Given the interconnectedness of cities and local economies, regional government organizations have a critical role to play in aligning and coordinating both COVID-19 recovery efforts and long-term planning among localities. However, COVID-19 adds a new layer of complexity to planning in this day and age; the pandemic exposed cities and towns in vastly different ways and the damage has been indiscriminate, but disproportionate. Unifying and coordinating planning activities between local governments in a shared vision of the future requires a rethinking of how planning is conducted. For a potential model of success, we turn to Southern California.
The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is proving the value of regional planning organizations with a new shared strategy. Founded in 1965, SCAG has decades of experience conducting long-range planning for the region. It is the largest regional government organization in the country, covering the 38,000 square miles that make up Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties, and the 191 cities and 19 million residents that occupy them. On September 3, 2020, SCAG’s Regional Council voted unanimously to approve Connect SoCal, the 25 year transportation plan and sustainable communities strategy that will guide the region’s growth. As municipalities in southern California update their General Plans, Connect SoCal will serve as a guiding document to help cities in the region align their planning efforts to recover from the devastation of the pandemic and create a more prosperous and equitable southern California.
In the face of COVID-19, Long Beach City Councilor and President of SCAG Rex Richardson and SCAG’s Chief Operating Officer Darin Chidsey understood that creating and driving forward a long-term plan under today’s conditions required a new approach: one that is informed and driven by data.
A regional data platform enables collaboration and consensus building
For SCAG, the regional planning process has historically confronted challenges due to a lack of high-quality data inputs and standardization. For example, some municipalities track data for their transportation or housing programs differently than others, making it difficult to speak the same language when debating regional needs or planning initiatives. Additionally, when advocating for policy proposals and planning strategies, some smaller and lower-resourced municipalities lack the data visualization and analytics capabilities to make their case the same way that some of the larger, more technologically advanced municipal governments could. Together, these challenges inhibited SCAG’s ability to support collaboration and consensus building, making it more difficult to coordinate localized planning activities.
To overcome these challenges and create a more unified regional planning process, Richardson and Chidsey are spearheading the creation of what they call the “Regional Data Platform” (RDP). The RDP is currently in pilot development, but when complete will serve as a data sharing and visualization platform for use by all of SCAG’s member cities to update their General Plans. SCAG has recently released a tool as part of the RDP called the “Housing Element Parcel” (HELPER) to assist member cities with updating the Housing Elements within their General Plans (see below).
The concept of the RDP came from a recommendation in SCAG’s 2017 report called the “Future Communities Initiative,” which called for a “GIS-based tool to allow member cities to easily update their General Plan data and share this information with their communities for input.” The platform pulls housing, transportation, land use and other data critical for planning purposes together from local and county government agencies and standardizes it so that all municipalities can update their plans using the same data. In an interview, Richardson noted that “the RDP aims to be the rising tide that lifts all boats… it will make sure we are all speaking the same language… leveling the playing field for all member agencies regardless of their data analytics and tracking capacity.”
The hope is to enable county and local governments to do more meaningful planning within their communities. Richardson noted that, “cities need data from neighboring communities and the region at large so they can plan within the context of a bigger, interconnected system.” Beyond planning purposes, SCAG’s leaders hope the RDP can serve as a baseline for tracking planning outcomes over time and provide a data sharing platform that can be used by nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and researchers to better understand the social and economic realities within and between southern California communities.
An emphasis on equitable outcomes
SCAG’s leaders view the RDP as more than just a data sharing platform to support planning activities, but also an opportunity to create more equitable outcomes for disadvantaged residents. In fact, their primary goal is to use the platform to track outcomes based on demographics and race in ways that otherwise were not being captured. “Policy outcomes are often elusive,” said Richardson. “A major reason is that policymakers often fail to account for data, particularly demographics and race.” He views the RDP as a tool to help local and regional governments begin to chart a course forward and track progress over time on equity-focused initiatives, which is a leading priority for Connect SoCal.
For Richardson, the data in the RDP is so powerful because it not only serves as a starting point for tracking outcomes, it enables all of SCAG’s member cities to speak the same language and create a shared narrative. “In local government,” he said, “a lot of times we make decisions based on a whole host of social factors… by allowing data to be the lens or the backbone of the conversation, we can extract fact based insights that allow for better decision making… rather than making decisions based on what we ‘feel’ is most important for our communities.” By reframing narratives this way, both Richardson and Chidsey acknowledged that they have been more successful in gaining consensus around issues like building up housing near high quality transit and jobs, a major priority for the region’s sustainability plans and equity goals.
In advancing equity priorities, the RDP will also serve as a community and civic engagement tool. SCAG is currently piloting programs to engage nonprofits and philanthropic organizations in using the platform. The hope is to be able to have more meaningful engagements and to collaborate more effectively across sectors. For example, in July, SCAG issued a Call for Collaboration program which will launch this fall. The programs set aside $1 million “to support new partnership models and engage a wider range of stakeholders to advance the region’s housing goals” with an emphasis on funding “projects that go beyond traditional planning tools and promote collaborative partnerships… and to also elevate local conversations on racial equity and justice in housing.” When the RDP is launched, SCAG intends to promote its use to ensure that stakeholders across sectors involved in these projects are communicating and collaborating using the same data and language.
Looking ahead at advancing the RDP
SCAG’s leaders understand that the goals of expanding access to transportation or affordable housing in the region — and doing so equitably — will not be achieved without intentional, coordinated planning activities and intergovernmental collaboration. Connect SoCal is a guide to light the way, and the RDP is a tool to enable these coordinated efforts. As the RDP is rolled out, SCAG will provide technical assistance to member cities to provide them with tools, resources, and training so that they can effectively leverage the platform for use in General Plan updates. This focus on hands-on training will expose member cities to the platform, helping to demonstrate its value, increase usage and interoperability, and lead to more information and data sharing between municipalities.
Once they are able to demonstrate the power of the platform to all their members, SCAG intends to expand its use beyond General Plan updates and is thinking ahead about using the tool to support other planning initiatives such as GoHuman and the High Injury Network. SCAG intends to make the RDP the primary geospatial infrastructure that powers all planning activities across the region moving forward.
Want to learn more? Listen to Rex Richardson and Darin Chidsey on the accompanying Data-Smart City Pod, hosted by Professor Steve Goldsmith.