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Four Key Points for Developing an Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Plan

For the past decade, the City of Chicago has used zoning policy to actively create dense walkable communities of homes, businesses, and services around transit. This strategy is commonly known as transit-oriented development (TOD). Developers in Chicago have been able to take advantage of these zoning incentives based on a project’s proximity to public transit. These incentives allow a developer to increase a building’s floor area while at the same time taking advantage of reduced off-street parking requirements with an average reduction of 74%.[1] TOD creates compact communities with more sustainable use of land and resources. For developers, reduced parking requirements lowers construction costs, but there are benefits for residents and property owners as well: for residents, TOD improves access to jobs and transit, and for property owners, TOD can enhance real estate values.

However, challenges remain. The wins from the 2013 TOD overlay ordinance have not been distributed equally throughout Chicago. Of all the TOD projects completed since 2013, 90% have been located on the North Side, Northwest Side, Downtown and around the West Loop.[2] Historically Black and Latino neighborhoods of the South and West sides of the city, including neighborhoods that were subject to racist redlining practices, have not witnessed significant development around transit. Furthermore, in areas where recent TOD projects have occurred, like Logan Square and Pilsen, the racial makeup has changed alongside it. Displacement of minority residents, including long-term residents, has too often become a consequence of the well-intentioned policy.[3]

That is why in 2020, the City announced that it was overhauling its TOD policy and adopting an Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) Policy Plan for developments near CTA and Metra stations. ETOD seeks the same outcome of TOD, but explicitly emphasizes leading with an equity lens to identify and address racial disparities to ensure equal access to opportunities, that transit is accessible, especially for the transit-dependent populations, and that new development maintains or improves the amount of affordable housing in historically marginalized communities. The policy framework also includes strategies for anti-displacement, climate resilience, community reinvestment, desegregation, economic growth, health equity, and wealth building.

As cities and towns strive to embed equity in their decision making, ETOD plans will continue to play a crucial role in ensuring equitable outcomes from investments in transit and TOD projects. There are a few key points for making successful ETOD plans.

Set Goals and Metrics for Equity Early

Successful ETOD plans embrace a holistic view of factors that form a community’s vision for the future. It is crucial to define these goals early in the process to set clear and consistent markers for measurement. If you don’t plan for equitable outcomes, it won’t happen. The content of each goal should reflect each community’s identity and characteristics. Some common topics of these goals include anti-displacement, preserving small businesses, and making equally accessible spaces and services.

In addition to establishing goals that define what equity means for a community, the planning process must also define what metrics should be measured to ensure that the goal is being met. Measurements should be tailored to the goals of the plan but can include some elements like,

  • How many new housing units should the ETOD policy produced, how many should be affordable?

  • What percentage of locally owned businesses will be preserved?

  • How will the plan define success?

Start by Listening

Thoughtful and honest public participation is crucial to the entire planning process. Just like any strategic planning process, public engagement for ETOD plans identify key stakeholders, develop a shared vision, and organize feedback. Several key takeaways for meaningful engagement in ETOD plans are,

  • Reach out to the community where they are. Highly formal and structured public engagement events draw community engagement but might not bring in all community voices. Any meaningful engagement must include efforts to reach out to the community where they are. This includes understanding and connecting with grassroots movements and soliciting feedback through these channels, versus ones directly organized by a client.

  • Discuss trade-offs honestly. Any planning decision that forms a selection between alternatives means there are trade-offs present. Honest discussion with stakeholders on the trade-offs between alternative outcomes is key to meaningful engagement and decision making.

Build Upon Past Plans

One of the first steps for an ETOD plan is to understand the history of a community and the forces that created the inequities that persist today. ETOD plans can help organize ambitious, yet realistic, goals to reduce these historic inequities. This is a crucial step to building meaningful community engagement in the process. Identifying proposed changes that have already been promised to a community but were never delivered is crucial to creating trust and evaluating priorities.

Learning from past plans can inform what has already been proposed and implemented or what concurrent plans or policies are in place that can support an ETOD plan. For example, a municipality may already have efforts underway to define equity and center an equity lens in other planning efforts, like in an overall comprehensive plan.

Prioritize Transit and TOD for the People Who Need it Most

Successful ETOD policy plans consider more than the amount of new housing and employment generated by proximity to transit. Policy is important to address equity, but a successful ETOD community is also a great place around transit where people want to be. Factors that affect a community’s wellbeing and identity are learned from meaningful community engagement, and can include topics like access to social services, including physical and mental health services, immigration services, or specialized education or job training. How the community creates an identify for itself through self-expression of local artists and supports entrepreneurs can also be key elements to a complete community.

Knowing and understanding the key components of an ETOD plan is crucial for planners who seek to bring the benefits of ETOD and positive change to their communities. With the passage of the Connected Communities Ordinance last summer by Chicago City Council, the City is taking a first crucial step to implementing the 2020 ETOD Policy Plan. Station Area Plans, which focus the goals and objectives of a community around individual stations, are already being developed for the Logan Square Blue Line CTA station but there are many other communities that can benefit by planning for ETOD.


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[1] City of Chicago. (2021). ETOD Full Policy Plan with Appendices (p. 8). Retrieved from [2] Ibid, pg. IV. [3] Ibid.


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