Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable, The Kresge Foundation, and Barr Foundation.
Cities@Tufts Lectures explores the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice.
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Below is the audio, video, and full transcript from a presentation on October 6, 2021, “The New Rules of (Planning) Engagement: Restructuring planning processes to ensure inclusive decision-making and equitable outcomes” with Melissa Peters.
Public participation in the local planning and development process has not been representative of the broader community. Conventional planning processes amplify the voices of the privileged few and exacerbate social inequities. Local governments and planners have an ethical obligation to ensure processes are inclusive and equitable.
This presentation will discuss concrete examples of how planners can critically examine land use policy and public engagement tools to ensure inclusive decision-making and equitable outcomes. The talk will highlight case studies from Cambridge, MA, including the recently passed Affordable Housing Overlay and the City’s Community Engagement Team, as ways to change the rules of engagement for a more equitable future.
Listen to “The New Rules of (Planning) Engagement: Restructuring planning processes to ensure inclusive decision-making and equitable outcomes” on the Cities@Tufts Podcast (or on the app of your choice):
Watch the video:
“The New Rules of (Planning) Engagement…” Transcript
Melissa Powers: [00:00:06] So we all know that the built environment is a product of white supremacy. Black and Brown Americans are more likely to be struck and killed walking, are more likely not to own their home, suffer from transportation related air pollution. And as we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, are more likely to have negative outcomes.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:00:28] Could Rio’s favelas offer a sustainable housing model for cities around the world? What are the impacts of overpolicing Black mobility in the U.S.? Are $16 tacos leading to gentrification and the emotional, cultural, economic and physical displacement it produces. These are just a few of the questions we’ll be exploring on this season of Cities@Tufts Lectures, a weekly free event series and podcast where we explore the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice. I’m your host, Tom Llewellyn. In addition to this audio, you can watch the video and read the full transcript of this lecture and discussion on sharable.net. And while you’re there, get caught up on all of our past lectures. And now here’s Professor Julian Agyeman, who will welcome you to the Cities@Tufts Fall Colloquium and introduce today‘s lecturer.
Julian Agyeman: [00:01:26] Hello and welcome to the cities at Tufts Wednesday colloquium, along with our partners Sharable and the Kresge Foundation. I’m Professor Julian Agyeman and together with my research assistant Perri Sheinbaum and Caitlin McLennan, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative, which recognizes Tufts as a leader in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability issues.
[00:01:51] We’d like to acknowledge that Tufts University’s Medford campus is located on colonized Wampanoag and Massachusetts territory. Today, we are beyond delighted to welcome 2008 UEP alumna Melissa Peters, AICP. Melissa is the director of Community Planning for the Community Development Department at the City of Cambridge. In her position, she manages a group of planners and urban designers responsible for long range planning with a focus on comprehensive neighborhood and open space planning. Melissa previously worked for CDM Smith in Chicago and Boston, developing comprehensive neighborhood sustainability and climate change plans for municipalities nationwide. She is an award-winning and passionate planner, skilled in creating integrated urban solutions that balance goals of diverse planning disciplines.
[00:02:41] Her talk today is The New Rules of “Planning” Engagement…I’m playing with that because there’s a brackets around the word planning, The New Rules of “Planning” Engagement: Restructuring planning processes to ensure inclusive decision making and equitable outcomes.” Sounds like a UEP thesis, Melissa, and we’d like to give you a zoom-tastic welcome to the Cities@Tufts colloquium. Melissa…
Melissa Powers: [00:03:06] Great. Thank you so much, Julian, it’s so great to be here. You can take the planner out of UEP, but you always have that thread of social justice and equity and all that we do. So really excited to be here today. So before I dive into the topic at hand, I wanted to give a little bit of background about myself. As Julian mentioned, I graduated in 2008, so thirteen years ago and went to Tufts UEP as someone interested in environmental policy and planning and sustainability planning.
[00:03:38] I interned at the city of Cambridge from 2006 to 2008. I actually worked on the city’s first Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Climate Action Plan. And from that experience, I was able to get my first job out of grad school at a full–service environmental engineering firm, CDM Smith and worked there for about seven years doing environmental planning, infrastructure planning, a lot of environmental impact statements, climate change planning. And also got experience doing more sustainability and comprehensive planning during the 2008 Great Recession, when some stimulus money came for municipalities to do more broad–based planning. And it was that experience that really opened my world to more traditional land use planning and then was able to get that experience and ultimately brought me back to Cambridge in 2015, and I was hired to manage the city’s comprehensive planning process, Envision, Cambridge, and was in that role for about three years and then got promoted to director of community planning. And now my division that oversees all the long–range planning for the city, city-wide neighborhood and open space planning. And we have a team of about 10 planners and urban designers.
