Infrastructure investments aren’t neutral. New highways, buildings, parks and other built environment projects can bolster connections and economic gains for some, while inflicting deep, multi-generational harms on others. The impact of Urban Renewal in the 1950s and 1960s is one of many examples of how harmful planning has destroyed vibrant communities – often communities of color and working class white neighborhoods. People’s wellbeing hasn’t been a focus, and systemic racism and other forces have led to some voices being amplified while others are underheard.
Patrick McNeal of the North Flint Neighborhood Action Council outlines the harms wrought by infrastructure projects on communities of color – and how we can begin to heal by building wellbeing into our environments moving forward.
If we want to avoid the harms of the past and meet the future’s challenges, we must build in new ways that create equitable access to wellbeing. Doing so hinges on our ability to measure the potential impact of projects on wellbeing, as well as how those impacts are distributed within communities. That’s why FFI developed The Wellbeing Insights, Assets & Tradeoffs Tool (WIATT).
WIATT is designed for use when there is a significant public good project that will be undertaken, such as the extension of a public transit line. With WIATT, we illuminate how an infrastructure or built environment project will impact access to wellbeing for different constituencies, so that plans can be adjusted and improved.
Imagine a future where people’s wellbeing is the starting place for how decisions are made about what, where, when and even whether we build. WIATT is a step towards that future.”
Access to wellbeing is forged at the intersection of people and systems – which is also where structural racism, homophobia, sexism and additional otherings collide. Historically, the gains promised by investments in the built environment haven’t been shared equitably, and neither have the harms. By considering tradeoffs – the costs to people’s wellbeing that come with a proposed change – WIATT seeks to counter our history of concentrating and accelerating harms in communities already facing the greatest adversity. WIATT helps to illuminate community assets such as social infrastructure (defined as “the physical places, and the organizations that have a physical plant, that shape our capacity to interact with one another” by Eric Kleinenberg). Spaces such as farmers’ markets, libraries and public pools are important to the wellbeing of a community and yet could be threatened by whatever is going to come next. Ensuring that social infrastructure with high wellbeing value isn’t eliminated in pursuit of projects with high economic value is vital to helping to absorb the shocks that come with major changes.
A driving challenge undergirding our failure historically to center people’s wellbeing in planning decisions is the reality that some voices are valued and heard more than others in decision-making. Part of what makes WIATT unlike other tools is how it goes beyond traditional community engagement methods in order to uplift assets that are valuable to community wellbeing that should be preserved and reinforced as part of the planning process. To ensure data are gathered by, with and for residents and impacted people, credible messengers within the community are key to administering surveys where respondents provide information about the wellbeing benefits and tradeoffs of a proposed infrastructure project. Respondents are also invited to uplift community assets that contribute to wellbeing domains like safety, belonging, purpose, connections and more. As a tech tool, WIATT is able to gather and analyze tens of thousands of survey responses, allowing true participation from the community in the process. Respondents’ demographic data are compared with Census data to ensure certain populations are not over- or under-sampled, and survey results aren’t viewable until representation is reached. The insights WIATT surfaces can help ensure planning reflects a community’s diversity – not just the few loud voices who can show up for community meetings and feedback sessions.
WIATT is a mindset, a method and a movement to illuminate how a infrastructure or built environment project will impact access to wellbeing for different constituencies, so that plans can be adjusted and improved.
The WIATT mindset shifts how we do planning so that work is done by and with community with an explicit focus on wellbeing, context and history.
The WIATT method is a partnership between government and community leads to gather insights, assets and tradeoffs on a proposed infrastructure project.
The WIATT movement is a national cohort of first movers who are working together to create broader systems change by shifting how we design and build our country.
In summer 2022, The Opportunity Project, part of the US Census Bureau’s Open Innovation Labs, invited FFI to develop a tech and data-centric response to the lack of wellbeing indicators used to assess community health and vibrancy. We rapidly constituted national advisory councils of federal policy, urban planning and infrastructure experts as well as community changemakers with lived expertise from around the country. For a list of our incredible partners and contributors, click here.
We’re thrilled to have received an extraordinary grant from The Gordon and Llura Gund 1993 Foundation to partner with four cities to use WIATT as part of the planning of major projects as a beta test. Stay tuned for more info.
No matter who you are, your attention matters. If your city or community is about to make a major investment in infrastructure, like expanding a transit line or tearing down an elevated interstate, it’s possible that many who will be most impacted might be underheard. Whether or not you use WIATT, please ask questions about how different voices are being heard, what decisions are being based on and how what’s being built reverses harms of the past. And if you happen to be in a group whose voice is often heard more than others, use your position to call for diverse voices and different kinds of community engagement. Your voice and your advocacy can influence whether or not we’re building for wellbeing.
Senchel Matthews, FFI's associate director of built environment, writes about how the planning community can repair harms of the past to create a more just future in an article for Planning Magazine.
In an article for Medium, FFI Founder and CEO Katya Fels Smyth shares a new name for an enduring phenomenon: wellbeing stripping. Because it's not just financial assets that are often drained from communities that can least afford it, as part of major development or public good projects.
We participated in an important conversation that explored how investing in the built environment can be used as a lever for decriminalizing mental illness, increasing public safety, enhancing civic participation, addressing inequities and improving public health