(Summer 18) Misael Galdamez, G, Boston Planning and Development Authority, MA, (Summer 18)
Post 2 – Conversations with Planners
One of the most fruitful and instructive experiences I’ve had this summer has been the opportunity to interact with a number of city planning officials and public servants. This is my first foray in local government, and these conversations have me thinking about existential-ish questions about democracy.
For instance, does democracy always need to be so confrontational? Most political discussions in our country, whether about the budget or taxes or new development, tend to polarize into one side versus another. But is this necessary? Is there a way for people and members of the public to meaningfully express themselves to and with public leaders without a heated and charged debate?
On the one hand, for many politically heated groups and individuals, these intense expressions of democracy are about survival. Some of the most ardent and passionate activists and advocates are those groups of people who have been most burned by our history and system. It’s unite or perish (think the 13 colonies vs. Great Britain). A lot of activist action is against expressions of power, be it the local government, developers, bankers, or others.
On the other hand, most of the public servants and city planners I’ve met are mission-minded and sincerely value equity and justice. Most planners ended up in the field not because they want to turn a large profit, but because they wanted to make a meaningful change in their community or world. These servants are at the front lines of democracy and are often “on the hook” for issues that are often outside the jurisdiction (at least partially) of city government.
For example, increasing rents and development pressures has as much to do with neighboring suburbs, towns, and communities not producing enough housing stock as it does with demand and affordable housing stock in central cities.
I think we risk burning out our public servants when they become the punching bag of our democratic angst. It’s not that they don’t share blame or responsibility for past failures, which must be acknowledged. It just seems that oftentimes our activism and anger are misplaced and misdirected.
However, I’m not quite sure what the alternative is. What would meaningful democratic participation mean outside of these sorts of public engagements? What would it look like for cities and public officials to have ongoing relationships with the public, so that when planning processes and major events do happen, the trust has already been built? One thing is clear, and that’s that our current power structures fall short of true prosperity and wholeness (unless democracy was always meant to be this difficult).
Anyway, we’re currently in the midst of preparing for a workshop on neighborhood character in Glover’s Corner. We’re trying to keep the mood light and talk about neighborhood character, height, density, and open space. I’ve been helping draft and design the boards (posters) and I’m really looking forward to the upcoming event on July 31.
Post 1 – Aspirations
My name is Misael and I am a Master of City Planning Student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). I grew up in sunny Southern California, where my parents settled after immigrating from Mexico and El Salvador. Most of my friends growing up were first generation Americans like me: their parents came from Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, Jordan, and the Philippines, to name a few.
I remember asking my mom about her experience immigrating from Mexico. Although she finished a nursing program back home, she spent her early years in California working in a mini-blind factory while taking English (ESL) classes at night. It wasn’t until after she gave birth to my older sister and talked to a nurse while at the hospital that she learned how to transfer her degree. My mom would go on to become the administrator of a number of surgery centers and the primary breadwinner of our home.
To me, this illustrates the importance of connecting vulnerable populations to economic opportunities. There exists such potential within these populations, and they are often unaware of the information that they lack. These motivations brought me to DUSP to learn more about inclusive economic development and how to better connect disadvantaged and excluded populations to opportunities and resources within the local economy.
While studying at DUSP, I fell into community and civic engagement by providence; it wasn’t something I expected or hoped to learn. My research assistantship with professor Ceasar McDowell gave me the introduction. To explain in short: civic engagement is about public voice. Communities are as much political as they are economic, and just as certain populations have been excluded economically, they have also been excluded from political power. Often, their voices are ignored. Meaningful civic engagement seeks to ensure that everyone has a seat and a voice at the table, and that these voices are listened to.
These two interests are combining in my summer internship at the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA). I’ll be working with the Community Planning team on the PLAN: Glover’s Corner initiative.The BPDA is attempting to work with the community of Glover’s Corner in Dorchester (the boundaries are roughly between Savin Hill and Field’s Corner), a largely Vietnamese and Cape Verdean community, to create planning guidelines to shape future development. Glover’s Corner’s is expected to face greater development pressures and the city wants to get ahead of the game by creating a growth plan that’s in line with the community’s desires.
However, the process hasn’t been without its challenges and roadblocks. There are some members of the community who think that the process is moving too quickly and that the BPDA hasn’t adequately listened to their concerns. The BPDA (formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority) has had a tenuous and at times spotty history working with the residents of the city of Boston. That institutional memory lasts. Some residents have a historic and lingering distrust of the BPDA, even with its recent efforts to reestablish its legitimacy and credibility with Bostonians. From my perspective, there’s also a misunderstanding of the purpose of the plan. The plan is meant to be forward-looking, yet some see it as responding to the rising interests of developers.
With that in mind, I’m wrestling with some big questions this summer. How can trust between civic institutions and the public be rebuilt in both directions? How can local city and public officials interact with strong interest groups while still moving a process forward? And What is the power of an individual person, like an intern, to make a meaningful difference in these kinds of conversations? In terms of practical lessons, I’m hoping to gain some experience in actually facilitating conversations with community members.
I want to understand how planners in local government bring together and work with extremely diverse populations. Above all, I hope to have a better appreciation and understanding of the personal skillset and qualities needed in order to face the challenges of democracy collaboratively.