[00:04:57] So excited to be here today to talk about practical steps planners can take to ensure planning processes listen to all community members and that decision–making results and equitable outcomes. So I wanted to do that by providing some real life Cambridge examples to give an overview of how this can be done in practice. First, to kind of set the stage, I think this is not earth shattering, but these are typically what our public meetings look like. It’s not representative. You’ll see it’s predominantly white male homeowners, older residents, and these people have a disproportionate voice in the city process. They are socioeconomically advantaged and they have a benefit in maintaining the status quo. And so, as you know, they aren’t going to propose changes that will help to undo some of the systemic inequities that we see in the built environment.
[00:05:57] This chart that I show here on this slide comes from data that Boston University professors collected for their book Neighborhood Defenders, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. And they catalogued who were the people that were coming to the planning board and zoning board meetings and speaking at meetings. And you’ll see in that first column, it was predominantly male, white people, over 50 and homeowners. And when you compare that to who our Cambridge population is you’ll see a significant disparity. I think of note is we in Cambridge have a very young population or average age is thirty four and seventy five percent of people at public meetings are over the age of 50, compared to twenty two percent of the Cambridge population. Similarly, for homeowners out-represent renters, which are predominantly renters in Cambridge. And then, of course, from sex and race as well.
[00:06:56] So we all know that the built environment is a product of white supremacy. Black and Brown Americans are more likely to be struck and killed walking, are more likely not to own their home, suffer from transportation related air pollution. And as we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, are more likely to have negative outcomes. Cambridge is not immune to this, so I want to provide a couple of data points on what this is like in Cambridge as well.
[00:07:26] So this is a map of historic redlining districts, and you can see also where current affordable housing locations are. So as a product of where we’ve zoned single family versus multifamily housing, we’ve kept affordable housing to certain parts of the city. You’ll also see here that incomes and poverty rates are unequal across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Brown Americans make less and have higher poverty rates than our white Americans. And here you’ll see that there’s even climate inequities that result from this.
[00:08:00] So our lower income neighborhoods, which you can see by the pink boundaries census tracts, those are more likely to have less tree canopy than our higher income neighborhoods in the yellow areas, which have higher tree canopy. And a similar pattern is shown when we look at flood risks as well. And also, data from neighborhood defenders from Boston University professors, we know that the people who do come to meetings, we know they’re not representative, but they also oppose development that could address issues that would help address some of these inequities. So you see that white homeowners are more likely to oppose multifamily housing compared to Black renters who are more likely to be pro development in housing.
[00:08:52] So we, of course, all planners, and certainly the UEP lens, has taught us to think about how we can restructure planning processes to ensure equity. So the planning process, I really want to highlight all the different steps in the planning process. I think people, when they think process they immediately think engagement and engagement, of course, is a huge component, but it’s part of all of the planning processes. I wanted to talk — I wanted to look specifically at each phase and think about the questions that we should be asking ourselves as planners. And what are some examples in Cambridge of how we’re starting to do that. And recognizing that it’s a journey and a work in progress and we have a lot more work to do.
Melissa Powers: [00:09:32] So first, in the pre-planning stage, when you’re organizing, you’re figuring out what the problem is, who you need to engage with. It’s so important to not define the problem yourself as the planner, but really listen to the communities and those especially who have been most impacted, how they define the problem because often it’s not the same. Also, who’s typically engaged, who’s not engaged and what can we do to expand opportunities for engagement? And then as we move into the visioning phase, what are the desired results? What does equity look like and can we come up with a set of core values and guiding principles that we can then use as metrics to evaluate our progress and the outcome that ultimately gets decided?
[00:10:19] In my experience doing planning processes, it’s really easy for people to agree on what’s important to them. Diversity, equity, sustainability, livability. But when that translates into an actionable policy or program that could result in advancing equity, resiliency, sustainability, then people step back and say, Oh, but we haven’t considered this other issue. And so how can we really go back to those key things that we said were important to us and make sure that equity results in the end?
