Dec 10, 2021 21 min read

Confronting Community History to Inspire Equity Action - With Joel Dock

"There has to be a cultural shift in how we think about how we live." Joel Dock

Episode 20, 35 min listen

Joel Dock, of Louisville Kentucky, shares how owning the history of their city's planning process and the harm done from that process helped inspire his city to take action to make their community more equitable and more inclusive. Joel also shares about the process his team used and introduces us to a visualization and communication tool called StoryMaps. This conversation with Joel, reminds us that it is often not one big thing but a series of many small things layered over time, one on top of another, that helps us change inequitable systems, procedures, and policies.


Listen on Apple Podcasts   or    Listen on Spotify


Link to the StoryMap created by Joel and his team.

Link to Louisville's Comprehensive Plan, Plan 2040.

More information about StoryMaps.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein

Fresh Air Archive:  Interviews with Richard Rothstein

Opticos Design, Inc.

A past episode about work in Louisville, Kentucky: Making the Impossible Possible for Single Parents - with Cathe Dykstra


Joel is a Planning Coordinator for Louisville Metro Planning and Design Services. He graduated from the University of Louisville’s Department of Geographic and Environmental Sciences in 2013 where he concentrated in Urban and Regional Analysis. He was the recipient of the Lou Seig Award in Geography, as well as the Best Senior Thesis Award in 2013. Applying geographic methods to city planning, along with a knowledge of regulatory practices attained through his professional career has enabled Joel to develop a comprehensive understanding of how historic land use regulations have shaped modern city landscapes. Joel has recently taken on the role of coordinator for the Land Development Code reform. More information available here:



Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders, welcome. Today, we are happy to welcome Joel Dock. Joel is the Planning Coordinator for Louisville, Kentucky’s Metro Planning and Design Services. He’s recently taken on the role of coordinator for their land development code reform. Welcome, Joel. Thanks for joining us.

Joel Dock  00:53

Thank you, Ame. Thank you for having me on the program. It’s a pleasure to be here.

-Some Definitions

Ame Sanders  00:58

I used a few terms in there that not all of our listeners may be familiar with about what your job is and what you do. So can you tell us just some a little bit about what some of those terms mean and what you do? What it means to be a planning coordinator? What we’re talking about when we’re talking about the zoning and land development code.

Joel Dock  01:18

Of course. Zoning is an extremely complex issue and touches on many facets of our everyday life that we don’t normally think of. Zoning is a power granted to the cities from the state that allows the cities to create and group land areas into designations called zoning districts. Then from those zoning districts, planners create a set of rules and regulations here locally. We put those rules and regulations in what’s called the land development code. That land development code then breaks down how each one of those zoning districts or groups of land uses can be used, and how property within those districts can be designed.

So, in the state of Kentucky, we also have to have what’s called a comprehensive land use plan. Our comprehensive land use plan that was recently updated in 2018 is called Plan 2040. And Plan 2040 is our city’s master land use plan for guiding growth and development in the future. What’s really fantastic about Plan 2040 is that it has a housing equity focus element that hadn’t been used before that focuses on diversifying our housing stock, different types of housing, and really getting housing choice at the forefront of our land use decisions. I just wanted to highlight that because I think that’s really interesting about our comprehensive plan. So, our comprehensive plan guides where those districts are, and then the land development code says how those districts can and cannot be used.

-The Built Environment and Impact on Equity

Ame Sanders  03:07

So, I’m glad you brought up the work that you’ve done around the equity, because that’s how I found out about you and what led me to talk with you. One of the things I’d just like to ask you straight up is how can a city’s legacy built environment and their current zoning and land use regulations impact equity in a community?

Joel Dock  03:30

What we found through our research efforts on the land development code reform is not something that’s particularly unique to Louisville and is spread across the nation and cities internationally: the land development code and zoning codes have been used to intentionally separate people and places. Much of that early intention we have found evidence of racial roots and systematic racism codified within our zoning policies. So, as we move forward and we take out that language (racial covenants get disbarred, redlining folds) we still have this mechanism of zoning that perpetuates a lot of these initial ideas of segregation and separation of both people and places. So, without looking at our codes now, they may not say that these are intended to separate people from each other, but the lasting consequences of that initial historical intent still remains, specifically in our single-family zoning districts.

