Saturday, March 29, 2014

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The March AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter meeting featured Stephanie Jennings, AICP, who is the City of Eugene’s grants manager for the Community Development Division. She was on hand to describe the Lane Livability Consortium and, more specifically, that organization’s Equity & Opportunity Assessment.

The Lane Livability Consortium is an interagency and cross-sector coalition providing a regional forum for sustainable community planning and development. The participating coalition members founded the consortium in 2010 to apply for and strategically manage the implementation of a 3-year, $1.45 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning (SCRP) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The work of the consortium primarily involves bringing together coalition leaders in economic development, higher education, transportation, affordable housing, water and energy, and social equity to build upon the Eugene-Springfield metro area's successes and to further integrate livability into its plans and strategies. It provides the participating agencies a regional forum for discussions regarding issues and challenges that are common to the region and are best addressed with a collaborative problem-solving model.

Partner agencies include the cities of Eugene and Springfield, Lane County, Eugene Water & Electric Board, the Housing and Community Services Agency of Lane County, Lane Council of Governments, Central Lane Metropolitan Planning Organization, Lane Transit District, Oregon Department of Transportation, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, and the University of Oregon’s Sustainable Cities Initiative.

According to Stephanie, the primary goals of the SCRP grant program include determining how best to target housing, economic and workforce development, and infrastructure investments to create more jobs and regional economic activity. The SCRP program is a key initiative of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, in which HUD works with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate programs and investments. To date, HUD has awarded over $165 million to 74 regional grantees in 44 states. HUD organized the program around six fundamental principles:
  • Promote more transportation choices
  • Promote equitable, affordable housing
  • Enhance economic competitiveness
  • Support existing communities
  • Coordinate federal policies and investments
  • Value communities and neighborhoods

The Lane Livability Consortium is translating these principles into action by:
  • Developing tools for enhanced decision-making
  • Considering ways to better align plans
  • Advancing catalytic projects, building capacity, and considering next steps
  • Supporting the efforts of existing agencies and intergovernmental forums
  • Using grant resources to gain an elevated “50,000 foot view” of cross-agency development and implementation of major plans
  • Advancing previously identified priorities and pressing needs
  • Recognizing new opportunities for collective impact among multiple agencies
  • Effectively engaging a diverse set of regional stakeholders

In my opinion, the greatest benefit achieved through the formation of the Lane Livability Consortium is the leveraging of all the coalition members’ efforts to their mutual benefit. Rather than confining themselves to their narrow silos and spheres of influence, the members are working together to make the most of federal funds. Joining forces is far better than acting alone to achieve mutually shared goals. Collaboration minimizes waste and overlapping effort, while identifying gaps in current plans. It’s always maddened me to witness ad hoc and wasteful efforts by parallel agencies on issues affecting our entire metro region, so this integrated undertaking by such a large and diverse coalition is a welcome development. This is systems thinking at its best.

Equity and Opportunity Assessment
The Equity and Opportunity Assessment (EOA) is part of the Livability Toolkit, which is a web-based platform assembled by the Lane Livability Consortium that facilitates sharing tools and resources related to livability. The EOA helps to identify and analyze issues of equity, access, and opportunity within the Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area and consider how these findings can inform agency plans, policies, and major investments. Like other efforts of the consortium, this process was designed to engage multiple agencies and to help address the needs of those agencies.

Stephanie pointed out that most of the partner agencies within the consortium have conducted their own equity analyses; however, differences in the scopes of their plans make it difficult to create a consistent treatment of equity issues. The EOA provides better access to raw data for use by all of the consortium members.

While there are many definitions of opportunity, the focus of the EOA is to identify the condition or situation that places individuals in a position to be more likely to succeed or excel. It does this by analyzing and cross-referencing a broad range of data sources, gathering information in social and demographic topic areas ranging from income and poverty, to transportation, employment, personal safety, health & wellness, housing, and education. The assessment compiles this data onto maps, overlaying datasets in various combinations in order to: 1) compose a broad understanding of where different groups of people live within our community; 2) identify how jobs, schools, and services are distributed through the region; and 3) uncover disparities in access and opportunity.

Some of the datasets displayed in map form include:
  • Social and demographic characteristics
  • Income and poverty 
  • Access to transportation 
  • Access to employment 
  • Safety, health and wellness 
  • Access to affordable housing 
  • Educational opportunity

The maps show geographic differences within the study area, highlighting where the least vulnerable and most vulnerable reside. The data is derived from decennial census information as well as the more frequent American Community Survey, and is organized along census tract lines.

This is undoubtedly useful information to the members of the Lane Livability Coalition. Examples of possible applications include identification of environmental justice issues, targeting of areas to improve community health outcomes, prioritization of alternative transportation improvements, and siting decisions for affordable housing. A significant question is whether the data and analyses may also prove useful to the decision-making processes of architects and our clients.

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Ultimately, the goal of the Equity and Opportunity Assessment, as well as the entire forum afforded by the Lane Livability Consortium, is to foster sustainable community planning and development. The more everyone understands the interrelationships between our economic, social, and natural systems, the more likely we will ensure our region’s viability and resilience tomorrow. Thanks to Stephanie Jennings for introducing the work of the consortium to AIA-SWO. And thanks too to HUD and the partner agencies for working together to build a smarter community.

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The venue for the March chapter meeting was the Oregon Wine Lab at 488 Lincoln Street in Eugene and the tasty food was courtesy of Cousin Jack’s Pasty Company. The Wine Lab is an “urban winery and tasting lounge.” I’m sure it excels in that role but as a setting for a chapter meeting presentation it didn’t perform well. The acoustics were poor: the mechanical system was noisy and, without a microphone for either Stephanie or those in the audience who asked questions, it was difficult for me to catch all the words. I realize the goal recently has been to mix things up and provide a change of pace for chapter meeting settings, but I’d prefer to stick with a place where we’re all assured the opportunity to hear everything.

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