[00:10:55] Data analysis. Data, as we all know, can be used for good and for bad. We Really need to be mindful as planners and how we’re using data and what that impact is on people who have been marginalized. What data is missing? What does the data tell? What’s the story behind the data? When we look at race and income, do the data tell us something different? In strategy development, when we’re looking at different scenarios and alternatives, when we evaluate those, are we taking into account who’s burdened and benefit by the proposal? What can we do to advance or mitigate unintended consequences? And then lastly, implementation and monitoring our progress. Being accountable to what we said we would do and making sure that what we said we would do, or the results that we wanted are actually coming to fruition. And if they’re not reevaluate based on our performance measures to make sure that those outcomes are equitable.
[00:11:54] So I’m going to get five different examples just to give you kind of an overview of the different things we’re doing at the community planning division at the city of Cambridge. And they each kind of highlight a different phase of that planning process. So the first is pre-planning stage, thinking about how we can hear those under heard voices. And the city has developed a model — it started in our Department of Human Services and now we’ve adopted it at the Community Development Department, and we’re hoping to expand it to other departments. But to hire a team of outreach workers, the community engagement team, who are come from communities that we don’t often hear from and listening to them and having them tell staff how best we can reach out to their communities.
Melissa Powers: [00:12:41] So they provide representation and a voice on issues that’s important to them. We also develop grassroot leadership. There’s an image here of some outreach workers that we hired in the Envision Cambridge planning process and two of them now have full time jobs with the city. And just creating that connection, who we can go to to talk about issues and treating those at the center of it as the experts and how best to reach their communities.
[00:13:07] So what they’ve told us is that the best way to reach their communities is in small group conversations, one-on-one meetings, surveys that are either written or verbal in their own languages. And the challenge that we’ve had is how do we then take that really intimate, deep conversation that we’ve had or insights that we’ve gained from that and bring it back to the larger community and present it to make a decision that balances and considers all voices. And what we found in past processes is that when we would go back to the larger community meeting, when those people weren’t represented, and we say, well, we had focus groups or we heard from this community, the public would say, I wasn’t at that meeting or I’ve never heard that from any of my neighbors and I talk to everybody.
[00:14:01] And they didn’t believe us. And we struggled with — we’re trying to reach this voice we don’t hear. And when we’re making a decision, people are assuming that the city is just has a top down — they’ve already made the decision. They’re just using this to justify the path forward. And so what we found is that we need to use technology to share what we’ve heard through quotes, video recordings, so that we aren’t the ones going back and telling people what we heard. But the people themselves are telling that story, and that’s so critically important.
[00:14:35] The example I have on this slide is a tool, a relatively new tool, called Cortico, I think it came out of the MIT Media Lab, essentially is an AI transcription tool, which takes video recordings, could be of a Zoom session, and it highlights and categorizes all of the feedback that was heard, according to themes. So if the issues of affordability came up, or climate change, it captures all that and you go in and you can highlight, you can pull out and you can use that to help tell the story.
[00:15:08] The other thing that we’re starting to do at the city of Cambridge is looking at all of our different engagement tools from surveys and focus groups, workshops, street teams and making sure we’re looking at it through an equity lens. So we have a team of staff who’re really committed to this work who are assessing all of these tools and asking questions to make sure that we can implement these in a more equitable manner. We also are developing training through consultants and how staff can address issues of racism and white privilege and entitlement when we see it in public meetings and how to call it out and how important is to call it out in action. Developing meeting codes of conduct with a group, an advisory board or neighborhood association that we meet regularly with and making sure they’re on board with what they said was the communication agreement, how they’re going to treat others, and that all voices are welcome. Tips on how to run an inclusive meeting.
[00:16:09] These are all things that are so important in order to do as a planner — we all know that we wear many hats, but we don’t necessarily, aren’t necessarily given the skills and the training to do that. And you get put into a public meeting and how do we equip our staff in able to respectfully and professionally stand up for what’s right and move the conversation in the right direction?
[00:16:33] Also, my last point on the slide. So important that we communicate to the public — and by public, I mean the people who are the usual suspects at public meetings — that we’re changing the way that we’re doing decision making. That we’re going through all these efforts to hear from all of our community and that what you hear at a council meeting is not necessarily the decision that’s going to be made because we’re going to factor in all these different methods. And getting them to come to understand and to buy in on this new way of doing things.
[00:17:09] Next is an example of visioning. I wanted to talk about our neighborhood planning process. So for the last decade or so in Cambridge, we’ve been focusing on doing land use plans for our high growth areas: Kendall Square, Northpoint, Alewife or major corridors and squares of Central, now we’re starting one on Cambridge Street, and that’s so important because those are areas that they’re expecting growth and change. And how do we want to manage that change and result in positive outcomes?