Ame Sanders  04:44

Yeah. So, Richard Rothstein, who wrote the Color of Law, I heard him speak and one of the things he said is that already there’s enough disparity in income and that African Americans have 60% of incomes of white people, but they have 5% of the wealth of while people. He attributes that very specifically to what he considers unconstitutional government housing policies. It’s interesting to hear you talk about how we think a lot about federal housing policy, but you just talked about how local policies can perpetuate that or how there can still be vestiges of that in our existing zoning and housing policies that can affect our legacy-built environment, but also the environment that we are building. One obvious question is, how do you use the work that you do to dismantle that and to address some of these equity issues?

Joel Dock  05:45

I like that you bring up Richard Rothstein and I like that you bring up federal housing policy. Richard Rothstein, in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air–we have this interview in our story map confronting racism in city planning and zoning–she asked him why he wrote Color of Law. He says in 2007, there were court cases in Seattle and in Louisville, regarding the school system and school assignment policies and in both the majority opinion and dissent, the justices stated that the racial patterns of segregation that existed in both Seattle and in Louisville were nothing more than self-segregating cities. He said, there’s a lot more to it. There’s a lot of federal housing policy. What we see from that point and moving forward is a lot of work on federal housing policy. There’s been a huge amount of work done at the local level on redlining and starting those conversations. There was a 20-year action plan for fair housing back in 2013 that outlined a lot of the issues that we continue to talk about. So, you know, what we saw is there is a huge amount of information out there on these federal policies and these federal housing programs, how could how do we tie back in the local level problem of zoning, and put all those things together to say, look, we have to care about zoning? Zoning is determining where you can and cannot live and where you can and cannot choose to live. We have to look at zoning. If we don’t look at zoning, I don’t think we’ll be able to solve and move forward with fully addressing what each city needs to provide housing to its community.

-Louisville's Plan 2040 and the Equity Story Map

Ame Sanders  07:52

So, let’s get back to the project that you worked on, because I think it’s so interesting to share that with the audience. Tell us what you’re doing in Louisville to address this and what your project that you worked on was all about.

Joel Dock  08:09

Yeah. Equity has been at the front of the minds of planners, I think for longer than planners are given credit for I believe. Single family zoning and minimum lot size has been something that has always been a concern of mine as a planner and what it does to separate communities by what type of home they live in or what type of home they can afford, or neighborhood they can live in. When Plan 2040 was adopted, we knew within Plan 2040 that we needed an equity component. We needed to really be intentional about what we’re doing and saying locally. So, we added that housing element. Around the same time, mid-2019, we had planning and design staff put together an Advancing Equity report where we highlighted some of these local issues. We highlighted redlining and racial covenants. We actually got into deed restrictions and modern-day deed restrictions that can essentially create the intended desired occupant for a neighborhood through socio-economic characteristics.

Then, we had a diagnosis of our land development code done by Opticos Design firm out of Berkeley, and that was in 2019 as well. They just said your zoning code is too complex. You’ve got too much single family zoning. It’s extremely limiting and you can’t deliver housing choice. As we’re doing all of this, we have the racial justice and social justice movements, really hitting home locally with the death of Breonna Taylor. As planners, we needed a manner in which to channel our own frustrations with our own profession and our own frustrations with the fact that we really wanted to dig into the initial intent behind zoning. We really wanted to expose that on a local level, because we knew there’s really not much path forward without fully acknowledging what a city has been responsible for and done leading up to this point. As planners, much of the racial justice movement is just acknowledging and confronting head on with intention what we wanted to set out to do. So, that’s where we started from. And this story map that we put together on confronting racism in city planning is the culmination of that effort to identify locally, our history, and our racially designed city through the intention of city policy, specifically zoning, and land use. It became very clear in our research and the work that we published what was done.

Ame Sanders  11:11

This is an important point and I want to visit this story map that you did. One of the things that you did, and I was quite impressed by it is, you looked back at the specific history of your community. Not just the general history that exists across the country, or some of the broader policies, but the specific ways that your community had evolved over time and the policies that had been put in place. That’s so important, because everybody’s community is different and their history can be different even though we share common elements of federal policy and perhaps even common norms and behaviors. Our specific local history can be different. I was so impressed that you took the time and effort to revisit that history and to do it in a way that you could share that with the community. So, talk to me a little bit about how you used that then within the community.

