(my first blog post in over a year! Amazing!)
Last night LivableStreets Alliance, one of the Boston area’s leading transportation advocacy groups, hosted one of their ongoing series of Virtual StreetTalk events. While I wasn’t able to make the event, I did follow it a little bit through Twitter. One of the resources they shared is a document on Principles for Equitable Public Outreach & Engagement During COVID-19 and Beyond compiled by Naomi Doerner and Yanisa Techagumthorn of Nelson/Nygaard. I think it’s a really excellent document and set of principles that I expect to engage deeply with in my professional life, and I urge everyone to check it out. It also made me think…a lot.
Despite my well-known, and I think healthy, skepticism toward endless consultative process, I really do care about deep, meaningful, and equitable engagement. It’s an incredibly important thing to get right, precisely because a commitment to deep outreach runs the risk of raising project costs and lengthening timelines (which also raises costs), which is bad for everyone, especially vulnerable populations. In theory investment in outreach and relationship building now yields faster process and fewer roadblocks down the road, but to my knowledge there isn’t much if any serious research showing that things actually work out that way–and there’s an emerging body suggesting that adding process can be a serious risk factor both to project speed and outcomes (please tell me in the comments if there’s literature that I should be aware of!).
In the spirit of getting it right, my concerns about this set of principles as a whole center on the tension between the “During COVID-19” part and the “and Beyond” part. In the long run, these principles likely require much greater commitment of planning resources to outreach than currently exists, which in turn requires political support for investment in planning. And that’s in the long run–it seems extremely unlikely to me that the priorities laid out here can be implemented at all in the short term, given the time these measures take to implement and the general environment of austerity toward outreach and engagement. The transportation/mobility world has, as a whole, struggled to achieve the urgency needed to respond to the COVID crisis, and we need to take seriously that there may be an inherent tension between ideal outreach process and the moral imperative to make rapid changes to roadway allocation, transit priority, and the like. Too many cities are only starting to consider such changes now, weeks if not months after there was a need, when (we can hope) the crisis is slowly starting to ramp down in many places. These changes should, of course, prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable communities–but long-term engagement may delay meeting those needs at a time when rapid change is necessary and slow change is close to useless. All of this being said, that’s more of a concern than a feeling that these principles are bad in any way–but it’s a challenge that I’d like to see addressed.
In addition to those general concerns, one of the listed principles jumped out at me as being idealistic, but perhaps overly optimistic given historical experience with planning outreach. It reads as follows:
Pay representative organizations and community leaders to provide focused input on methods and tools as well as test methods and tools before deploying. Allocate budget for community groups, leaders, and organizations from and serving vulnerable populations for their time and input on the design of outreach and engagement as well as their assessment of the tools to ensure key equity criteria before deploying.
In general, I’m a strong believer that people should be paid for their time. Civic contributions are work, especially when they come from people who might struggle to make time for such involvement. The intention behind this goal is absolutely admirable. There is no doubt that getting the input of numerous stakeholders serving vulnerable populations is critically important. That being said, formalizing the role of any non-governmental group in the planning process makes me queasy, because it runs the risk of creating a class of gatekeepers who will in fact interpose themselves between planners and the people. That can produce interference in planners’ ability to hear needs directly from normally unengaged citizens, as well as waste everyone’s time as various groups jostle to become “the” approved gatekeeping entity for a particular community.
As usual, my thinking on this question is informed by historical experience. A couple of months ago I finished Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities, a thorough documentation of master urban renewer Ed Logue’s experiences in New Haven, Boston, and New York City. Logue (to his credit) took criticism of his autocratic approach in New Haven to heart and engaged in public outreach more, if not exactly sufficiently, during his time as head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Part of the BRA’s approach relied on precisely this type of formalized relationship with community groups as representatives of the broader neighborhood, an approach that went unevenly at best. A typical passage reads thus:
In the end there were three organizations vying to represent Charlestown in negotiations with the BRA. First to emerge was the Self-Help Organization of Charlestown (SHOC), a grassroots citizens’ group that initially expressed great enthusiasm for renewing the neighborhood*, spurred by what had happened across the river in the West End…But after some early success with the SHOC, the BRA’s staff became concerned that the group was too volatile and not attracting a wide-enough cross section of the community…In its place, the BRA encouraged the creation of a broader umbrella organization, the Federation of Charlestown Organizations (FOCO), in which SHOC would be only one of many voices…After having failed with two negotiating partners, the BRA now cast its fate with a third, the Moderate Middle (MM), headed by a former, more temperate member of SHOC who hoped to thread a reasonable path between an increasingly radicalized SHOC and a discredited, ineffective FOCO. (Cohen, pp. 227-229)
*note that, contrary to the narrative that has since emerged, urban renewal projects often enjoyed some significant level of (misguided) public support!