[00:17:41] But what we’ve done is we’ve neglected the low growth areas, which are our primary residential neighborhoods. And it is true that there’s not going to be significant change happening in that area. But what we’ve lost is the ability to have that relationship with community members. And what we’ve decided is that we need to have an ongoing relationship with those people. And so we are starting to have a different type of planning process. We’re going to continue our planning process for a mix use districts and corridors that are experiencing change and development, but then also have these planning processes that focus less on development, but more on community building, understanding their day to day issues, creating that positive and continuous relationship not only between city staff and the residents, but also having residents connect to one another.
[00:18:40] And again, this slide just emphasizes our goals for this process and how it really is about building relationships and networks. And one of the key ways that we’re doing that is by making engagement and interactions more approachable, valuable, fun. This example on the top right is a tool we used for Envision Cambridge, the citywide plan. It was a land use map of the City of Cambridge and a table that people could mark up, and we would ask different questions. And we heard from a lot of people we typically don’t hear from in traditional public meetings. We’re also doing more community events, block parties, trying to connect neighbors to one another and building that relationship. And then also connecting us to them. And so there’s more of a relationship and we feel like we can be more proactive in our planning once we have those relationships set.
[00:19:36] Third, as an example of a data collection analysis, we’ve been applying an equity lens to our open space planning. So how do we equitably distribute our open space throughout the city? And typically open space needs assessments are — there’s a standard metric, open space per capita, how much of the population is within a 10 minute walk of a park? And what that misses all the nuances of what access is. Access is not just physical, but also societal. Do people feel comfortable? There is the way a crow flies, you might be within distance of a park, but maybe that park you can’t get to because of some physical barrier. Or maybe the parks that are nearest to you are all tot lots and your kids are teenagers.
[00:20:26] So really looking at multiple lenses around access, but also looking at resiliency. We all know that parks can serve as a major opportunity for combating climate risks, flood protection, heat protection. How can we reprogram or redesign our parks to give the benefits of climate resiliency, especially in neighborhoods who are more vulnerable, which of course, as we know, corresponds with racial and income patterns as well. And then also looking at public health benefits and community benefits as well. So that’s this slide, just the importance of applying that lens to those four categories.
[00:21:08] So what we did is we looked at different metrics for each of those four categories, and we created a park access score, a health score, a resilience score and a community score. And when we overlaid all those together by looking at age, ability, race income, we were able to create this open space needs composite. And so this was a way to overlay equity issues on these different factors. And it’s pretty telling — this the open space needs composite, when you combine these, is very different from any one of these alone. So you’ll see here our park index score blue corresponds to high park need. This area of the city by Porter Square, if you’re familiar, kind of the middle section here, was in our previous open space needs assessment, considered the priority area. But when you look at all these other factors, that doesn’t look so bad anymore, it’s actually more of the eastern part of the city that has open space needs, according to these other factors. So rethinking how we can use data, thinking about what data is missing, in order to really get it to the heart of the issue.
[00:22:21] Next, as an example of the strategy development planning phase, I wanted to talk about ways you can change the rules so that people don’t have an outsized voice in the planning process. So this is an example. In Cambridge, and anywhere, it’s really difficult to build affordable housing, it requires significant funding from federal and state sources and municipal contributions. In Cambridge in particular, there’s high land costs, significant competition for market rate housing and certain parts of the city it’s only zoned for single family or two family, which continues that trend where all our multifamily housing is in certain parts of the city. And then under the current system, it’s a discretionary approval process. And it can be appealed, which results in delays additional costs. And it’s really hard for affordable housing developers to have confidence in the process and what can be developed and their basically their money is being put on hold and the financing on hold.
Melissa Powers: [00:23:27] So we wanted to implement a policy solution that would address many of those challenges. So the affordable housing overlay was passed two years ago now of the city. What it does is it has less restrictive standards for 100 percent affordable housing development than market rate housing. So you can have higher density and height, relief from other dimensional standards and parking, so you can build more on the site if it’s for 100 percent affordable housing, then if it was for market development. And if you meet those new as a right zoning regulations, you don’t have to go get a special permit or a comprehensive permit — you can build as of right. We’re still requiring a design review, but it’s non-binding and we have a set of guiding principles. What this does, it allows affordable housing development to happen in all parts of the city, not just where we’ve seen it, but it also doesn’t hold up that money, and it removes that permitting uncertainty. So it makes affordable housing developer quicker and easier to build.