Joel Dock  12:19

You said something really significant. You said that we looked specifically at the local level what we had done. What’s really cool about our story map is that while we took a specific local look, I think what we did also translates and relates to other cities around the country. So, when we looked back historically at our land use policies, we see the origins of these policies, beginning with the racial segregation ordinances that took off across the South beginning with Baltimore 1910. Then, a number of other cities throughout the South and the West took on these policies. Louisville just happens to be one of them. In 1914, we enacted a racial segregation ordinance that said, a block occupied by majority white could not rent/lease/sell a house on that block to a person of color, and vice versa. So, it worked the other way against white people. That law was challenged up to the Supreme Court and Louisville became the landmark case Buchanan v. Warley in 1917. But this isn’t something that was particularly unique to Louisville. As we move forward to 1931 and the adoption of the comprehensive plan, we recognize that in 1926, the Euclid v. Ambler decision came out that recognized the constitutionality of zoning across the United States. So then around this same time period, you have a rush of cities to enact zoning regulations. They go out there and they find a planner like Louisville did. They find Harland Bartholomew to write and produce these plans.

What we’ve evidenced in our story map is that the intent behind these plans and the narrative and the terms used were extremely racially motivated when you look back at how these terms are used by these individuals like Bartholomew in other contexts, like speaking to the National Association of real estate boards in Toronto, Canada or when you’re looking at certain studies that are done. For instance, the 1932 study “The Negro Housing Problem in Louisville” when Harland Bartholomew just says, “If Black people simply had a desire for better accommodations, the slums would eliminate themselves.” So we had all of these things written in there that were also specific to Louisville, but this was happening all around the country. How we communicated this was through the story map and making sure that all of the information that we sourced that we cited was hyperlinked and sourced. When we mentioned the racial segregation ordinance, beginning with Baltimore 1910, right where it says Baltimore 1910, you can click on that and go to the study in Baltimore. When we’re looking at housing exclusion, and we’re talking about the 1950 comprehensive plan in that 1958 comprehensive plan, it says look to the country club district of Kansas City, Missouri. Well, we’ve got a link to the story from the public library in Kansas City, Missouri, that talks about the country club district.

So, the story map was this great way to put out a collection of information and to share with people what we know and what then they can take back to their cities and use our sources and use our information to then localize it for their own approach. We spoke to a group out of Tampa, Florida (I think, the city of Hillsborough) who caught wind of our work and produce their own confronting racism in the city of Hillsborough document where they looked back at the original planner and they looked back at how the code was written based on that narrative. They took it up to about the same timeline that we did–up until about racial covenants and deed restrictions, when we start seeing the land use language becoming less facially discriminatory and planners start using other policies to keep people out of areas, like parking requirements.

-Sharing Information and Confronting History

Ame Sanders  16:37

So, there’s a whole bunch of information that I want to unpack and a lot of facets of that that I want to talk through. So, one, you’ve talked about the ability for other communities to use the work that you’ve done as a benchmark or a reference, or a template for the kind of analysis that they could do of their own community. That is really important. So, we’ll include a link to your story map and to the information that you have developed and built so that other communities can have a look at that. But you talk about several other things, and I want to let it lead into our next discussion. One is that you’ve used it as a tool to educate and inform your community on this history and this legacy that you guys have and that we all have in our communities about this built environment and our policies and guidelines. So, I want to ask you two questions about that. One, do people understand this already or was this news to folks in your community?

Joel Dock  17:43

That’s a really interesting question. Do people know about this? I think that as a white male planner I don’t need to go out and tell Black people that they’ve been discriminated against historically. But I do have a lot of information to share and the story map has a lot of information to share with everyone whether they know information or not. It’s not good information to have thinking about all of the time. This is a document that goes very deep into our history and into content that not everyone fully understands and not everyone is fully okay with accepting as something that occurred. But, if we can put the information out there and have the support of the mayor’s administration and metro council, to share this information with the public for them to use and comment on, that’s an that’s an excellent resource for anybody to have.

I’ve done some talks at the University of Louisville and in one of the talks an individual asked (she lived in, you know, one of our more affluent communities) what can she do to convince her parents and her neighbors that something needs to be done different in the future with residential communities and with people? There has to be like a cultural shift in how we think about how we live. If the story map or my conversations can get people thinking about that, but then also have some information to use as they have those conversations with people, that’s a win for myself, for the department, and for the city as a whole.

-What About the Future?

Ame Sanders  19:44

So, conversations are a big step. And it’s very important for us to confront our history and acknowledge what has happened and for us to have a shared view of that. But it’s important that we actually take action as you’re already talking about. So, maybe you can spend a little time telling us about how this historical perspective and all the information that you gathered inspired your work in the project that you did and in how you’re moving forward in Louisville. Tell us about some of the things that you guys are putting in place.

