BUCPUA kicks off #BUcity Co-Lab Week with panel discussion on tools for inclusive and accessible city planning


(Boston, MA 10/26/20) Elijah Romulus, assistant town planner for the town of Bridgewater, addresses a question from the audience during the “Planning Streets to Support Everyone” panel discussion. (Photo by Andrea Ciminelli)

The City Planning and Urban Affairs Program kicked off its #BUcity Co-Lab Week–– a series of events, panel discussions, and workshops running from October 26th through October 30th –– Monday night with a panel discussion event co-sponsored by BU Sustainability, and moderated by Sustainability’s own Erica Mattison, assistant director of communications.

The event, “Planning Tools to Support Streets for Everyone,” offered up advice, resources, and perspective from five industry experts on how city planners can––and should––design accessible, inclusive projects.

The five panelists covered a variety of backgrounds and experiences within and outside of the field of city planning.

“I landed in this field by mistake,” said Anabelle Rondon, program director of Great Neighborhoods with LivableStreets, who first got involved in the community development field by working at a non-profit and specializing in Latino businesses.

“I fell in love with finding out the specific needs of the community,” said Rondon, whose work specializes in the intersection between housing, transportation, and climate.

Nigel Jacob, co-chair and co-founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, is also invested in an on-the-ground approach to community involvement and development.

“When I left grad school, I was looking for a mission,” said Jacob. “My mission has stayed the same: try to change the way local government works.”

And he’s doing just that by engaging with communities via technology and design––literally.

Beta Blocks is his most recent project. The project aims to “explore how to teach people to interrogate their built environment,” said Jacob, by placing technology on streets to engage with community members and give them a platform to share opinions and concerns.

Marion Decaillet, director of inclusive public transit at the Institute for Human Centered Design, is equally concerned with and fascinated by connections with people, which is why she was drawn to transportation.

“I love to connect people to each other,” said Decaillet, “I love the physical connection.”

Decaillet works to provide accessible, inclusive public transportation by designing and planning projects with a holistic approach.

“We need to make sure that there is a connection between the project we want to deliver and the demographic we are serving,” said Decaillet. “We cannot design in a vacuum.”

Elijah Romulus is the assistant town planner for the town of Bridgewater, working in land use development and managing different energy projects and policy proposals.

Romulus had been involved in community work well before working in the public service, and it is this interest that led him to pursue city planning, after completing his undergraduate degree as an engineer.

“I started organizing in my hometown of Brockton,” said Romulus, “And as I was doing that community service work, I wanted to combine my engineer experience and activism passion.”

Jimmy Pereira, the community and transportation planner with Old Colony Planning Council, was led to city planning after completing his bachelor’s degree in geography and regional planning with a minor in ethnic and gender studies.

“Planning is very interdisciplinary,” said Pereira, who, from the beginning of his career looked at the ways the built environment and active transportation, like bicycling, were interconnected. 

Pereira worked with MassBike in the years prior to improve cycling, make sure that roads and infrastructure were safe for cyclists and drivers alike, and to reduce emissions by encouraging more people to take up biking.

Some of the most important and challenging problems and issues facing planners today is making sure communities are as involved as possible in the planning process, but this proves to be much more difficult in practice than in theory.

Rondon, who worked with the New York City Housing Authority on a planning process in the South Bronx, said a common mistake she sees in her work is translating the language of the plan to the greater community, across languages and the busy lives of community members.

To solve this problem, Rondon implemented coffee hours, a plan to “bring planning to the people.” Rondon and her team brought coffee into the lobbies of public housing buildings to listen and translate the concerns of the people about gentrification and the changes to come.

“We should be meeting people where they are,” said Rondon.

Pereira echoed Rondon, saying that planners should have a boots-on-the-ground approach with low-income and English as a Second Language communities to provide as much transparency as possible.

“We try to cast the net and drag it back in and see what we have,” said Pereira, who said the pandemic has resulted in a method of outreach moving toward video and audio, with literature moving to the backseat.

This poses problems, though, for low-income communities who might not have access to wifi. As a result, there is “a lot of sifting in the dark,” said Pereira, to try to find an approach that is inclusive of the population but also accessible to their needs and limitations.

Romulus said that one of the more positive things to come out of the pandemic is that public engagement has increased two, sometimes three times as much as years prior, in terms of the amount of people attending meetings.

Rondon said that COVID has amplified advocacy and the need for policy change, placing the demands on decision makers to actively listen to community members. Rondon added that COVID presents a unique opportunity to push change and to challenge the status quo.

In tandem with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed America toward a racial reckoning and re-evaluation of how the government serves its people.

“What does innovation look like in the era of trying to make city hall anti-racist?” asked Jacob. “How do we redesign the way decisions are made?”

These questions, although rhetorical, can be answered via “shining light on the root cause of some of these issues,” said Romulus, like looking at questions of abolition, looking at where public money and tax payer dollars do, and looking at how to be proactive as opposed to reactive.

Part of these changes are a move toward a more ecological and sustainable future for cities.

Romulus said the town of Bridgewater plans to add a fleet of hybrid vehicles to its current fleet and install charging stations on Town Hall’s campus, thus reducing the carbon footprint. The town of Bridgewater is also retrofitting LED lights to streetlights, replacing older halogen lamps to reduce energy usage, brighten up streets for pedestrian safety, and save money.

After the panel discussion, Mattison opened the floor to audience members to ask questions to the panelists.

Audience members asked astute questions about specific resources for inclusive city planning––panelists recommended reaching out to non-profit organizations in your community, as well as MassDot and the Mel King Institute.

Another question concerned local zoning laws and the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) Movement. Rondon answered this question, explaining that Massachusetts has a unique web of state laws that haven’t been updated since the 70s, causing 351 cities and towns to decide on zoning laws on their own because there is no state-level operation to handle that. Rondon said that voices need to come to the table to discuss opinions so that some change can be made.

Romulus echoed this, saying that a city planner is a change agent and a power-broker, working with stakeholders and trying to come to some middle lane.

For more information on CPUA’s Co-Lab Week, visit https://www.bu.edu/cityplanning/bucityco-labweek/

Anne Jonas, CAS ’21