[00:24:36] And here is just an example of what the affordable housing overlay would look like in residential neighborhoods. You could see, this is on the left, is an example of what you could build under current zoning, two units, two stories, on about a 5000 square foot lot. With the overlay, really can fill out that lot, seven units, three stories, and here’s one example, and then eight units, four stories in another.
Melissa Powers: [00:25:03] And the point that we made in the public conversation is that these aren’t — oftentimes people refer to neighborhood character and historic character and preservation when they oppose development. But sixty nine percent of the existing building stock in Cambridge is not zoning compliant. It could not be built today. And there’s examples of mid-rise multifamily buildings in all of our housing districts, including our more single family, two family districts. So we see these as complementary and important in achieving our affordable housing goals.
[00:25:38] Lastly, as an example of implementation. So important to implement the plan that you said you would implement and then monitor to ensure accountability. So we, I mentioned Envision Cambridge citywide planning process, on an annual basis we report how many of the actions that we said we would do are in progress, how many are finished, not started. We have a little report of why or why not. And that’s really important t — obviously for transparency in government, but to then also evaluate how we’re doing. So we have a set of performance indicators across six planning topics that are used to tell us if we’re meeting our objectives that we laid out to. And if we’re no, can we go back to those listed actions, revise, maybe do something differently, maybe start somewhere else and make sure that we’re meeting our goals.
[00:26:30] So this next slide is just an example of one of the 30 performance indicators that we track. This is our housing production goal. By 2030, we want to get an additional 12,500 new housing units in the city. We started measuring it at the end of the Envision planning process in 2018. We’ve increased our housing supply and at the current rate, we are on track to reach our target by 2030. And so we’re communicating this to the public. We’re hopeful — it hasn’t happened yet, but we’re hopeful to very shortly get our website up live and running that can be that communication platform to communicate progress and have accountability for city staff and city policymakers to say, Hey, we said this was important to us. We’re falling short. How can we do better? And that’s so important.
[00:27:21] I wanted to end if I have time just with just with a brief question and discussion. So I have a current planning dilemma where we just had a public process for a site that we were — just needed to determine with the public the future land use. So it was decided that it would be affordable housing and we were having conversations with the public around should it be rental, homeownership, what income levels it should serve, what communities it could serve, people with disabilities, seniors, LGBTQ friendly. And we went through the public process. We had larger community zoom meetings. We did some focus groups with their community engagement team. And for the most part, we got consensus on affordable housing. People had same thoughts about size and massing of the development, what amenities should be provided.
[00:28:15] But the big distinction between the two communities was the larger public meeting the abutters and neighbors, they‘re all neighbors, but the abutting neighbors and homeowners, distinguished by homeowners, they wanted the site to be built as homeownership. And the focus groups wanted the site to be rental. And particularly, they wanted it to be rental because they wanted it to serve people with the greatest need, people at lower incomes and there’s higher income thresholds for our homeownership program.
[00:28:50] And so now we’re in this dilemma where we went out and we got feedback from people, and now we don’t have a clear outcome and we need to reconcile that. And I keep going back to, the housing that this will help is for the people who were in the focus groups. And so really, we should be listening more to them because they’re the people that would benefit from it. But it certainly has raised a lot of questions about what the next step is, how to get the whole community on board and move forward. So I pose that if we have time in our question and answer period certainly would appreciate any of your guy’s feedback or insights on that. So with that is close to my presentation. I’ll stop sharing. Happy to answer any questions about the presentation, about my experience. Welcome feedback on the question I posed…
Julian Agyeman: [00:29:41] Great. Well, Melissa, thank you so much. It is, for the faculty on this presentation, is so pleasing to see, you know, the students, the alum, and now the consummate professional who’s really thinking through, you know, vital issues through the equity lens. Excellent presentation. And we have, of course, lots of questions. And bear in mind also Melissa’s question that she posed to you. But so Traci Montgomery ask: Have you seen any ground up community planning efforts? How does the city engage with communities who may be doing their own independent planning type efforts?
Melissa Powers: [00:30:20] Yeah, absolutely. And we welcome and encourage that, and the city doesn’t need to replicate, and it certainly shouldn’t replicate what it doesn’t do particularly well. And so we need to rely on those community partners, those people that are experts in equity work in the community work, and partner and work with them. And that’s in part what the new neighborhood planning model is really about.
Julian Agyeman: [00:30:45] Great, thank you. We have a question from Ann Tucker: How do you manage to use plans and maps when many people in my community have real problems reading a 2D plan?