Joel Dock  20:21

Having this background and this framework, we knew if we put this out and we publish this information and this history, we need to be very intentional about what we do and how we do it and who we speak to. So, there’s been a change within our department of intentionality. We have to do everything and we have to think intentionally about consequences. We have to use the Racial Equity Toolkit that we use for our ADU (our accessory dwelling unit regulation). So, what came out of this first round of land development code reform were options for housing choice, so accessory dwelling units. An accessory dwelling unit is a granny-flat, a mother-in-law suite, a carriage house. It’s a garage conversion in your back yard, second-story on a garage. Maybe it’s a basement apartment or an attic apartment. That was something that you previously had to ask for special permission to do and go through a rigorous public hearing process. Not only invest money in the application, but go through a process that’s a risk that you could be denied just to provide housing choice, invisible density, almost. We’re really proud that the accessory dwelling units ordinance was passed and you can now do accessory dwelling units with some special standards in all the single family residential districts.

We also did something with our notification requirements. Up until July of this year, when somebody goes to rezone a property or develop a piece of property and a public hearing is required, you were only required to notify owners and you weren’t required to notify anybody else. So, if you lived in an apartment next door or you lived in a home and rented the home next door, you will have you would have never gotten notice of development occurring near you. So, the ordinance was passed that requires that now notification goes to all current residents. So, for multifamily complexes with 100 units, every single one of those units is getting a notification of development. As far as awareness of development applications puts renters and homeowners on a level playing field to be involved and to have notice of events in their area. We also took away some regulatory barriers like floor-area ratio. Floor-area ratio can prevent an accessory dwelling unit and it can also prevent you from remaining in your home because you’re restricted on expanding. You want to renovate the basement. And you just had another kid; you’ve got three already. You want to renovate the basement and to do that it’s finished floor area, but your floor area is maxed out on your first and second floors and we say too bad, sorry for your family. I hope you find housing elsewhere or you rezone the property. So, we took away the FAR standard so we no longer have this unnecessary regulatory hurdle preventing people from renovating their homes or having an accessory dwelling. We also reduce the front setback in our residential districts. Our front setback was 30 feet–we required you to have 30 feet of yard. That requires you to maintain 30 feet of yard. Developers delay a 15 by 20-foot pad of concrete. So, we took that down to 15 feet, so now homes can be closer to roads.

It’s a really small thing, but when you add it together with a lot of other policies, these little small things start making huge differences in how we envision the community developing in the future. There’s five and urban agriculture. So, we formalized urban agriculture as a permitted use on any lot in Louisville. Previously urban agriculture had to take place on a five-acre lot. Now, you can do urban agriculture on vacant residential lots. So, that was a big win for local food economy, food deserts, and sustainable production of your own your own produce. So those were six actionable items that that we did immediately with the development code reform and we’ve got another 40 on our website of items that we’ll be pursuing over the next several years. I don’t know that there’s an end to this. I think we’re going to just keep working at it.

Ame Sanders  25:00

So, I like the six that you picked as examples, and the reason I like them is because they’re examples of different kinds of things. The first one was an example of choice and perhaps affordability when you talk about accessory dwelling units and increasing your density. The second one put people on even footing, so it made information more equitable to the community. The one about the floor-area ratio, it removed something that was pretty unnecessary that had been layered in over time and that you guys have found was unnecessary and inhibited that equity that you wanted to achieve. And then the urban agriculture offered some opportunity for people to overcome some barriers and things that they faced every day in their community. I think that those were good examples because what it pointed out is sometimes it’s not a single big change that makes the difference. We did not get to these policies that are inequitable with a single big change. We did it by layering on over and over and over again, inequitable choices and inequitable decisions. And so, we will need to dismantle it in a similar fashion. One by one by one, sometimes things that on their face don’t even look inequitable and people may not think create equity issues, but if you look at it with an equity lens, you realize it creates disparities. So those are really good examples.

Joel Dock  25:38

Yeah. And I couldn’t agree more with what you said there. One of the things that I might add to that is in 1931, all of a sudden there’s no zoning, and then there’s zoning. And then now 100 years or 90 years removed from that, we have a different idea of what zoning is and what it’s used for and I think people are removed from this original intent and the underpinnings of what went into the initially codified policies that were very exclusionary. Over time, the zoning codes were changed and we went from 10 districts to now 30-something districts, but the initial ideas of separation of people and places and uses still remains, but we think about it differently than we used to. As planners, we’re now taking an extreme and intentional look at equity in all of these policies as we start to amend things and doing it in a way that is approachable. I think policy number 50, recommendation 50 out there in our long-term policy is inclusionary zoning. What can we do to require or incentivize as you develop to mandate you provide affordable housing? That’s a hard conversation to have, but we’ll have it.

