As cities across the U.S. Southeast are attracting investment, the resulting growth can bring with it a downside, with only a limited number of perspectives being heard and represented in the planning. Panelists speaking at ULI’s 2019 Carolinas Meeting in February discussed how to solicit genuine participation from the full range of groups affected by development.

“For the people in real estate, are we aware of the harm we’ve caused, the legacy we step into?” asked Kofi Boone, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University. He pointed out aspects of policies such as redlining and urban renewal, which crippled some neighborhoods for decades and resulted in deep economic disparities and very low economic mobility in North Carolina.

To change that model, he said, “the new themes need to be authentic engagement, building relationships, facing injustice, and being outcomes-based. These are the successful projects.”

Developers and community organizers do not need to reinvent the wheel. Models for interaction already exist; for example, there is Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, which illustrates levels of engagement with residents, from manipulation all the way up to full citizen control. But true engagement is not easy to accomplish. “In my professional life, we haven’t gotten to the top third [of the ladder],” explained Boone. “It’s usually surveys [that are used], and they’re always the same questions, without any real input.”

But there are good examples out there of projects that truly aim to benefit the community where they are located. In Washington, D.C., for instance, the developers of the 11th Street Bridge Park knew that the project had the potential to gentrify and displace people living in nearby Anacostia, a low-income community. In response, they began investing in the area 10 years before the park would be finished: helping residents buy homes, build businesses, and find jobs, and encouraging area artists.

And in New Orleans, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center was created from a crumbling building two decades ago. Now a bookstore, gallery, performance venue, and youth-focused bicycle repair shop, “it had a dramatic impact on the neighborhood and property tax values,” said Boone. But because its development was paired with civic engagement and political activism, virtually no residents were displaced due to its success.

Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tem of Durham, North Carolina, agreed that getting citizens’ voices into the process is key to reducing the negative effects of gentrification. Durham, for instance—a city in which over 50 percent of residents are people of color—is simultaneously experiencing rapid growth and a very severe affordable housing crisis. To address it, the municipal government is trying to figure out how to engage residents.

“Equity requires an inclusive democracy,” said Johnson. “People know their own problems best. Getting their opinions and expertise—that’s critical to making good decisions as a policymaker.”

She admitted, however, that Durham doesn’t yet have that kind of inclusivity, and that getting there will be a challenge. “We need to remove barriers to participation,” she explained. “Right now, we hear from all the same people. There are systemic and institutional barriers that prevent [other] people from getting educated and engaged.”

Many of the hurdles that Durham is experiencing are shared by cities around the world: legacies of distrust resulting from disastrous past city planning initiatives; large amounts of destabilizing global capital coming in from elsewhere; state and federal governments that explicitly limit cities’ ability to solve their own problems; and crumbling public housing infrastructure due to years of deferred investment.

In response, Durham developed several new institutions and actions to bring in new voices. They include a racial equity task force that will come up with concrete recommendations to help the city function more fairly; a series of “community conversations” held around Durham to discuss the city’s budget process; a new participatory budgeting process that will allow the public to determine how $2.4 million should be spent; a focus on diversifying city boards and committees; and an Equitable Community Engagement Blueprint to guide future development.

Bringing in new voices is a work in progress, said Johnson, but it is one that Durham—and all city governments—need to proactively engage in. After all, she said, cities are where people are going to be in the future. “And this is the level of government that’s most accessible. Our decisions most directly impact our people.”

In Atlanta, Odetta MacLeish-White has a similar task, but with a slightly different perspective. She is the managing director of the Transformation Alliance, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations, universities, and government that aims to ensure that the benefits of MARTA, the city’s rail system, are shared by all of the city’s residents.

In a way, the organization is trying to unwind some of the gentrification that was unwittingly caused by the city’s famed BeltLine. Today, Atlanta has the worst income inequality among American cities—and that translates into measurable disparities.

For instance, life expectancy for residents living near MARTA’s Oakland City Station, a primarily African American neighborhood, is 72 years; for those living near Buckhead Station—a much more upscale area—the average life expectancy is 82 years. “That’s a lot of life to be denied because of your race,” said MacLeish-White.

That is the kind of thing the Transformation Alliance is trying to gradually address with its initiatives. “We have twin North Stars,” said MacLeish-White. “They are the centrality of transit, and being explicit about race and racism.”

The group has developed an “equity evaluator,” a tool that can be used to determine the potential benefits and damages of a given development or policy. Using scoring criteria, the assessment tool helps rank projects according to how they affect the city’s equity; MARTA is reportedly planning to incorporate its principles into its request for proposals (RFP) process.

The group has also focused on establishing “third spaces” for people of color. These are places away from home or work where Atlantans of all ages can rest, play, or hang out—without fear of being arrested. Currently, the Transformation Alliance is building sports fields under MARTA lines where young people can play soccer; the transit company is donating decommissioned rail cars that can be used as libraries or continuing education classrooms nearby.

There are other initiatives, too: a giant mural at the King Memorial MARTA station that was essentially crowdsourced by residents; the Transformation Academy, which teaches participants about the history of racism in Atlanta and what equitable, transit-oriented development looks like.

Ultimately, said MacLeish-White, in a metropolitan area that has been torn apart by urban renewal, racism, and development benefiting only some people, “we’re reknitting together the city.”