APA Podcast: People Behind the Plans

MUSE: Leading conversations about the built environment:

MUSE founding principal Courtney Kashima, AICP leads a podcast series for the American Planning Association called “People Behind the Plans” that explores both the business of urban planning and those who write and implement plans for the built environment.

Each of the 18 episodes and counting is an engaging conversation between two urban planners on work, life, ideas, and problem-solving in communities across the country. The episodes tackle sustainability, equity, challenges, lessons learned, and much more.

Listen to the episodes on Stitcher or Apple iTunes

Planners & professionals interviewed:

The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s supply of surface freshwater. When urban planner Josina Morita moved from California, where a mentality of scarcity around water dominates, to Chicago, where the opposite is true, it got her thinking: How can we be good stewards of the Great Lakes, one of our most precious natural resources? How can we keep ourselves accountable to the rest of the country and the world? Josina now serves as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), which manages stormwater and sewer water for Cook County, Illinois. But the organization also sees themselves as an environmental agency, and they pilot exciting new green technologies at many of their plants. Josina describes several of them in the episode and the promising ways they’re advancing the industry, saying, “The last thing anybody thinks about is drinking their own sewer water, but the technology is there, and water is becoming its own renewable resource.” She and Courtney also discuss how budgets are a reflection of a community’s values and why taxes make all the difference in a community’s infrastructure, as well as Josina’s passion for racial equity and making sure everyone has a seat at the table.

During her upbringing in Detroit, Nina Idemudia, AICP, thought a lot about how the built environment influenced her life. She went on to discover planning during her studies at the University of Michigan, and she knew it would be the framework she’d use to instill lasting change in the world. Currently Nina works as a city planning associate with the City of Los Angeles Planning Department, and she serves as the Young Planners Group coordinator for the APA California Chapter. Nina shares her passion for community engagement with listeners, talking about the sometimes surprising roadblocks that prevent residents from participating in the planning process and the simple ways planners can address these problems. Throughout the entirety of this lively conversation, she underscores how dire it is that planners make equity the bedrock of everything they do — and why it’s OK to ask for help in this area whenever needed.

What is mobility? It’s simply the ability to get somewhere, says Mark de la Vergne, chief of mobility innovation for the Mayor’s Office in Detroit. But when it manifests in the real world, this essential facet inevitably presents challenges for all types of municipalities, from New York to Austin to Seattle. In Detroit’s case, those challenges have been built up over years of policy decisions, but Mark’s job is to alleviate pain points by bringing in new technologies and services. In the last year, the city has embarked on a series of innovative pilot projects revolving around transportation solutions, such as bringing more car-share vehicles to Detroit’s neighborhoods so residents living beyond the city’s core have alternatives to car ownership. His big-vision goals include improving existing and adding new connected technologies to the city’s infrastructure — not to drum up hype but to actually address safety and operational issues. Mark names empathy as a crucial aspect of his work, because knowing what kinds of frictions exist for different people around the city is key to serving all Detroiters.

Resilience, civic infrastructure, participatory design — these topics and more play important roles in Taryn Sabia’s work. Taryn is the director of the Florida Center for Community Design and Research at the University of South Florida’s School of Architecture and Community Design, where she’s also a research associate professor. In a wide-ranging conversation with host Courtney Kashima, AICP, she talks about why planners must encourage the development of a civic infrastructure in their communities — and how they can do that. Taryn discusses the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which she hosted in 2014 and 2017 and gives city officials the opportunity to work with planners, architects, and designers on tough development challenges in their cities. In reflecting on the interdisciplinary nature of her work, she underscores the need for allied professions to come together on resiliency issues — such as building erosion due to saltwater inundation — as many Florida communities grapple with these realities on a daily basis.

Kate Hartley laughs when talking about what could have been if she had chased a career in legal history, the academic path she started on while in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. But after taking a couple urban planning classes on a whim, she never looked back. Nowadays, Kate focuses on all things housing as the director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) in San Francisco. She and Courtney discuss how the Affordable Housing Bonus Program leverages incentives to create affordable housing and why it’s so difficult to deliver units for middle-income households in the city. Kate praises the Mission Action Plan 2020, which focuses on decelerating the rate of eviction and displacement in the famed neighborhood. She talks about the challenges inherent in her work but also projects from other cities that inspire her, such as Vancouver’s investment in modular housing for homeless households. (Photo courtesy the Mayor’s Office for Housing and Community Development.)

New Orleans’s City Park claims some impressive titles: At 1,300 acres, it’s the largest regional park in Louisiana, and it ranks as the most visited park in the state at nearly 15 million visits per year. But that wasn’t the case 13 years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, and devastated the city — including that well-loved civic space.

For this special episode of People Behind the Plans, recorded in New Orleans at the National Planning Conference earlier this year, Courtney hears from Bob Becker, FAICP, CEO of City Park and an adjunct professor at the University of New Orleans. During the first half of the episode, Courtney and Bob look back on the effect of Hurricane Katrina on the park — every building damaged, 2,000 trees destroyed, and 90 percent of its funding gone overnight. Just five months before the storm hit, the organization finished devising a new master plan for the space, and Bob stresses how important that document was for charting a course forward during the recovery effort. (In fact, their work was recognized with a 2010 National Planning Excellence Award for a Hard-Won Victory.) During the second half of the episode, Bob talks about his career trajectory, including how he ended up doing planning work in Kuala Kencana, a company town in Papua, Indonesia, and how he finished a PhD program at a later-than-typical point in his career.

Mitchell Silver, FAICP, thinks parks are more than just islands of green spaces — much, much more. As Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Mitch makes it his mission to understand how people use these critical urban spaces, and he aims to ensure that children, adults, seniors, and everyone in between have access to a quality 21st-century park system.
Courtney caught up with Mitch during the 2018 National Planning Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the two discussed not only how he was shaped by a childhood spent blocks away from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, but also how seriously he takes public engagement when working with residents on park projects. He touches on some of the initiatives under way in his department and highlights a few of the less well-known examples of park success stories in New York City, including St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx and Highbridge Park, home to the city’s oldest standing bridge. Mitch reflects on his time in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he served as Chief Planning & Development Officer and Planning Director and sought to encourage growth in a community once hesitant to change. He also shares his views on equity, which he defines simply as fairness, in a bid to eliminate the jargon planners can sometimes employ when discussing the subject.

Courtney talks with Kristin Saunders, principal transportation planner with the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility & Infrastructure. They discuss the new department’s five ambitious goals relating to safety, access, reliability, affordability, and engagement. They cover Kristin’s work on the city’s bike plan and the City Steps Assessment, which aims to understand how each one of Pittsburgh’s 800 public staircases fit into the pedestrian network. The two even tackle the commotion surrounding Pittsburgh Steelers’ player JuJu Smith-Schuster and his stolen bicycle, which saw the city come together in support of finding the athlete’s primary mode of transportation.

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