Melissa Powers: [00:30:57] Great question. As we’ve been working with the community engagement team, and we’ll meet with them ahead of time and say, this is our planning problem or we want to get feedback on this particular development or could be installation of a bike lane or whatever it may be. And they’ll stop us and say, everything you just presented — that’s not going to fly. So we really have had to step back, and I personally think storytelling is the way to go. You know, throw the map out, talk to people about what that means in their everyday life. Go up to the site, go for a walking tour, connect with people one on one. I think that truly will be [inaudible]. It takes more time, but I think that is ultimately the way to move forward.
Julian Agyeman: [00:31:41] Great, thank you. Wing Yue is asking: have you use public participatory GIS as a way to collect data and voices to inform planning decisions?
Melissa Powers: [00:31:52] Sure. So I think by that you mean having feedback and like a wiki map or is that participatory GIS in this context…?
Julian Agyeman: [00:32:02] Let’s ask Wing Yue, are you in the room still? Can you tell us what you exactly mean so Melissa can answer?
Wing Yue: [00:32:08] Hi, yes. Thank you, Melissa. Yeah, I just mean, there are some methods that’s been developed by a couple of universities around the world now to ask kind of the public, I suppose, or groups to collect data. And then that gets being mapped on the GIS kind of like behavioral mapping, but kind of public participation, behavioral mapping. So, you know, they might say what the favorite places are, what kind of times are you certain places. Kind of like what Google’s doing in a way in terms of activity times, but it can be easily mapped and analyzed later on.
Melissa Powers: [00:32:43] Yeah. Good questions. So partly what we did, we’ve definitely done that as a digital tool where people can go straight in and say this is an area of the city that I think is problematic or this is the area that I love and why. But when I showed that picture of that mobile engagement station with the table of the city of Cambridge people could write up on, we actually digitized all that analog data and had it in an interactive map so that we could show it, and very illustrively, what was coming up as themes in terms of what areas in the city. So we’ve done that a lot. We also, we’re started you more with, I think about all of the data that’s available, like tracking people’s cell phones or web data, to kind of see where especially a lot of the work that I do is around urban design and public space activations, so how can we compare activity of what’s happening based on not only the use, but the design of the storefronts or the facade? So we’ve been looking at that as well.
Julian Agyeman: [00:33:43] Great. Thanks, Melissa. We’ve got a statement here, but I think it’s a really interesting statement from an alumna even before you, Melissa, Kathy Dalton says: use very traditional organizing tactics to get the renters in the room with homeowners. Be transparent about this. Say this neighborhood has X percent renters. We want X percent renters in this meeting, and here’s what we’re doing to get them here. Kathy, do you want to make that question or is it just a statement?
Kathy Dalton: [00:34:09] It’s a response to Melissa’s question.
Julian Agyeman: [00:34:13] Ah, ok.
Kathy Dalton: [00:34:13] Which I followed on and said we would do door knocking when it wasn’t Zoom, offer people rides to the meeting, food, translation, child care. Think about the barriers, the things that are preventing people from coming to the meeting. And a big barrier, and this is the hardest one to deal with in one way, is getting people who felt disenfranchised to the larger meetings because they have a previous belief and a well-established belief that their voices aren’t going to be heard. So you need to start making incremental change there. It’s hard to make big change fast, but that’s my answer to that.
Melissa Powers: [00:34:49] Great advice.
Julian Agyeman: [00:34:50] Thanks, Kathy. Denise Caruzzi says: “Cambridge’s work is sooooo inspirational!!” There you go, Melissa. Thanks, Denise for that. We have the Brown House watch party asking, sorry, it’s a response to your question, Melissa: How often are people from the majority community group (homeowners) meeting with the people from the focus group? Is it possible for all community members to have a voice in their own planning compromise?
Melissa Powers: [00:35:18] Yeah, really, really. Good question. And I — if I think what you’re asking is, can we bring the two groups together and have them — have the discussion and understand where they’re coming from and maybe they come up with a compromise solution? I’ve asked the same question and the council that I’ve been given from people who do this work and people from those under hurt and marginalized communities is: no. That they don’t, not at this time, they don’t feel comfortable for whatever reason. And that’s why they don’t come to the larger public meetings because there are barriers. And we have to build that capacity so that one day hopefully in an idealized future that could happen. But I think at this point, I’m not sure it would be a safe space and I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting people in that situation. Certainly others could have different opinions, but that’s kind of where I’m thinking about on the topic right now.
