Smart cities grapple with equity issues heightened by pandemic

Editor’s Note: This story is part of Smart Cities Dive’s multi-part “Re-evaluating the Smart Cities Movement” series, which provides insight into the past, present and future of space.

Why do smart city leaders care about fairness? Because injustice has been a hallmark of many cities from the very beginning.

In what is now the county of Dallas, the first recorded business transaction took place on March 17, 1844, when a enslaved black woman named Jane was sold to John Young for $ 400. The land that Young and other white settlers appropriated belonged to the Indigenous peoples who were resettled west of present-day Fort Worth in an 1843 treaty.

The story of Dallas is a story of displacement, segregation and structural inequality, according to a 2019 report by Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (THRT), and it’s a story that continues to shape city life today. Dallas has the highest child poverty rate among the nation’s largest cities, according to the report, and those children are disproportionately Latin American and African American.

Urban Institute study found Dallas had the highest level of income inequality among 570 metropolitan areas commuting zones studied. The average income of the bottom 10% of the areas of Dallas by income decreased by $ 3,149 from 1990 to 2010, while the average income of the top 10% of the areas increased by $ 31,769.

An initiative of the WK Kellogg Foundation, Dallas TRHT has partnered with the city to address structural equity issues, said executive director Jerry Hawkins. Its approach includes “sharing a bigger story,” racial healing circles and community healing events, which they hope will lead to changes in city policies and practices, Hawkins said.

Equity is also a concern of Dallas’ smart city efforts. “The City of Dallas has used historical data, environmental data, digital access data and many other datasets to visualize and understand the current state of the various inequalities that exist in our city,” said Amanda Nabours, IT architect for the city of Dallas, in response to a Smart Cities Dive survey on smart city efforts.

Many survey respondents noted how their efforts to date, as well as the impacts of the pandemic, have put equity at the forefront of their concerns. These cities aim to help residents bridge the digital divide, by providing better access to education, transport and employment, while ensuring that they have a say in the use of technology by towns.

Technology as an essential service

In an interview, LeeAnn Hall, executive director of Just Strategy, a team of community organizers, defined equity as ensuring “that people of color, low-income communities, the elderly and people with disabilities have access to employment, health care and education”.

When cities moved nearly all online services during the pandemic, lack of access to these services increased long-standing inequalities. “If your children [are] at home, and you’re going to teach them anything, you’re going to have to have the technology, ”said David Sloane, professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis at the University’s Price School of Public Policy. from southern California.

In Dallas, “Our Strategic Plan for Broadband and Digital Equity, created in partnership with the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), was tasked with identifying the scale of digital equity challenges and gaps. broadband, ”Nabours said. The city has looked for ways to help residents access affordable, high-speed home broadband service “and have the devices and skills to. [the] the fullest use of broadband, ”she said.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, responding to the survey, said her city was using Funding from Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to provide laptops and hot spots for students, seniors and residents of public housing. “When students and workers have had to make the transition to learning and working from home, [the] inadequate access to computers and WiFi has been highlighted, ”said Gallego.

But the digital divide goes beyond education. “The truth is, we can’t offer new services to our city, our residents, our businesses, our seniors, and our black and brown communities unless we know they can access these. services “, The Washington, DC CTO’s office said in their survey response. “And if we don’t work together across government, nonprofits, academics, and industry to find a streamlined solution that works for Washington, DC, we’ve missed the boat. And this is. not acceptable.”

In San Francisco, “the acceleration of the deployment of municipal fiber in the city that provides free Internet service to affordable housing has connected more than 7,000 housing units,” said Linda. Gerull, the city’s chief information officer and the executive director of the technology department for the city and county of San Francisco, In his response to the survey. “With this service comes digital literacy training to develop skills [and] providing distance education for students and telehealth for the elderly. “

“The intersectionality of inequalities in the urban environment touches all of a city’s major issues – from housing to schools to resource allocation,” said Kris Carter, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics at Boston, responding to the Smart Cities Dive survey.

Carter provided an example of a solution implemented by Boston. “The city started a program called Streetcaster, which was a way to more equitably allocate resources in our sidewalk repair program,” he explained. They used data from calls to Boston’s 311 service – a phone number for citizens to report non-urgent issues – along with other social vulnerability measures to respond to requests more equitably. “It was also a teaching moment that most of the inequalities in our city are systemic,” Carter said. “They are deeply rooted in the practices, program design, policies and law of the past. ”

A place at the table

“What is of most concern about transport and actions is simply the fact that none of these communities have been at the table,” said Heidy Persaud, director of transportation equity at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based organization focused on urban sustainability.

But that is changing, Persaud said. “There is now an interest in listening and really engaging when it hasn’t necessarily been there before.”

City leaders and non-governmental organizations agree that community engagement is key to achieving greater equity. “We have learned that we must partner with BIPOC communities to co-create policies and design our data and Technology programs and projects, ”said Portland, Ore., Smart City PDX Director Kevin Martin in his response to the survey, referring to Black, Indigenous and Colored communities.

Likewise, Emily Yates, Director of Smart City of Philadelphia, said in response to the survey, “There must be new ways to engage the Philadelphia community early on in our processes, and the city is working hard. to identify partnerships that can help with this. . “

In San Antonio, Brian Dillard, chief innovation officer, responding to the survey, said that in developing the city’s digital equity roadmap, “We are committed 140+ community entities through interviews, inventory survey and focus groups “as well as other research.” Ultimately, our initiatives will bridge the digital divide for key segments of the population, including households, students, the elderly, veterans, people with disabilities, the workforce, telemedicine and the justice system, ”said Dillard.

Libero Della Piana, senior strategist at Just Strategy, noted in an interview that “often it’s low-tech solutions that already exist, and are at hand, that can answer these fairness questions.” For example, he said, “An investment in public transport is an investment in a sustainable world, and it is also an investment in communities of color and underserved communities because they use public transport. common more than anyone. “

Persaud said that since large construction projects take time, it is important to undertake smaller, cheaper and shorter projects in the meantime, such as parking for bicycles or space for pedestrians. “It creates goodwill,” she said. “It shows the community that you are already investing in them, and it will keep the interest and momentum going.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has been a strong advocate for the use of technology to tackle inequality, according to Jesse Bounds, director of the mayor’s office for innovation, in response to the survey. “The past five years have only served to heighten the urgency of all local governments to tackle these issues head-on,” he said.

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