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Youth in Atlanta and Chicago Find Common Themes on Urban Inequity

Atlanta — Aug 31, 2020

A pandemic, record unemployment, and demonstrations demanding greater equity.

As complicated as the times are for most adults, some teenagers are coping and adjusting in ways that channel their passions into their own communities. ARC’s Model Atlanta Regional Commission (MARC) is one way that young people can dip their toes into the planning that shapes the world around them.

From Activism to Action

This summer, MARC paired up with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) for a special session of CMAP’s Future Leaders in Planning (FLIP) Summer Series. Over several months, the two programs worked closely on what was MARC’s first collaboration outside the Atlanta region. Everything from the session objectives to the panelists were chosen carefully to focus on inequities in the urban planning context.

Those panelists included:

  • Cindy Cambray, Associate Planner at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (Chicago)
  • Kristen Cook, Just Growth Manager at Partnership for Southern Equity (Atlanta)
  • Chandra Christmas-Rouse, Program Officer at Enterprise Community Partners (Chicago)
  • Tonika Johnson, founder of the Folded Map Project (Chicago)
  • Sam Shenbaga, Community Development Group Manager, Atlanta Regional Commission (Atlanta)

To contextualize the discussion, the session began with some history on the practice of redlining. Students from Atlanta and Chicago broke into small groups to discuss the history of redlining in their own hometowns.

“The collab session was extremely eye-opening,” said Nicolas Miranda of Harvester Christian Academy in Douglasville. “These revelations [about 20th century planning and its impact on urban homeowners] make me want to learn more about these disparities and how to fix them in future planning.”

Watch the full session here. Below are some highlights from the conversation:

Relationship-building is the key to progress

A history of legal segregation, redlining, and the resulting wealth gaps created very visible divides between neighborhoods.

“The only way to make progress is relationship-building,” said Tonika Johnson, founder of Chicago-based Folded Map Project. Her project aims to build those relationships by bringing together people from “sister” neighborhoods across Chicago.

By picking twin addresses on either side of the map “fold,” – i.e., 6900 N Ashland vs. 6900 S Ashland – Johnson uses photos, art, and dialogue to breach the divide and spark sometimes awkward but necessary conversations between neighbors.

Panelist Chandra Christmas-Rouse of Enterprise Community Partners agreed with the Fold the Map approach. “We are celebrating ourselves for no longer redlining, or no longer discriminating,” she said. “But it’s very clear the relationship building was never done. It’s not enough to just stop doing the harm, but what does it mean to tend to the wound that was never created and exasperated by policies built with the same logic?.”

Planning can be used to help heal urban wounds

One theme emerged from the discussion on how planning can help fix issues in communities: listening to those communities.

Panelist Sam Shenbaga, ARC’s Manager of Community Development, pointed out that too often, planning can turn into a check-the-box process that allows community to react to plans, but doesn’t give them a foundational role in actually building the plan.

The opposite approach goes beyond mere outreach, said panelist Cindy Cambray of CMAP. Meeting people where they are and involving those typically disenfranchised are keys to getting to the heart of real issues in the community.

“I go back to, ‘What are the values of the community?’ and starting the conversation there, so we have a shared understanding of what we’re building toward,” said Christmas-Rouse.

Gentrification is a symptom, not the disease

Planning and development often invoke the specter of gentrification for people most vulnerable to displacement. But Folded Map’s Johnson argued that it’s the wrong thing to focus on.

“The issue is that investment should not follow a specific population, and in Chicago, that specific population has consistently been young, white families and professionals,” she said. By holding elected officials accountable, communities can demand that historically disinvested neighborhoods receive attention before they are gentrified, and that responsible development pays attention to community needs.

Christmas-Rouse of Enterprise Community Partners agreed that gentrification is a symptom: “We have to focus on the systems in place and their proximity to power and whiteness and how it formulates the symptom of gentrification.” Panelists pointed to community benefit agreements and shared ownership models as some tools to ensure that legacy residents are able to stay in their neighborhoods even when investments and new residents begin to trickle in.

The youth must lead the charge

The session wrapped up with panelists offering advice for the aspiring leaders in the audience. Broadly, this advice came down to learning and education: taking opportunities to connect with individuals that have shared passions but different lived experiences. Students looking toward regional leadership should also learn about their community’s history, as well as the broader history of structural inequities that show up in urban planning.

Young leaders should ask themselves how they can work in their communities to decide what urban planning should be, said Christmas-Rouse, without being bound by the limitations of what it already is.

In metro Atlanta, high school students will have another opportunity to experience the world of regional planning with the next MARC class beginning in October. Find out more about what past MARC classes have learned at

Contact Name: Junior Knox