Julian Agyeman: [00:36:14] Great, thanks, Melissa. Michael Tomasoa asks: How did you use what you learned at UEP and the tools provided to help your career?
Melissa Powers: [00:36:23] The reason I chose UEP, and thankfully, was because it was so broad based and was really able to follow my interests, especially as they evolved. And I think just encouraging the social justice aspect of the work that threads through all of the different disciplines that people end up concentrating in, and just a desire to help communities, I think that really distinguishes it between other planning schools, even in the area. So, you know, we hire a lot of interns from the different planning schools, and I’ll say you can guess where people came just after meeting them for five minutes. So it’s very telling.
Julian Agyeman: [00:37:04] Great. Keep hiring UEP interns, Melissa. That’s great. Great question from Dewan, who I’m assuming is based in Toronto. Can planning be inclusive and equitable when more than 90 percent of city planners are white staffed? For example, Toronto city planning staff is 97 percent white.
Melissa Powers: [00:37:23] That’s a good question. I struggle with that personally in my profession as having someone with power and influence and a voice and knowing that I should be stepping back and letting people of color or people who have been underserved or marginalized, historically excluded, step up. But at the same point, I still assume this role and I can do what I can with while recognizing that I don’t speak for anybody else. But I could still use my influence in that direction. But I think it is a problem, and I think we have to make the discipline more representative. I think that’s a huge step in it.
Julian Agyeman: [00:38:01] Great. I‘m going to sort of riff on that question from Dewan. After you lef, 2012, I wrote a paper with Jennifer Erickson, who was just graduating at the time and now works for MAPC (Mass Cultural Council Institute), and we were interested — because all of the literature and the code of ethics of planners talked about social justice and equity, but none of it talked about cultural competency. And there’s a big difference here. And so the point we were making is in our survey of accredited planning schools, not one, including Tufts, not one school had a class, a core curriculum class devoted to cultural competency.
[00:38:41] We thought this was quite interesting, given that planners are increasingly working in cities of difference, increasing difference, increasing otherness. So the question, I suppose, is does cultural competency come up? Because if 97 percent of Toronto planning staff are white, at least they could be culturally competent. You know, that would be a first step. Obviously, we want a diverse city planning department that reflects the community, but it’s cultural competency talked about much in Cambridge.
Melissa Powers: [00:39:14] Thank you for bringing that. We’ve, as you can imagine, they had a lot of conversations on this and there’s kind of been two parties. One of the mindsets — I think everyone is coming from it, at least those that I work with, my colleagues, we need to make structural change and we want to see change happen tomorrow, and it’s overdue. We can’t perpetuate these inequities. So tell me how to do that and I’ll do it. And I think everyone wants to do that. But there’s people who kind of want to skip to that step. And then there’s other people who are saying, even if we had the tools that we could give you to go do this work, you won’t know how to use them if you don’t believe in it, if you don’t understand it, if you don’t know where people are coming from.
[00:40:00] And so it’s kind of working at how can you improve at the individual level and the institution and then at the structural level? And kind of there’s almost a step that you have to take before you can move on to the next one, but you also have to do them consecutively. So they’re all right, in essence. But I’m reminded I was speaking with, I’m blanking on her name, it’ll come to me, but, the former resilience officer for City of Boston, who’s now created her own firm, All Aces, she says…
Julian Agyeman: [00:40:28] Atyia Martin.
Melissa Powers: [00:40:29] Thank you. Thank you. You know, I was saying, you know, this is great, Seattle is a great case study, an example of, they did this racial equity toolkit a decade ago, and they’ve been implementing it. And, you know, can’t we just get that toolkit and start doing it now? And she had said what they had — she consulted with a lot of those folks — what they had found is if they would give this tool for a municipal employer to do before filling out a budget proposal for a project and answer all these questions of who’s burdened, who’s hurt by this, who could be benefited, how can you change engagement? They weren’t able to answer those questions until they had the cultural competency and base knowledge. So I think you’re so right Julian, and that is so important. And it’s something that we’ve started to do in staff training as well because we can’t be expected to do this work if we don’t have that. And especially to their question of it’s mostly white people in the room.
