Durham’s New Blueprint for Equitable Community Engagement

Lack of broad community engagement around a proposed rails-to-trails park inspires Durham to come up with a plan to bring more voices into the city planning processes.

Durham is planning to convert an old railroad spur into a 1.7-mile trail cutting through downtown. (Photo by Matt Walter CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Tara Mei Smith and Justin Robinson have deep roots in Durham, N.C.. Smith’s family dates back nine generations, with her indigenous ancestors coming through the trading path and European ancestors arriving in the mid-1700s. Robinson’s great-great grandparents came to Durham from South Carolina in the early 1900s for banking, because they weren’t allowed to do it back home, and to sell cotton, where they often got a better price.

Smith and Robinson are behind Extra Terrestrial Projects, a nonprofit in Durham and New York creatively connecting city residents to nature. The pair’s history in Durham informs their investment in its future. In creating a native plant prairie on public land downtown, “we had an ear to the ground on a lot of the upcoming big green infrastructure projects” in Durham, Smith says.

For example, this summer the City Council approved a master plan for the Durham Belt Line, a proposal to transform an old railroad spur once used to transport tobacco into a 1.7-mile trail cutting through downtown.

“We realized none of our partners in communities of color or affordable housing or equitable development knew about it,” says Smith (who is also a Next City Vanguard). “And then there were precedents set by the Atlanta Belt Line and High Line, showing that green gentrification is happening. We needed to do this differently.”

In Durham, a 53.9 percent black and brown city, one in five renters receives an eviction notice a year. Fears of Atlanta Belt Line-esque gentrification were felt most acutely in neighborhoods along the eastern end of the trail, home to communities of color and cost-burdened renters.

An early Durham Belt Line survey only engaged 250 people with a median income of $90,000, Smith notes — and yet the median income along the trail is roughly $36,000. Smith saw it as an example of “a systemic problem across most community engagement processes.”

In response to such concerns, City Council tasked the city with developing an equitable community engagement plan ahead of any construction. It was recently released by the Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department as the Equitable Community Engagement Blueprint.

The blueprint goes beyond addressing the Durham Belt Line.

“It didn’t make sense to make a community engagement plan specific to the Belt Line without thinking of what is equitable engagement,” says Jacob Lerner, community engagement coordinator at the department. “We had to take a step back before we even starting thinking about the Belt Line.”

Beyond the blueprint, city leaders have taken a hard look at racist policies and how they inform inequities in Durham. The city joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity; it formed a Racial Equity Task Force; many city staff now go through race equity training.

In addition, city staff members are working with a community representative to explore how to preserve Durham’s legacy of black-owned businesses through employee-ownership, as Next City covered recently.

The city is also crafting its 2019 strategic plan with equity in mind. “There are equity efforts drafted throughout the entire plan, and initiatives to help us achieve those goals within the three years of the plan,” says James Davis, assistant director of Neighborhood Improvement Services.

Planners with the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department found that existing city plans often address equity and engagement separately. With the blueprint they sought to define, and set goals around, equitable community engagement.

One key component is shifting the engagement paradigm: “The onus is on the city to invest the resources to ensure underrepresented demographics have a voice in the process,” it reads. “It is not enough to say someone is not in the room, the city must ask why.”

Other components include collecting data to understand who is underrepresented in engagement, centering race and understanding racist city policies of the past, and undertaking efforts like door knocking and events hosted with local organizations to bring more people to the planning table.

“It’s definitely a culture shift,” says Laura Biediger, community engagement coordinator at the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department. “We’ve had several meetings with other [city] departments who are trying to understand the idea, and we’re helping them understand each component of why it’s important to have the community at the planning table.”

Everyone interviewed with Neighborhood Improvement Services emphasized the blueprint, which was drafted in 90 days, is strictly a draft. Beyond informing Belt Line planning, they see it as a working document that will grow beyond project-based engagement to a more general, pervasive engagement between residents and the city.

“The blueprint is essentially an opportunity for us to look at our current practices, create additional best practices to document the outcome, and we hope that outcome shows that we’ve improved civic engagement across all demographics,” says Davis.

To Smith and Robinson, it’s a meaningful step forward that will likely introduce difficult conversations around inequity.

“There’s some precedent … for folks feeling like the powers that be are conspiring against them to move them out of the city,” Robinson says — for example, the construction of the Durham freeway in 1958 decimated the city’s core black neighborhoods, dooming what was Durham’s famous “Black Wall Street.”

Smith says that in engagement around the Belt Line, residents are saying they have more pressing needs — they’re not asking for investment in a bike lane, they’re asking for other investments that they’ve been asking for decades.

“Our hope is for a larger movement of equitable green infrastructure,” Smith says. “We have to ask [the city] who are you building this for, and where is the desire coming from. A top-down approach won’t work.”

This story is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: community-engaged designpower of parkscommunity engagementdurham

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