Not super surprisingly given the almost satirical level of fragmentation, ultimately “BRA shifted strategy, seeking new ways of connecting directly to Charlestown residents and not relying on any one organization in this politically fragmented community.” And, in Cohen’s telling, that shift ultimately resulted in a better outcome for Charlestown residents–although it’s worth remembering that “better” in their minds largely equated to “keeping outsiders (read: black people) out.”
A similar process played out in the more diverse South End neighborhood. There, BRA was eventually convinced that the groups it initially worked with were not representative of the neighborhood, and froze out renters and poor people in favor of gentrifying homeowners–but then had to contend with tensions between tenant and resident activist groups of different stripes and varieties of radicalism. Cohen (p. 240) names no fewer than nine different groups contending in the field just within the South End. Certainly, the existence of all of these groups represents a motivated citizenry, but it also raises a fundamental question about about whether “representative organizations,” as this statement of principles lays out, can actually exist in any meaningful way.
We have recently seen a trend of some cities, perhaps most notably Seattle, dismantling the formal structures that have linked their outreach processes to neighborhood groups. While the primary motivation for these changes is to dismantle the hegemony of largely wealthy, white NIMBY homeowners–a goal that is certainly compatible with this statement of principles for equitable outreach–we should not buy into the illusion that just because some groups have admirable goals, they are incapable of breaking bad and beginning to play a stubbornly negative role in the planning process. Indeed, Cohen chronicles how some of the groups contending or working with the BRA in both Charlestown and the South End went through a series of remarkably rapid ideological and tactical transformations over a brief period of time. Finally, while it’s a touchy subject, it seems fairly clear that, then as now, the activist organizations that step forward to play a representative role are often significantly more radical than the populations of poor or vulnerable neighborhoods. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–lord knows we need radical change–but it still complicates the concept of representation.
For all of these reasons–and I’m not confident that I’m in the right on this, but I fear I may be–I’m skeptical about formalizing the roles of specific groups that could be or turn into counterproductive gatekeepers in the planning process. In the spirit of not offering critique without realistic alternatives, here are a couple of alternative structures that may get at some of the same values without taking the risk of formalizing gatekeeping:
- Pay regular people, rather than group leaders and high-profile activists, for their involvement. People, especially in marginalized communities, should be paid for time they spend on project advisory committees, public meetings, etc. In the community spirit, this could take the form of handing out gift cards for local retail and grocery stores.
- Create a Red Team for major projects, composed of a mix of professionals and thoughtful community members, and charged with challenging designs and concepts and providing realistic alternatives. Group leaders and activists could be part of this entity, since it’s a forum that would force them to grapple with tradeoffs and competing interests, rather than simply pushing their own vision. Even if staffing this group is expensive in the short term, in the long run this practice can save money by holding designers accountable for scope creep and giving technically minded activists (who should have a prominent role) an opportunity to point out waste.
Those are just the first couple of things that come to mind. I’m sure others can contribute other thoughtful concepts in the spirit of going directly to the people in an unmediated fashion.
Again, my intention here is not to indict the entire statement of principles; I think it’s a really strong document with significant promise as a framework. But it’s important for principles and frameworks to be informed by historical experience, and not to be overly optimistic about human or group intentions or tendencies. Maybe I’m just overly cynical, but I want to go directly to the people.
Featured Image: sign protesting urban renewal in the South End, via Boston City Archives on Flickr.