(Summer ’15) Catie Ferrara, G

Catie Ferrara (G, Urban Studies and Planning)

Catie is a DUSP-PSC Summer Intern, jointly supported by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Public Service Center.

This summer, the Boston Redevelopment Authority is launching two pilot programs to practice and evaluate new, creative methods of involving the public in planning the future of the neighborhoods where they live and work. Catie will be assisting the BRA’s Community Planning department in this undertaking by adding to their creative, logistical, and analytical capacity.  This internship will support the BRA’s practice of planning as a public service and lead to new sets of zoning and development guidelines that reflect residents’ visions and respond to their needs.


August 22, 2015:  Final Reflections

My summer fellowship at the BRA came to a close on August 14, but it doesn’t feel like much has ended.

The two studies I helped to launch have a timeline of nine more months. This fall, the two BRA planning teams be continuing with public engagement and research alongside public advisory groups and a team of City and State department reps. In the winter, they’ll take what they’ve learned and create a few scenarios – What might these neighborhoods look like if the City creates different rules for development? – and host more public events and forums for people to share their thoughts on these possible futures. With that feedback, the goal is to edit the zoning code for each neighborhood by next summer to start guiding development in the right direction. And at some point, they’ll want to start the same process for other Boston neighborhoods facing growth and development.

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have landed this fellowship at a better time. Over ten weeks, I got to watch and help an agency address its own public image and take big steps toward transparency and cutting-edge community engagement methods. I’m grateful for being able to start my fellowship around the same time that the BRA was launching both these neighborhood-level studies and its two-year citywide planning process. The Community Planning division was busy, excited, actively learning, and sometimes stressed every week I was there. My teammates depended on my work, and I got a crash course in the commitment and energy it takes to pursue planning as a public service.

My summer fellowship may have ended, but I don’t think my involvement in and learning from these projects have. I’m looking forward to participating as much as I can this fall in each team’s ongoing creative engagement strategies, like “walk-shops” (walking tour workshops). As I prepare for the upcoming semester and my last year at MIT, I’m also considering ways to study these processes as part of my thesis. The issues I could cover are some of the most relevant in today’s city planning landscape: housing prices and demand, transit-oriented development, the future of urban industrial spaces and employment, and creative and inclusive community engagement. I’m grateful to have gained experience that’s relevant not only to Boston, but to cities across the U.S.

I owe many thanks to the Public Service Center and MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning for supporting my experience and learning this summer, and to the BRA for welcoming, trusting, and teaching me. This fellowship was an invaluable opportunity to start practicing what I’ve been studying, and I’m excited to keep working and learning from it and see what’s next.


August 7, 2015:  Two Opening Nights

Last week, two new planning studies had their opening nights. PLAN: JP/Rox, a BRA initiative to establish a vision and update zoning for the Washington Street Corridor area in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, had its first open house on Tuesday, July 28. PLAN: Dot Ave, a study with the same goal for the Dorchester Avenue Corridor in South Boston, launched with a similar event just two days later.

As a summer intern assisting teams of BRA planners with these two projects, I’d helped with site visits, event planning, outreach, and coordination across BRA departments and other agencies to prepare for both events. I’d spent eight weeks getting a sense of the work of an urban planner, through tasks and responsibilities that gave real context and practice to some of my coursework at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning and research on participatory planning.

Opening Night 1: Public launch of the Washington Street Corridor Study at the Brookside Community Health Center in Jamaica Plain

Opening Night 1: Public launch of the Washington Street Corridor Study at the Brookside Community Health Center in Jamaica Plain

The open house format was new for the BRA, and exciting to be a part of. At both events, local residents, business owners, architects, advocates, and others who might have expected a formal presentation and time for questions instead found their neighbors and the study team checking out a set of big posters and maps on topics like “People,” “Place,” and “Getting Around.” We’d set each room up for interaction and conversation: People used markers, stickers, and Post-Its to share their thoughts about the study area, concerns about its future, and what else they’d like to know. They were able to speak with BRA, City staff, and their neighbors about the places they care about and what they want to see in this new planning process.

Visitors to both events shared where they live, work, and visit around the study area. The goal was to help everyone learn a little bit about others participating, and to see what parts of the study area might need more attention or representation in the study's next stages.

Visitors to both events shared where they live, work, and visit around the study area. The goal was to help everyone learn a little bit about others participating, and to see what parts of the study area might need more attention or representation in the study’s next stages.

At the Brookside Community Health Center in Jamaica Plain, I got to meet people of all ages. Many talked and wrote about how highly they value diversity and the neighborhood’s easy access to transit and nature along the Southwest Corridor. They also shared concerns about housing affordability and questions about the future land around public transit stations.

Opening Night 2: Open House for the Dorchester Avenue Study at the Iron Workers Union Hall

Opening Night 2: Open House for the Dorchester Avenue Study at the Iron Workers Union Hall

At the Iron Workers Union hall in South Boston, I spoke with people who care about issues like pedestrian and bicycle safety along the Dot Ave commuter corridor, and adding green and open space to the area. I met residents whose families have been living in the neighborhood for generations, whose memories and perspectives on change are incredibly valuable in studies like this.

Visitors shared how they feel about the neighborhood now, and how they envision its future. Not everyone agreed, and that will be part of the challenge as the study moves forward.

Visitors shared how they feel about the neighborhood now, and how they envision its future. Not everyone agreed, and that will be part of the challenge as the study moves forward.

Even when the rooms were packed and the 90-degree evening air seemed to creep indoors, people stayed and kept sharing at each open house. The energy and great participation at both events made the long work days that came before (fun fact: I learned lights at City Hall turn off at 8:20 PM) feel really worthwhile. I’m looking forward to seeing where the studies go from here.

