Rewriting Wrongs: GIS as a Force for Racial Equity in Asheville, NC

By Matthew Leger • May 11, 2021

The past year has brought to light countless stories of inequity and injustice in the United States. Now, across the country, local government leaders are wrestling with racial disparities long absent from the headlines, but still present and persistent in marginalized communities today. Cities like Chicago, IL; New York City; St. Paul, MN; Durham, NC; Rochester, NY; and Athens, GA are all exploring options for rewriting the wrongs of their collective pasts, with a specific focus on issuing reparations and/or creating better economic opportunities for Black and brown families.

One city at the forefront of these efforts is Asheville, NC and behind their efforts to make for a more equitable city are GIS and data.

Using data and maps to understand Asheville’s racial history

From the founding of Asheville’s Equity and Inclusion (E&I) office in 2016, data has played an integral role in the department’s operations. Upon the start of her tenure as the city’s first Director of Equity and Inclusion, Kimberlee Archie sat down with the GIS team and demonstrated an understanding of the importance of data in her efforts moving forward. According to Asheville’s Business and Public Technology Manager, Scott Barnwell, who was part of that initial discussion with Archie, “she understood the importance of using data, and combining qualitative and quantitative insights to make for a compelling story.”

That is why members of the GIS team were invited to participate in Asheville’s Equity Core Team One – a group tasked with brainstorming action items and strategies to address inequality in the city as part of an immersive learning experience guided by the Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE). The Core Team was split into four groups that were focused on housing, workforce equity, budget & procurement, and community engagement.

As part of this experience, Barnwell was amazed at the extent to which he was unfamiliar with the city’s history around urban renewal and the plight of Black communities torn apart by the city’s government decades ago. “One of the things that really shocked me,” he said, “was learning about some of the historic African American neighborhoods in Asheville that were completely wiped out 30-40 years ago, including Charlotte Street, which used to be called Valley Street, which is literally outside our window from City Hall, that was once a vibrant African American community.” The City’s GIS Manager Christen Watts, who participated in the Core Team’s housing group, was similarly shocked by what she learned and had to turn to GIS to help make sense of it; “once I started making maps I couldn’t stop because it was so interesting and I needed to visualize what I was learning,” she said.

Using the lessons learned from this experience, Watts created a story map in 2019 outlining the city’s history with racial inequality and showing how the city was using GIS to help address those gaps. This story map won Watts and her team the 2019 Herbert Stout Award for Visionary Use of GIS, which thrust GIS and maps into the spotlight as effective tools that can be used in the fight to close racial equity gaps. The story map has since been used as an educational tool to help city staff understand the history of racial inequality in Asheville.

Prioritizing racial equity in city operations

Although Archie has since left her role as E&I Director due to concerns of a hostile work environment and a lack of support, the city has new leadership that is fully dedicated to and on board with the office’s efforts. To demonstrate this, Asheville city staff are now prioritizing the use of GARE’s Racial Equity Toolkit in everything the city does. The Racial Equity Toolkit is a resource “designed to integrate explicit consideration of racial equity in decisions, including policies, practices, programs, and budgets,” and requires city staff to think deeply about who may be impacted, positively or negatively, by a project or proposal brought forth by the city.

GIS plays an incredibly important role as city staff follow the steps as outlined by the racial equity toolkit. The second step of the process requires city employees to think about the data they are using to support their projects. It emphasizes that city staff should be able to answer important questions about the communities that will be impacted before moving forward with a project. Barnwell, Watts and the GIS team have created the Asheville City Data Resource to provide an open data source that city staff can use at their discretion when conducting equity analyses on projects. The City Data Resource enables city staff to overlay data on demographics, income, redlining history, food insecurity, infrastructure and other important data points (see below).

Screenshot of Red Lining in Asheville Map

In releasing data on racial inequality, Barnwell and Watts understood that they might open the city up to scrutiny, but they felt it was important to be transparent about the challenges facing Black communities so that they could move the needle in the right direction. Barnwell said in an interview, “our department leaders here are really proponents of transparency and we celebrate this movement of open data. This is the right thing to do because it builds community trust and sets us on the right path to better serving communities that we as a city have historically left behind… We are far better off knowing that these problems exist, otherwise they would never get solved.”

Translating equity data into equity action

Now that the data is out there, the city is working to turn insights on racial inequity into actions. The city’s Capital Projects Department (CPD) is now also using GIS with a racial equity lens to support infrastructure projects. Last summer, the CPD worked with Watts and a team of fellows from the Harvard Kennedy School's Government Performance Lab to conduct an equity analysis of where capital project monies had been invested and who lives in the communities that have reaped the benefits of those projects. They used GIS to conduct the analysis and developed a streamlined process for selecting where to upgrade, install, or repair sidewalks across the city with an emphasis on reinvesting in minority communities in need of improved sidewalk infrastructure.

Screenshot of map of city owned property and infrastructure

During the pandemic, Watts conducted an analysis of broadband and computer access gaps across the city and overlaid that with income and race data to determined which neighborhoods were in greatest need of support. They found that almost every single disconnected Census block group had public housing or public parks, and this analysis was used to determine where to target public Wifi investments and the best locations to stand up remote learning centers for students.

Map of computer and internet access in Asheville

Lastly, as part of the GIS team’s work mapping the history of redlining, on April 13th the City Council allocated $1.6 million dollars from the sale of city-owned land originally purchased through urban renewal programs to this year’s Community Development Block Grant program. With this funding the city intends to reinvest those dollars in marginalized communities of color, and the City Data Resource is going to play an important role in ensuring those dollars are invested in the right communities.

Looking ahead, while correcting past wrongs

In July 2020, the Asheville City Council unanimously passed the “Resolution Supporting Community Reparations for Black Asheville.” This document was signed in an effort to acknowledge the city’s role in creating racial inequities locally, as well as to reinvest in black communities that were torn apart by “urban renewal” in the 1950s and 60s. This effort is at the top of the City Council’s priority action items for the years ahead, and the GIS team has fully committed to the effort.

In the immediate and near term, Asheville has placed a moratorium on the sale of city-owned property until it can be determined if the property was acquired through urban renewal. Watts is playing a huge role in this effort alongside other city staff that work in housing, planning, historical resources, legal and others. They are also looking to partner with students at the University of North Carolina Asheville, who are currently doing research that attempts to place a dollar value on the amount of wealth black families lost as a result of urban renewal projects.

Barnwell and Watts are looking to build more GIS-based community engagement tools for use in public meetings to ensure community voices play a role in making for a new and better Asheville. They also hope to be able to create an equity index, similar to that created by King County, Washington, to help the city make even more targeted and informed investments in minority and underserved communities. When addressing issues of equity using GIS, the key to success, according to Watts, is to “shift our thinking from not just focusing on the ‘where,’ but emphasizing the ‘who.’ Until we take a more human-centered design approach to solving these problems, we won’t ever achieve true equity.”

About the Author

Matthew Leger

Matt Leger is a Research Assistant for the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center. He has a diversity of experiences in research across the public and private sectors, as well as in academia with a primary focus on understanding how technology can be used to help address some of society’s greatest challenges. Matt has worked with the Smart Cities Strategies team at the International Data Corporation (IDC); the NYCx team in the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer; and at the research institute CTG-UAlbany. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration both from the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany in Albany, NY.