Women in Planning: The Power of Community Engagement

APA's Women and Planning Division marked National Community Planning Month by conducting a series of interviews that recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of women in planning. These interviews will also explore the issues facing the planning and development of communities, cities, regions, states, and the nation related to the changing roles of women and men as a means of promoting social equity.

This is the second part in a month-long series.

Describe your planning background, particularly as it relates to civic engagement.

I come from a nonprofit background. I was part of the team that got the High Line off the ground and was there for six years. It was there that I was first exposed to planning and civic engagement. I received a planning degree and focused on the use of technology in public space design, particularly whether technology can make public processes more equitable and innovative. I also worked as a senior planner in Planning and Parklands for the NYC Parks Department, focusing on coastal resiliency and open space strategies city-wide.

I came almost two years ago to ioby (which stands for "in our backyards" — "the positive opposite of NIMBY," as the website states), as I was looking to be involved in smaller scale, citizen-led projects. These types of projects can teach us a lot about where the energy and capacity are in a community. I like ioby's model, which makes planning very inclusive, and which is not prescriptive at all. ioby provides the opportunity for residents to step forward; to bring their neighbors together and put together a project they view as needed, such as a community garden or pop-up festival.

Describe a plan or project in which you have been involved and public engagement changed the course, leading to a better outcome?

One of my favorite projects was in Atlanta. We partnered with Transit Center, which is a cool organization that funds nontraditional projects which encourage better engagement and decision-making around transit improvements. That partnership was for a campaign called "Trick out my Trip" — residents and riders could propose and then complete a small project, such as fixing a bus stop or installing a bike rack, anything that could improve the transit experience in a tangible way. The key requirement is that the person taking on a project had to make a connection with the transit agency. That connection with the agency was very important, and from it relationships were built between agency and residents, leading to more open communication.

Binh Dam was a new Atlanta resident who came from Paris. He was surprised and disappointed to find no information at the bus stops in downtown; no timetables to make it easier for people to use the bus system. He found out about the campaign, put together a project, and crowdfunded it in the amount of about $500. With that money, he zip-tied laminated timetables to the poles of the bus stops! MARTA, the transit agency, went for the project and it partially inspired the formation of the MARTA Army, which is an ongoing effort to engage residents around transit.

People are now stepping up to be involved in decision making and MARTA likes it, particularly because the projects can involve such small money, especially for a transit system. Clearly, it is $500 spent in the right place! (Learn more about this story on the ioby website.)

What key piece of advice would you offer to planners to achieve productive civic engagement?

There are many different ways to listen. I like to use a framework that moves away from the traditional public meeting in a gym that checks that "engagement" box. I think it is important to be creative about additional opportunities to engage, to consider where people might have good ideas but haven't had the opportunity to come forward.

Neighbors can have tremendous insight; everyone knows who the unofficial "mayor" is in the neighborhood. Our work tries to tap into these informal social networks. It can be a long process, but the most important parts are listening and not being prescriptive.

In this age of busy schedules and social media, are planners right to continue to rely on face-to-face evening meetings?

I don't want to be one of those people who says the public meeting is dead. I have been to very good ones where an idea has come up that wouldn't have otherwise. But not every public meeting has that success. I think one of the challenges is that a government agency, for example, comes from a position of power and tells a neighborhood that "things are going to change." That approach needs to be rethought, and engaging people face to face can help with that process.

I don't want to see an in-person opportunity lost, but I believe it should be more about listening. The people who talk loudest will make it seem that their views matter most at these meetings. But more creative opportunities for engagement can help to uncover hidden leaders who are sources of insight and knowledge.

Some people are more comfortable submitting ideas online. But I don't think online engagement is the only answer — it is part of it. It can be helpful to give pointed direction, provide training and resources, and build capacity of networks of people to engage in how their neighborhood is changing.

Do planners need to consider gender when facilitating public engagement?

Oh yes! I have had many experiences of being shouted down by a tall, loud man, and I imagine most women who do planning work can relate. In my current job, many of the leaders in our projects are women of color. We have had many projects in neighborhoods like North Memphis, or Buckeye in Cleveland, and women have been key to those efforts.

One of my favorite projects was in Memphis — the project leader was a nurse and mother who had never done anything like this before. She had said voting was the extent of her civic engagement before this project. She lived near a dark, gloomy overpass. When she found out about ioby, she presented a project to paint a mural under the overpass.

She has described what it meant to her to take that step, to be a model for her kids: to be the person raising the money and painting the underpass. It is a really cool mural and all the neighbors know she led it. It was great to watch her become a neighborhood leader. (Learn more about this story on the ioby website.)

What are some of the tricks or tools you have recently experimented with that you've found most useful for engaging with the public?

This is an opportunity to describe what our tool is, which is available at www.ioby.org/idea. We begin by asking people what is one thing they want to improve in their neighborhood. The next step is a conversation with ioby to determine the plan: who is in the network, what are the steps that need to be taken, and what are the challenges.

There is a lot of one-on-one interfacing, and we know the project leaders well by the end. We provide coaching and strategizing, and we open up more of a conversation about the change the leader or group want to see in their neighborhood.

What are the best ways to engage meaningfully with young people on a project?

It has been interesting to see how many young people have come forward as leaders within ioby projects. We have had high school kids run projects and it has been exciting to see people so young have a real impact on their neighborhoods. A huge portion of projects ioby supports include youth education, art, storytelling, and video programs. Our goal is to provide more opportunities for youth to express their voice.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I have talked a lot about engagement with individuals and neighborhoods, but I want to also point out that we partner with organizations and city agencies. I mentioned MARTA, and we also had a partnership with NYC Department of Transportation for a space under elevated infrastructure in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Another great partnership was in Los Angeles, through the Office of the Mayor's Great Streets program. This project identified the most dangerous and car-centric corridors and is making them into better streets, providing improvements at a neighborhood scale. It has been great to partner with official decision makers in what is for many of them a new way to engage communities.

Top image: Betsy Robinson led ioby's Cooper-Higbee mural project in Memphis. Photo by David Leonard courtesy ioby.

About the Interviewee

Katie Lorah

Katie Lorah is communications and creative strategy director at ioby, a civic crowdfunding platform in Brooklyn, New York. An urban planner by training, her work centers on mobilizing community participation in placemaking and public space projects.

November 18, 2016

By Katie Lorah