Outreach and Gatekeeping

(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 Citiesa 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.

Democratic Planning in the Age of Urban Freeways and Today

I finished reading two very different, but equally interesting and informative, recent urbanist-y books over Shabbat. The first is Akum Norder’s The History of Here, a fun and talented Albany writer’s look into the history of her family’s house, the people who have inhabited it, and the life of the neighborhood around it. The second is Karilyn Crockett’s People Before Highways, an ethnographic and historical look of the anti-freeway movement in the Boston area in the 1960s and ‘70s. Both books are worthy of a full-scale review that I may or may not be able to undertake at some point, but I wanted to pull out a common element that I think makes for an interesting, and very relevant, point of discussion: the question of how democratic planning should be, and how that should look.

Let’s start with People Before Highways. Crockett’s work is essentially an ode to the grassroots anti-highway backlash that transformed transportation policy in Massachusetts and led to the end of freeway building inside the Route 128 beltway and the ability to “flex” federal transportation spending from highways to transit. Boston’s anti-freeway coalition was a broad–and varying at different times–group of institutions, scholars, “radical” planners like future Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, and community members. The last element is perhaps the most interesting; participants ranged from tenant activists in public housing to Black Panthers to patricians in Brookline and Cambridge to people we would now identify as first-wave gentrifiers in the South End and my own neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. This coalition demanded not just an end to highway building, but also to the heavy-handed way in which the freeways had been planned, and significant amounts of land taken, with virtually no opportunity for public input. Crockett wastes no opportunity to remind the reader that the demands of the Boston anti-highway movement were not just specifically anti-highway, but processually radical and progressive in their insistence on the distribution of power.

Certainly, the righteousness of the Boston anti-highway, pro-public participation cause is not in dispute; it’s a difficult book to read for a professional planner. One thing that strikes me about Crockett’s work, though–and it’s a problem I’ve seen elsewhere in leftist planning thinking and writing–is that her narrative is shaped by a powerful nostalgia for the kind of grassroots planning and localist democracy that her subjects believed in, but doesn’t engage with some of the potential challenges of a highly democratic process. Indeed, some of the potential challenges with such a process show up even within her own research. In the sixth chapter of the book, Crockett profiles the planning process around the creation of the Southwest Corridor linear park, by all accounts pretty much a triumph of democratic planning that created a valuable community amenity and showpiece to this day. The cracks in the process of democratic planning, though, show through this account. Crockett shows how the South End community was able to demand that the Southwest Corridor trench through their area be roofed over to reduce noise, pollution, and vibration. This is, of course, not an unreasonable ask–but Crockett’s account makes it clear that the presence of educated, middle class people in the neighborhood, including some who we would clearly call gentrifiers today, was what got the deck built in that section, but not elsewhere in the Southwest Corridor. Why, one thinks today, is the trench not decked through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain? I lived a block from the trench for my first 10 months in Boston, and one can feel the vibrations and hear the roar from passing trains. A purely “democratic” planning process is already one that gives greater voice to those able to shout loudest–and Crockett’s account of the decking of the South End trench shows how this can lead to opportunities being available inequitably.

Crockett also narrates the process for planning the park that went on top of the South End trench, and if anything it reveals more of the cracks in the facade of democratic-planning-as-magical-cure. She writes:

By removing the railroad’s stone embankment and inserting decking along segments of each section of the Corridor, the Southwest Corridor planners knit together neighborhoods that had been physically separated for more than a century. Not every resident viewed this as social progress…The existing railroad right-of-way created a dividing line between the South End and St. Botolph neighborhoods. Though these two areas held only slightly different economic profiles, their racial and ethnic compositions could not have been more different. St. Botolph residents constituted a largely homogeneous block of white families and some professionals working in the city. Though they themselves were city dwellers, many St. Botolph residents looked askance at the idea that deck cover would allow other urban neighbors easy access to parts of their neighborhood previously blocked by the railroad. These residents used the Corridor’s public meetings to voice their opposition. (p. 187)

In other words, the residents of St. Botolph engaged in fairly standard-issue urban racism, classism, and (one would imagine, given the increasing gay population of the South End at the time) not a small amount of homophobia–and saw in the democratic Southwest Corridor planning process an opportunity to (very democratically!) write their oppressive agenda in concrete. Unfortunately, Crockett’s handling of this rather obvious challenge to the viability of democratic planning is less than inspiring. 

By listening and respecting the concerns of residents, [Southwest Corridor planners] were able to identify an architectural strategy that was responsive to the demands of St. Botolph’s residents but did not subvert the overall public planning agenda for the Corridor…[they developed] designs for a removable fence that could be unbolted at a later date should the neighborhood change its mind. Unfortunately, the design was compromised by another decision to lay granite at the base of the fencing, and when St. Botolph’s residents did, in fact, reverse their decision and requested direct access to the Corridor Park, it was no longer possible. (p. 188)

One must, I suppose, applaud the Corridor planners for their commitment to democracy, inasmuch as they were committed to listening to, to the point of acting to some extent on, an obviously bigoted agenda. To this day, many streets on the western side of the Southwest Corridor in this area dead-end at the Corridor Park with a wall or fence of some considerable height rising to prevent what should be an obvious pedestrian connection.

blackwood barrier

A democratically erected barrier preventing easy pedestrian access to the Southwest Corridor Park, Blackwood Street, Boston.