Julian Agyeman: [00:41:28] Right. And just a point, Anne Tucker, thank you for asking: Sorry, what is cultural competency? My students actually prefer the term cultural humility. How do we interact with people who are culturally different to us — and not just racial and ethnic cultures, but, you know, sexual cultures? Again, we live in cities of difference. The splintering of identities into multiple identities. How do we interact? How do we plan if we can’t speak to people because we don’t know the appropriate way? That’s really what cultural competency is or cultural humility? Joshua Dickens is asking: I don‘t know if I heard exactly how you and your teams have worked on measures for the effectiveness of your initiatives. For example, how many more voices representative of the community, a number specifically, are you hearing that you weren’t hearing prior to the community engagement team? Is that impact being sustained? How are you al measuring the effectiveness of the engagement teams? So multiple questions, but I think it’s about measurement and effectiveness.
Melissa Powers: [00:42:35] Yeah, good questions. And I wish I had a good answer in that we haven’t done a good job of quantifying the results of our new engagement — our attempts at diversifying engagement. And I think that’s for a few reasons. One, it’s easy to have a public meeting and have people fill out a demographic survey and then you have that data and you can take back. When you’re trying to do more decentralized engagement and you’re seeing people at a community event or, certainly you can do it in a focus group, but if you’re having outreach workers talking to 15 different people at a park, we certainly can and we should be operationalizing that so we can capture that data.
[00:43:17] Right now, we don’t have numbers. It’s more qualitative. I can tell you how many, you know, approximately how many focus group participants they were and what communities they came from. I obviously can’t identify a lot of their identities for them without them telling me. So it’s a challenge, but it’s so important, and I think we’re looking at a way to do that better. So another way we can go back to the dominant culture and say, Look, this is who we’re reaching out to. This is what they’re saying. It is different from what you’ve been saying and thus this is why the decision is the way it is.
Julian Agyeman: [00:43:53] Great, and just building on that. Teva Needleman from Eco Districts asks: I’m not sure if I missed this, but how have your engagement strategies adapted throughout the pandemic?
Melissa Powers: [00:44:04] Yeah. So I think like most people, we went remote. We found that participation diversified. I think a lot of people found that by not requiring people to be in person somewhere, they could be on their phone or without video, you could get more people into a room and more diverse people. But I think still the most effective way is knocking on doors. As I think Kathy Dalton mentioned. Flyers notifying people that surveys are available. Going to parks and talking to parents. Like that still is always going to my mind trump any virtual or public meeting.
Julian Agyeman: [00:44:47] Great. Thanks, Melissa. And I think Johnny Shively gets the last question. Johnny, you always ask great questions. What are the limitations of community engagement in an era when gentrification and displacement are rampant? What happens if a mostly white community doesn’t want to prioritize equity?
Melissa Powers: [00:45:04] Absolutely. I think that’s kind of the crux of this presentation. What do we do if we’re not hearing from people who are underserved and their voices are helping address problems that they’re facing? Then maybe it’s part of the city’s responsibility, like, an example, the affordable housing overlay and say, OK, it’s no longer a discretionary permit. We think this is a good thing that should happen — we being a city council, so it’s still a democratic process — but the rules are changed and there’s no longer this opportunity for this outsized, unrepresentative group to influence it. And so I think in thinking through solutions to this problem, it’s looking not only at how can we raise the voices of people we don’t hear, but also right size the voices of people we already hear. And by doing that, you might have to take away the microphone.
Julian Agyeman: [00:45:58] Great. Well, thanks so much, Melissa. This has been really informative. I think you’re probably going to get quite a few emails from from students and, you know, people looking for internships. Next week we have Jessica Omukuti from the University of Oxford in England, talking about climate action in the global south: Is Net Zero Inclusive? So can we give a big UEP thanks to Melissa? Brilliant presentation, Melissa. Thank you. See you next week.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:46:32] We hope you enjoyed this week’s lecture. Join us live for another event tomorrow or listen to the recording right here on the podcast next week. Cities@Tufts Lectures is produced by Tufts University and Shareable with support from the Kresge Foundation and the Barr Foundation. Lectures are moderated by Professor Julian Agyeman and organized in partnership with research assistants Perri Sheinbaum and Caitlin McLennan. “Light Without Dark” by Cultivate Beats is our theme song. Robert Raymond is our Audio Editor. Zanetta Jones manages communications and editorial, and the series is produced and hosted by me Tom Llewellyn. Please hit Subscribe, leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts, and share it with others so this knowledge can reach people outside of our collective bubbles. That’s it for this week’s show. Here’s a final thought:
Melissa Powers: [00:47:19] It’s so important to not define the problem yourself as the planner, but really listen to the communities and those especially who have been most impacted how they define a problem because often it’s not the same.