ST: Hi, I’m Shin-pei Tsay. With Frank, I started a group in NYC called Planning Corps.
FH: I’m Frank Hebbert. We’ve been writing short updates at planningcorps.org but nothing that explores the ideas behind Planning Corps. CoLab Radio seems like a good place to have a longer discussion. Rather than merge our distinct voices and opinions into a single voice we thought we’d try this conversational approach. So, why Planning Corps?
ST: The idea grew out of a few discussions about the role of planners in the world at large, whether planners had a specific skill that set them apart from other professionals. Were planners ultimately making a difference? I thought planners should be enablers or catalysts for change – their contribution should augment community advocacy or organizing. Frank, I think you should come clean with your cynicism – I think you once asked me if the world even needed planners!
FH: I’m not sure if I was that extreme… but certainly wondering how planning people could be useful to other groups on a short term basis. I think we started with a conversation about planner speed dating – whether you could get planners hooked up with people who need the skills that planners can offer, to the mutual benefit of both sides.
ST: Right, for example, could a planner sit down with a techie and come up with some interesting new ways of using data that would help with city management.
FH: We actually had the first conversation at a workshop to collaboratively map out planning processes. At the time I was asking a lot of questions about the pace of planning – feeling that people come bursting out of grad school and get tangled up in institutions and the slower pace of change on the outside, despite the urgency of the challenges we face.
ST: Planners should enable change at any level – whether it’s community, national, or even global, though of course that change can feel slow coming and the development system is broken.
FH: Setting up Planning Corps gave us a way to try out a different model of engagement ourselves, and see what does and doesn’t work. Starting out, I think we both wanted to facilitate connections between non-profit organizations with projects and planners with skills.
ST: I thought it important to connect to non-profits that have a mission that is public in scope and works towards change. There was a lot of discussion between us about what enabling change meant for Planning Corps, but we did agree on connecting with non-profits.
FH: There are lots of ways to support those connections – in a one-off workshop versus over several months, with one-to-one versus a team, and so on. We looked at groups like 1% for Design and Architecture for Humanity, and wondered how a similar model could work for planners. It’s clear that street design or data mapping skills can be applied in relatively unknown situations, but that’s not true of the ‘softer’ skills planners are good at. How much can be done in an hour, if the best abilities revolve around nurturing involvement, dealing with diverse voices, and unlocking community engagement? How useful can your contribution be if you know nothing about the local context and your involvement is over at the end of the evening? Can organizations really benefit from working with Planning Corps, given the briefness of involvement and the unpredictability of volunteer planners who attend? We’re still trying to work some of these questions out, but we were very lucky with the first few sessions.
ST: We had the good fortune of being supported by Transportation Alternatives (TA), a non-profit advocacy organization in New York City, where I was working at the time. Having TA as a founding partner of Planning Corps was a perfect fit. TA works directly on planning-related issues, but because it is strictly an advocacy organization and its primary output was organizing for political change, not design, planners could very naturally augment its core competency.
FH: I think you’re downplaying the human element in this — because you worked at TA, the initial risk was far lower for them. They knew you and so the idea of a partnership wasn’t as big of a risk as it might be for an organization that we’re not embedded with. Plus, while TA might primarily be an advocacy group, the staff and TA volunteers have a huge understanding of streetscape and road design issues, much more than most of the planners we might attract.
FH: Another strength of working with TA is that they have an ambitious scope, but specific projects. So we can plug Planning Corps into the TA process and talk about making a street better, and everyone present knows that TA will be able to carry those ideas beyond the meeting room. You should explain the Queens Boulevard collaboration; it demonstrates this perfectly.
ST: A little background for those who aren’t familiar with NYC: Queens Boulevard is a major east west arterial corridor in the Borough of Queens. Over the decades, it’s gone through the conventional devolution of once being a grand boulevard that connected diverse neighborhoods to an expressway for shuttling cars to and from Manhattan and other expressway interchanges. Although it behaves as a high-speed corridor, it continues to be a popular travel route for pedestrians and cyclists because there are few other options.
The New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) implemented some safety improvements over the last ten years, but there was growing widespread sentiment that they weren’t enough. Data from both the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Elmhurst Trauma Center revealed a disproportionate number of pedestrian injuries on Queens Boulevard, yet sustaining the campaign year after year became tough. In advocacy, you have people’s attention for only a short period of time. TA’s bicycle director thought that strong visuals illustrating a radically yet realistically improved Queens Boulevard could reinvigorate interest in the campaign. The TA Queens volunteer committee, made up of Queens residents from all neighborhoods in Queens, also decided to make Queens Boulevard one of its major advocacy goals for 2010. Then there was momentum.
Because no one among this group had all the skills to produce street redesigns, this seemed to be a perfect project for Planning Corps. As a topic, it was an attraction: people consistently showed up for the Queens Boulevard project.
FH: Those TA sessions have been helped by knowledgeable people, including TA staff and volunteers, who might not have otherwise attended. It’s also helpful that TA is relatively large, compared to many smaller non-profits or community groups, so this collaboration isn’t competing with other essential tasks for any of the staff.
ST: Remember, though, that you and I spent a lot of time breaking down the process so that non-planners and planners without street design skills could participate. It was an enormous challenge every single session. We wanted wide participation, but didn’t want to dilute the quality of the product. I think being bound by the short working sessions disciplined our thinking about the conventional street design process.
FH: Planning Corps’ work on Queens Boulevard will wrap up later this year. We’ll be presenting to the Queens volunteer committee in October and spend the rest of the year working on a plan for them. After that, new projects! Check out planningcorps.org. Join the mailing list and get involved.
Post by Frank Hebbert and Shin-Pei Tsay.