Denver's Regional Equity Atlas: Improving Urban Planning With Equity Data

Data can, and should, play a central role in urban planning. In Denver, CO, the Denver Regional Equity Atlas overlays educational, income, health, and other equity metrics on the new transit network to paint a picture of how transit impacts equity. As a result, the Atlas has helped advocates fight for better transit access, strengthen existing partnerships and engage new partners. The Atlas continues to be an important organizing tool.

Using Data to Advocate for Transit

Transit routes that help connect people to the places in which they work are particularly important for low-income families, who heavily rely on public transportation. Using data from the Atlas, advocates were able to save a bus route that served low-income residents but had been slated for closure when the city’s new light rail service opened. Coalition coordinator Davian Gagne says, “The Equity Atlas helped us understand which communities we needed to be prioritizing for outreach and where bus services routes had the highest level of impact.”

Bringing Partners Together

Mile High Connects, the creator of the original Atlas, sees it as one of the most fundamental tools in forming their equity collaborative. A partnership between private, public, and nonprofit organizations that are committed to developing inclusive, affordable and livable communities within walking distance of public transit, Mile High Connects engaged new partners through the original Atlas. As Dace West, Director of Mile High Connects says, “The first Atlas was a static map and it was instrumental in bringing people to the table, especially the philanthropic community, which hadn’t been as involved in equity work until then. It was a way to invite our public sector partners to take a look at some of the other actions taking place around the region.”

The Atlas is now in its second iteration as an online interactive tool that creates custom maps and summaries of statistics for particular interest areas in the region. The online tool was launched in partnership between Mile High Connects and the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the regional planning office, along with the Piton Foundation. The planning agency hosts the website and the foundation created the data engine and open data framework that makes the data accessible and sharable. A Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sustainable Communities Initiative Grant allowed these groups to deepen their relationship and have joint ownership over the Atlas. 

The Atlas also facilitates data sharing and coordination between the two, a benefit that will lead to more equitable long-term planning. “The Equity Atlas is a piece of the story and through the Sustainable Communities Initiative Grant there are a number of ways we are interacting with our MPO, including a longer term Memorandum of Understanding to preserve the work we have done together,” said West. “Over several months, we’ve had the opportunity to explore more ways in which we can work together that go even beyond the Atlas.”

Now that the Atlas is online, Mile High Connect is looking to respond more directly to the interests and needs of their partner organizations, especially when it comes to the data they are most interested in and that they access most frequently. The maps created through the Atlas help provide a visual tool to help advocates make the case for areas that need fresh food or transit connection from housing to job centers, for example. West say, “The Atlas has really provided the ability to visually represent where some of those mismatches are happening.”

A Tool for Organizing Communities

The Atlas can also be an important tool in organizing communities. Stephen Moore, a policy analyst at FRESC, uses the Atlas with community leaders so they can map their own communities and see what impact developments can have on their communities. When a development is proposed, Moore can show community leaders what happened in similar communities. Moore said, “We can show the displacement caused in other communities and say, ‘here’s some information about what these communities used to look like and what they look like now. The median house cost has increased and demographics have shifted. Looking at that neighborhood and looking at your own, what do you think about the kind of displacement that is likely to take place?”

By providing a visual understanding of the change taking place in the City, the Denver Regional Equity Atlas is helping advocates shape how they want their communities, and region, to look and advancing equity through smart, community based urban planning.