Ame Sanders  28:05

I think that this brings up another facet of this. So first, I want to applaud you for the work that you’ve been doing and that Louisville has done. I know it isn’t something you’ve done by yourself. You’ve had a lot of partners in this in the community and I know it hasn’t been easy. So, taking on, just as you described, these policies that can be sensitive, can change how people perceive the properties that they’ve invested in or own and where they live, and they feel can have an effect positive or negative on that. It’s not easy. We know this work is hard. Having the benefit of time of having gone through this and done so much work on this already, if communities wanted to tackle this, what would you recommend as a way for them to start? What are three or four things that they should think about doing?

-How to Get Started

Joel Dock  28:57

Just start. Just do it. The benefit of our planning staff is that our director creates such a safe environment for planners to express their real opinions, and then us as planners to work on those ideas. Without a director leading and championing this effort and without great staff members–I can’t thank folks like Rachel Mandell and Nia Holt who started this with me. Nia going all the way back to the Advancing Equity Report. Rachel Mandell taking over when Nia Holt left and the many other planners that worked on it. You need to be motivated to do it and you have to have a passion do it. I wouldn’t suggest any city take this on if you’re not willing to take it on and confront it wholehearted and with real intent to do it. I think you just have to start. If there’s a champion in your council, or legislative body or an administrator that can get behind it and make that push to get it over the edge, that’s a good place to start as well. Most importantly, if you’re passionate about ensuring that communities are equitable in the future and as planners, that we act with intent to reduce barriers to equity, you just need to start the work.

Ame Sanders  30:25

So just start and just do it. What has been the most difficult part of this work for you and for Louisville? Maybe it’s not the same thing. Maybe it’s something difficult for you, and then something difficult for Louisville, but maybe it’s the same?

-Rebuilding Trust

Joel Dock  30:39

That’s a really tough question. On a very personal or professional level, the most difficult thing has just been time and resources allocated towards working on this project. This isn’t a project we went out and hired a consultant to do. This is a project that planners within the office were passionate about and dedicated to, and we were willing to work extra hard and outside of our normal responsibilities to work on this. I think that really shows in the work that we do. We’re not just producing work. We are doing something that we are invested in. We are in this till the end I think, and we’re going to keep working at equity. The challenges that we face are not particularly unique. I mean, trust in government, lack of trust in government is a big thing. We have to just keep showing up in communities that have been marginalized in communities that have been disenfranchised from the planning process, communities of color, low income neighborhoods, minority neighborhoods, immigrant communities. We just have to keep showing up and keep asking for input and keep sharing what we know. I think it’s important–and I find this to be important in some of the talks that I do from time to time on this work–is that it’s important for us not to just go tell people things. We have to really be genuine about sharing what we know. I think that’s what we’ve done a good job of so far, but we need to get better and we need to start really getting to know people and getting to know what they need and sharing what we know and putting that all together. I think the biggest challenge is trust.

Ame Sanders  32:26

There are so many other things I could ask you about, but I think I’m going leave it with these last two points because I do believe that today, as much as ever, there is an issue of lack of trust in government. Sometimes that is better locally, but not always. So, working to rebuild that trust, having honest conversations, sharing information, confronting your history, and acknowledging that honestly goes a long way towards rebuilding that trust. You are exactly the kind of conversation I love to have on the State of Inclusion podcast, which is to talk to people and understand what people are doing who are passionate about seeing equity improve in their community. Who every day wake up with their job, or their volunteer work, or their engagement in the community in finding a way to move it forward in lots of different, small and big ways to make their community more equitable. So I think I’ll just leave it with those two things, because that’s a great way to end this. So thank you, Joel, for your time this afternoon. I really appreciate you talking with us.

Joel Dock  33:34

Thank you very much for having me.


Ame Sanders  33:36

That was a great conversation with Joel Dock. We learned so many important things from that conversation, but in particular, we took time to talk about what it means to own your own community’s history and what that might look like. They did it through a project of creating a story map, a powerful way for them to look back at their city’s planning process and to own the history and the harm that was done from that, but then to use it to inspire action to make their community more equitable and more inclusive. He also reminded us that sometimes, it is not one big thing, but a series of many small things layered over time, one on top of another that will help us change those systems, procedures, and policies.

If you’re impressed as I was by the work that’s going on in Louisville, Kentucky, you might want to listen to an older episode, where I interviewed Cathe Dykstra of the Family Scholar House, the interview “Making the Impossible Possible for Single Parents.” It was just another example of how Louisville is working across their community to create opportunities and improve equity for everyone in their city.

This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time, and if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others or leave us a review. We’d love your comments. Thanks so much for listening.


Guest: Joel Dock

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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