Making Capital Improvement Planning More Equitable in St. Paul

Author: Tom Kingsley
Date Posted: June 15, 2017

Do cities distribute their capital improvement funds equitably across neighborhoods? It is hard to find a good answer to that question anywhere. Why? Because, given the hard work and definitional complexity involved, cities almost never maintain their records in a way that allow them to easily add up their investment totals by neighborhood. Working with the East Side Neighborhood Development Company (ESNDC) in St. Paul, the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota (CURA) assembled data for the first time on capital allocations by neighborhood, demonstrating the feasibility and power of analyzing public investments. Their analysis brought greater transparency to city spending, prompted policy reforms in selecting capital projects, and motivated improved data collection for easier tracking of spatial patterns in the future.

The ESNDC focuses its revitalization work in the poorest neighborhoods of St. Paul – all communities of color. For years, the organization voiced concerns that those neighborhoods might not be receiving a fair share of City capital investment, which funds community facilities, streets and utilities, and residential and economic development. However, they had not been able to get the attention of decisionmakers, so ESNDC asked CURA to obtain the necessary data and study the issue. CURA assembled the data on the City Capital Improvement Budget from 2006 to 2015, a total of $256 million. After an arduous process that required them to review information from several sources, they assigned the locations of all neighborhood-focused projects to one of St. Paul’s 17 planning districts (four of those districts make up the city’s “east side”).

Released in September 2016, the CURA report came as something of a shock. It showed that, at least by one measure, St. Paul capital allocations were far from equitable. The east-side districts, which account for 34 percent of the City’s population, had received only 19 percent of its capital spending over the decade.

Why was that a surprise? Because St. Paul has long prided itself in having one of the most inclusive capital planning processes in the country. Substantial efforts are made to meaningfully engage neighborhood residents – especially the residents of distressed neighborhoods – in planning and setting spending priorities. The CURA study showed that, even when residents are actively engaged, substantial gaps in results, at least on a per capita basis are possible.

Exactly equal per capita spending by neighborhood every year is not an appropriate objective, but commmunities should ask themselves: "What is a fair allocation of capital spending?" CURA's analysis ignited this broader conversation. After reviewing the study, the St. Paul City Council passed a resolution on September 28th calling for the Capital Improvement Budget Committee to work with the City Finance Department and, beginning in 2018-19, tabulate plans by geography, and explicitly include geographic equity in the rating system. As projects are input into the data system in the planning phase, staff will also record the information they have about which Planning District the project is located in.

ESNDC reports that the study has put the issue on the short list of hot button issues for the next mayoral election, and a number of grassroots groups are using the study to demand attention for investments in their communities. CURA’s analysis helped elected officials recognize the need to improve the city’s ongoing process of data collection and reporting. This change will enable government agencies and advocates to examine city investment with a common understanding of the spending patterns, without the laborious data assembly that CURA undertook.

In May 2017, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership conferred the inaugural G. Thomas Kingsley Impact Award to the Center for Urban Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota for this analysis of infrastructure by neighborhoods. The award recognizes an NNIP Partner organization who has demonstrated impact using neighborhood data to improve local policy and practice to benefit low-income communities.

This story was written by staff at the Urban Institute, drawn from documents and interviews with the East Side Neighborhood Development Company. CURA is the Twin Cities partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.

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