How Oakland Is Fixing its Pandemic Planning Equity Problem

The Oakland Slow Streets program, one of the most controversial developments of the early pandemic, has evolved to become the Essential Places initiative, thanks to new planning practices and a commitment to equity in Oakland, California.

November 16, 2020, 9:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Juneteenth Protests

Protestors gather at the Port of Oakland on Juneteenth, 2020. | Sheila Fitzgerald / Shutterstock

Early pandemic, when stay-at-home orders were in place around much of the country and people leaving their cars in driveways in numbers not seen since the dawn of the automobile, the open streets movement began to gain transformative momentum as a way for weary residents to get out and safely exercise.

Oakland, California was one of the early leaders in the effort, announcing 74 miles of slow streets in Aprilweeks and even months before the idea would gain wide acceptance around the country. As the first, and with its history of gentrification and displacement, Oakland was also one of the first to hear criticisms that would become more vocal as the idea spread to other cities: that open streets and other programs suffered from a misunderstanding of equity and the realities of being people of color in public.

An article by Rikha Sharma Rani picks up the story in Oakland six months later to detail how planners have shifted their pandemic response to provide more equitable benefits. The article focuses on the city's deployment of the Essential Places initiative, launched in May "to reduce the threat to pedestrians in these high-injury corridors, many of them located in low-income communities of color," according to the article. "The initiative consists of an assortment of cones, barricades and signage strategically placed to slow or divert traffic."

Rikha Sharma Rani describes the Essential Places initiative as a replacement for the city's Open Streets program from April. The earlier program revealed a blindspot in the city’s planning, according to Rikha Sharma Rani: "At a time when urban planners are increasingly being called out for white elitism, Oakland is feeling its way, clumsily at times, down a different, more equitable path."

The transformation of the Slow Streets initiative into the more equitable Essential Places initiative involved weekly public meetings conducted by the city's Essential Places team, led by Warren Logan. The process of earning public trust during that process, and implementing the lessons gained along the way, is available in feature-length detail in the source article.

To be clear, the effort is framed as a success, and as a model for a more equitable approach to planning:

Perhaps not surprisingly, the pivot from slow streets to essential places in distressed neighborhoods, in direct response to the community’s feedback, has been generally well received. According to Department of Transportation data, there have been no collisions at designated Essential Places sites, even though all are part of the city’s high injury network where most collisions occur.

Thursday, October 8, 2020 in We Are Not Divided

Twin Cities

Minneapolis Housing Plan a Success—Not for the Reason You Think

Housing advocates praise the city’s move to eliminate single-family zoning by legalizing triplexes on single-family lots, but that isn’t why housing construction is growing.

May 13, 2022 - Reason

Single-Family Housing Construction

New White House Housing Initiative Includes Zoning Reform Incentives

The Biden administration this morning released a new program of actions intended to spur housing construction around the United States.

May 16, 2022 - The White House

San Francisco Houses

‘Mega-Landlords’ Threaten Housing Stability for Renters

As institutional investors buy up a larger share of single-family homes, the families renting them are increasingly vulnerable to rent increases and eviction.

May 15, 2022 - The Hill

Puente Hills Landfill as seen from the air

More Funds to Transform the Puente Hills Landfill into a Regional Park

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors just approved an additional $28 million to support the development of the Puente Hills Regional Park at the landfill site.

May 23 - Supervisor Hilda Solis

Denver, Colorado

Denver Freeway Widening Plans on Hold

The Colorado Department of Transportation’s plan to widen the Interstate 25 freeway through Denver is one of a few plans to widen urban freeways under consideration in the United States.

May 23 - The Colorado Sun

Fringe Development

Public Perceptions of Sprawl and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Urban density has a bad reputation.

May 23 - Greater Greater Washington

HUD’s 2022 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Expanding HUD’s Eviction Protection Grant Program

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on The Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.