Before I get back out to either neighborhood, though, I need to help record, understand, and share the hundreds of great comments, questions, and ideas that came out at each event – there are a lot more than the ones I’ve mentioned here. Both teams are now getting ready for more public events and “walk-shops” (walking workshops) to learn about each area and determine exactly what issues each study will need to address through continued partnership with community members.

My summer internship here ends in just about a week, but you can be sure I’ll be keeping up with both of these projects over the next few months. As a student of urban planning, I’m excited to see what lessons these pilot studies provide for the BRA’s public planning process and the future of Boston’s transit-oriented areas. In a few weeks I’ll be starting my last year of school, and I might just know my thesis topic after all.


July 22, 2015:  All Kinds of Planning 

When I started my internship in the BRA’s Community Planning group, I knew it would offer a chance to expand and practice my skills. As much as I’d considered “event planning” something I already had down, in the last few weeks I’ve learned I had no idea the amount of preparation and people it takes to create an event and initiative open to a whole city. And I find myself working on two.


Next Tuesday, July 28, the BRA is welcoming local residents, business owners, and anyone else with an interest in the future of the Washington Street Corridor in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury to visit an open house. Two days later, on Thursday, July 30, the agency is again inviting anyone interested in planning for the Dorchester Avenue area in South Boston to participate in a similar event. Both evenings will feature information on the planning studies, maps and data showing what’s happened recently in each area, and activities that let local residents and others share how they see the areas now and envision the future.


I’ve been looking forward all summer to meeting the people who care about these areas and want to participate in the planning process. This internship offers an incredible opportunity to build on my academic research that’s focused on creative public engagement strategies and practices.

To get there, though, I’ve first been helping with the essentials of event planning: I’ve worked with teams of BRA community planners to determine the format of each open house and what information and questions agency staff will present. I’ve helped create advertisements for the open houses for local and regional newspapers. I’ve also assisted in outreach to other public agencies, elected officials, and organizations to get the word out about these initiatives and make sure everyone knows how to get involved. I’ve met with other City agencies and community organizations to secure resources and outreach to welcome Boston’s non-English speaking communities. I’ve gotten to work across departments here, learning how Communications, Research, GIS, and graphic design experts are all needed to launch planning studies and public events.

Marking up a map on a tour of Jamaica Plain

I’ve been able to spend a little time outside of City Hall as well. Both open houses are going to showcase a lot of data, facts, and figures, but nothing tells you about a place like spending time there. I’ve visited both corridors several times with BRA staff who serve those neighborhoods. My tasks involved photographing and cataloging existing conditions, including business activity, construction, and public space. Both areas have experienced changes recently that I’m glad I got to see up close; it was especially interesting to photograph progress on the demolition of the Casey Overpass at the southern end of the JP/Roxbury study area. In August, I’ll get to learn more about both areas when the BRA hosts site walks and other activities with public participation.

I’m excited to see a lot of the work I’ve helped with come together at both events next week. After that, I’ll have a few weeks left in this position to help the BRA planners – in partnership with other city and state agencies, and public advisory groups for both projects – transition from event planning to a community planning process. As an intern in the middle of a graduate degree, I know I’m supposed to be working on a little personal career planning as well… (Any ideas for a Master’s thesis?) Maybe after this busy summer!


June 19, 2015:  Prepping for Public Meetings and Public Service 

While classmates crammed suitcases and updated passports, I picked up my monthly T pass. I’ve been looking forward to this for months: summer in Boston, and my first full-time internship in the field I’m studying, city planning.

Catie Ferrara, blending in at the BRA

Catie Ferrara, blending in at the BRA

I’m serving this summer as a Community Planning Intern at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), located in City Hall. With support from MIT’s Public Service Center and Department of Urban Studies & Planning, I’m helping to launch the first of several studies on the future of changing urban areas in Boston.

This summer, the BRA will focus on two primarily industrial areas in two Boston neighborhoods, South Boston and Jamaica Plain. With the city experiencing population growth and a competitive real estate market, the BRA has fielded a number of development proposals seeking to transform properties in these areas to residential and commercial uses. The studies launching this summer are meant to think strategically about the future of these areas: What types of uses would be best, and what scale of development should be allowed?

My role will be to coordinate the public engagement process for both of these studies. Community involvement is essential in this kind of planning work, since any new development will have impacts on local residents, business owners, and others. The goal is to ensure that the visions and new zoning codes for these areas reflect the ideas and meet the needs of these stakeholders.

A little more about me: I’m currently pursuing my Master’s degree in City Planning at MIT. I have worked in the private sector as an environmental impact consultant for developers proposing large projects in and around Boston. As an undergraduate at Hamilton College in central New York state, I had the chance to study the importance of public engagement in the development planning process. I’m excited to have a project for the summer that builds on my past work and career goals.

In my first few days here at City Hall, I’ve had a chance to meet the community planning, urban design, and technology staff who I’ll be working with on both studies this summer. I’ve caught up on the recent histories of the two areas, learning about proposed projects and getting neighborhood tours with BRA planners whose work has centered on development in these neighborhoods. I’ve helped plan a timeline for our work this summer and a communications strategy to help people understand this initiative and how they can participate.

My next challenge will be to help design and prepare open houses and participatory events in both neighborhoods for each of these studies. I’m excited to have a chance to implement some new formats in our first public meetings and online in the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to meeting the individuals and community organizations who will contribute to the future development of their neighborhoods, and to sharing more about my experience here.

Stay tuned!

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