areas comprise only 32 percent of the county, which shows us how disproportionately these areas are impacted by unsafe roads lacking in accommodations for people who may not have access to a car.
What this tells us is that there are distinct areas of the county that are disproportionally lacking investment in safe transportation options. Upon further analysis of our existing transportation project funding, we found that the entirety of funding spent on High Injury Network improvements within our defined equity emphasis areas is just 3.36 percent of our total transportation funding in the five-year Transportation Improvement Program.
As we come to the end of our equity assessment, we recognize that the assessment is just the beginning of meaningful change. Committing to equity is ongoing work, and as such, we are moving forward from this equity assessment with some of the following goals and objectives:
- Increase community voice for historically excluded communities: Part of a lack of opportunity comes from a lack of ability to participate. We learned from our conversations with community members that there is not a lack of willingness, but a lack of accessibility to political voice and influence. We aim to change that.
- Build communities of opportunity:To continue building a county in which people not only survive, but thrive, it is important for us to create strategic opportunities across the county. Examples include strengthened public-private partnerships, promoting economic opportunity through transportation accessibility beyond just moving traffic, further incentivizing affordable housing, especially in the current housing crises, and funding more safety programs.
- Develop equitable and transportation options to employment, education and other necessities: Our assessment of our various equity emphasis areas showed us that many people have inequitable access to resources across the county, contributing to those lack of opportunities. As we guide and make transportation and land use planning decisions in our work, we must increase these opportunities and close the gap.
- Strengthen Awareness: Part of continuing this work means raising awareness for it throughout the county. While we are committed to this work, we can only succeed in it through collaboration with our partners across the county, and empowering others to action can help us have the most positive impact in our equity efforts.