Crockett calls this “The seeming contradiction of a connective landscape needing to reconcile itself with existing race and class divisions and residents’ divergent opinions about what to do about them,” (p. 188) but–especially as one of the direct inheritors of the conflict around transportation planning in Boston–this feels like an unsatisfying resolution to me. Many of Crockett’s interviewees for the book talk about how they saw themselves as “advocacy planners,” adherents of a mid-’60s theory that planners should not be impartial experts, but advocates for the oppressed in society. It seems to me that there’s an obvious tension between this identification and engaging in a planning process that encodes racial and class injustice (literally building fences!) in the built environment in the name of “democracy.” While incredibly valuable for its documentation of the Boston anti-highway movement, and its repetition of the lesson that megalomaniacal centralized planning is generally abusive, People Before Highways would be more useful and convincing if it grappled honestly and openly with some of the shortcomings of the democratic, grassroots visions of planning that it advocates.

Akum Norder’s book, too, offers a lesson on this topic–and perhaps the juxtaposition of the two narratives can allow us to draw some conclusions about the intellectual and social milieu of participatory planning and its challenges. Norder’s book is an ode to her Pine Hills neighborhood, an absolutely lovely streetcar suburb-era area that reminds me strongly of the Westville section of New Haven where I grew up. Pine Hills originally and today is a strongly middle-class area with a strong communal identity; but it’s had its ups and downs, borders the “student ghetto,” and generally has some reasonable fear of tipping into neighborhood decline in the same way that most middle-class areas in cities that aren’t part of the overheated coastal housing markets do. As such (and seeing that many of the residents are educated, have money, or both), these neighborhoods are ripe for democratic, grassroots organizing around the issue of perceived problems–and using a democratic planning process to deal with them in a way that may work well for the neighborhood but not always for those pushed out as a result.

Norder profiles one such case (though without the slightly negative valence I’m attaching to it). She writes, on pages 204-205, of a property on the corner of North Allen and Lancaster that, at 5,921 square feet, held by the early 2000s twenty-six units. That is, of course, far more than current zoning would allow, but most of the neighborhood is nonconforming and grandfathered anyhow. Normally, such properties can continue unmolested unless the owner requests a change of use or makes major modifications; but city code allows for the property to be forced into conformance if it’s declared a nuisance property. And since the building in question does appear to have genuinely been a nuisance property, generating fights, noise, and an astonishing number of police calls, the local neighborhood association took the opportunity to force a zoning board hearing. They won, and the landlord had to empty the building to cut its units down to the allowed two.

So, on the one hand, this is a victory for a democratic planning process and for community concerns. The area residents took on a nuisance landlord, used the objective rule of law, and made their neighborhood a better place. Bully for them–we should encourage everyone to care about their neighborhoods like that. On the other hand, we’re talking about a process–a very democratic process–that led directly to the eviction of at least twenty-four people, with those who provoked it presumably taking no financial responsibility for their relocation. This being Albany, where rents are generally cheap, I think it’s reasonable to assume that few of those people were displaced from the area entirely; most were probably able to find housing relatively close, and quite possibly at not much increased rent. So the result isn’t necessarily the worst. But what if it weren’t Albany? What if this were a property in Boston, where rents are triple or quadruple what they are in Albany? Would we tolerate a neighborhood group getting together to democratically destroy what’s effectively an SRO, a vanishing resource for the very poor? How should a progressive advocacy planner react to this scenario?

I don’t have a coherent set of answers to these questions yet. But I think they’re crucially important to ask. And I think it’s important to recognize that the historical and socioeconomic context in which calls for grassroots, democratic planning came around has in many cases vanished. The type of democratic planning Kaitlyn Crockett profiles so well was a product of a city under siege, under threat of imminent literal physical destruction. Places like Albany may well still feel a lessened version of that threat. But in Boston, today, it’s gone. There is still a threat of displacement and destructive change, but it comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from a hyperactive real estate market and the desire of many more people than the city has been willing to build housing for wanting to live here. Already in the time period that Crockett narrates privileged voices were figuring out how to use the democratic planning process to subvert planning aims of social justice and integration. We can’t, and we won’t, throw out the baby of democratic planning and extensive public outreach with the bathwater of urban renewal and highway building.  But we can, and must, recognize that there are tensions between promising all comers a democratic process and achieving egalitarian, democratic outcomes. Just this past week the Globe wrote about how Boston’s input-based sidewalk-repair system is failing poorer neighborhoods that are less likely to call in for repairs. Is it possible, one must ask, that planners again need to start putting our thumbs on the scales of justice–this time, to tip them back toward the right?

Featured image source: https://www.jphs.org/transportation/people-before-highways.html