Concepts such as equity and inclusion have become ubiquitous in policy and planning documents in recent decades, but when used, they remain mostly undefined and underexplored. "Our Diversity Is Our Strength: Explaining Variation in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Emphasis in Municipal Arts and Cultural Plans," in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 88, No. 2), focuses on how such terms figure in municipal cultural plans and vary based on various demographic, economic, and temporal characteristics. Carolyn G. Loh and three colleagues find that cultural planning often deploys the terms rather loosely and without much depth or evidence, and recommend urban planners take a more active role in practically advancing those principles.
To understand what kinds of cities and which circumstances produce plans that emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the authors compiled 64 municipal arts and cultural plans and performed content analyses and statistical regressions to understand how they varied.
The results of the content analysis portion of the study indicated that cultural plans referenced "diversity" (96 percent, or all but one plan) much more than "equity" (30 percent). But even when mentioned, the terms often went unscrutinized or undemonstrated: For example, although 75 percent of plans mentioned "inclusion," only 30 percent mentioned specific efforts to include marginalized groups in the plan's process.
Table 6. The results of the study's four regression models, showing how characteristics about the cultural plans and about the cities in which they were developed relate to their emphases.
For the regression models, the authors gathered explanatory variables both internal to the plan (for example, year it was adopted) and external to it (city-level variables such as percent nonwhite and size), developing four models each with a different dependent or outcome variable: one for each of diversity, equity, and inclusion, plus one covering DEI as a whole.
Across the models, the variables most consistently associated with DEI emphasis were the recency of the plan and the city's nonwhite population. Based on the findings from both of the study's components, the authors conclude "although many plans mentioned aspects of DEI, fewer proposed policies or actions that would make meaningful differences," and that when concrete actions were proposed, they often "demonstrated less awareness of how arts and cultural resources are distributed" across social groups and across a city.
Arts and cultural planning has been increasingly recognized as an important subfield due to its bearing on a city's ability to lure tourists and knowledge-based firms and workers, which in turn may determine its development prospects and overall economic fortunes. The authors predicted plans in cities with stronger creative economy sectors would more likely emphasize DEI, "because these plans often double as marketing tools to attract knowledge economy companies," an apt supposition despite the study's narrow inability to statistically support it.
As economic, political, and social justice goals are more and more intertwined, values like diversity and equity are projected and instrumentalized by cities to enhance their financial attractiveness and bottom line. But too often, the authors point out, the people who helped build and who constitute those desirable cultural attributes are ignored and experience disinvestment.
However, by avoiding vagueness, deepening participation in cultural planning processes, and making actionable and equitable recommendations, municipal arts and cultural plans can be worth more than just the hackneyed terms they use.
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About the author
Akiva Blander is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.