Learning cluster discussions: Sustainable Communities Consortium Meeting, Fall 2012
Planning and Preserving Urban Green Infrastructure
This session featured a number of innovative projects, with goals ranging from increased access to fresh foods to improving water quality, neighborhood livability, and climate resiliency. The group used a broader definition of green infrastructure, going beyond the usual focus on stormwater. Urban green infrastructure is about using natural resources and functions to advance environmental and equity goals, while also creating more livable neighborhoods. By emphasizing and expanding green infrastructure, public health and welfare benefits will also be realized.
Discussion focused on implementation and the barriers preventing more widespread adoption and opportunities to advance this work. Beyond the need for more outreach and education, the value of demonstration projects should not be overlooked. It is invaluable for project proponents to be able to point to on-the-ground successes.
Urban green infrastructure will also play an important role in response to climate change. Preserving and protecting our natural areas and waterbodies and increasing our reliance on functioning, natural systems can reduce threats to property and health from the anticipated effects of climate change, including severe storms, flooding, sea level rise, and greater fluctuation in precipitation.
Achieving Your Development Vision
Discussion centered on the importance of understanding your market and the needs of the end-users, as well as the challenges with securing financing for mixed-use redevelopment projects.
Having an intimate understanding of local market needs goes beyond a market assessment; it requires talking to business and nonprofits leaders, property owners, neighbors, and potential tenants. Site and building design must be informed by this input to realize successful projects.
The type and quality of transit service was identified as an important consideration in TOD projects. For example, developers are finding that infrequent commuter rail service in the Fairmount Corridor is not significantly changing the development or funding opportunities in that area.
Existing financing programs like the New Market Tax Credits don’t favor small, neighborhood-focused retail, and efforts are underway to create new TOD funds to help fill such existing gaps. At the end of the day, funding opportunities are not the only driver of redevelopment—the advancement of community goals often comes out of neighborhood and community needs and organizational missions that create projects.
Equitable TOD Planning and Research
Common themes included using data to drive policy and the need for intervention to balance a development’s benefits with its potential negative impacts such as displacement. All three presenters are using rigorous data analysis to provide direction for policy and implementation. The draft E-TOD scoring system assesses TOD sites and identifies where investments are likely to improve a site’s performance.
For example, the area around Symphony and Mass Ave. scores higher than Jackson Square, primarily because Jackson has less existing development. As more development comes online in Jackson Square, the disparity in E-TOD scores will decrease. In Somerville, potential impacts on housing prices and displacement from the Green Line Extension were explored. This research is extending to a neighborhood- and population-scale in order to tailor policies to local circumstances. The ever-present tension between gentrification and equity, such as the balance of rising incomes and displacement, was also discussed. Somerville has adopted a number of tools to prevent displacement and is exploring modifications that may be needed. Tools include inclusionary zoning, condo conversion ordinances, and community benefits agreements. Planning for equitable TOD requires looking at three geographies to get it right: corridors, station areas, and the entire transportation network. Making sure the plans and infrastructure is in place and coordinated at all three levels is necessary.
Including Everyone in the Planning Process
This group discussed innovative approaches to ensuring that all stakeholders have the opportunity to fully engage in planning processes, with an emphasis on the importance of engagement as a means to address and advance equity. One participant noted that many planning processes ask for input and then promptly ignore the concerns raised. This sparked an intense discussion about power, money, and inclusion. Partners are working across the region to change the traditional dynamic of “public notification” into robust, active “civic engagement.”
Scanning at a project’s initiation in order to identify all stakeholders and tailoring outreach to non-traditional groups represented in planning processes are critical elements of a successful engagement strategy. Identifying the right time to engage and allowing flexibility in work scope to respond to unanticipated developments is also important.
There are many emerging ideas for improving outcomes, including the use of technology and non-traditional meeting formats; building long-term relationships with community leaders; and making engagement fun. Effective engagement takes long term commitment and organizing. By developing new leaders and being able to demonstrate that engagement influences project design, the voice of the community takes on new power to ensure that developments are appropriate and beneficial to a wide range of stakeholders.