2019 Bloomberg Harvard Summer Fellows Blog

September 12, 2019
Sarah Zhou at the press release of the One Atlanta: Housing Affordability Action Plan with Chief Housing Officer, Terri Lee.

In Summer 2019, the Initiative sent Harvard graduate students to work in cities in the U.S., Canada, Finland, and the U.K.

In their positions, made possible with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the 21 Bloomberg Harvard Summer Fellows spent 10 weeks working on issues of importance to the mayors of their respective cities—everything from blight remediation, to minority-owned businesses, to transportation, to harm reduction sites. The fellows came from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. They were each matched, based on interest and skills, with a city where they could work with the mayor and other senior government leaders to create the greatest impact for citizens.

The students chronicled their fellowship experiences. Here, in their own words, are some of their stories.

Human-centered housing policy innovation

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SEPTEMBER 2019 | ALBANY, NY
BY PRACHI NAIK, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL

From the street, the butter-yellow house still looked like it had some life in it. True, the windows were boarded up, but the front porch looked new and the boards themselves looked clean and sturdy, as if someone had put them up with every intention of being back soon. I’d seen far worse in my two weeks in Albany, NY, and couldn’t understand why this was the property in need of an emergency demolition that day. A young family could thrive in a home in a neighborhood like this.

But any hopes I had for the yellow house on Myrtle Avenue were quickly brought to reality when the firefighter on site showed us inside. I’d never seen deterioration like this: a heap of sodden, decaying wood extended from a giant hole in the roof through the caved-in second floor and cascaded into the center of what would have been the family room. Almost all interior walls had buckled and become part of the mighty heap of rubble. We could go no more than two steps in, and even so, the floor felt dangerously spongy beneath our feet. Though the owner of record died years before, decay like this looked to be decades in the making.

An Albany house slated for emergency demolition.
An Albany house slated for emergency demolition.

With the roof so compromised, the entire structure could collapse at any moment, threatening the homes on either side. The City had no choice but to pursue an emergency demolition, costing over $35,000. Saving the building via emergency stabilization—were that an option—would have cost double and still would not have brought the property up to living conditions. A full rehabilitation would have cost more than the resale value, though in this relatively stable and desirable neighborhood, the differential would have been lower than in other, poorer parts of the city, where returns on investment provide low incentive for rehab.

How does property deterioration like this happen? How is it allowed to happen? These were the questions at the heart of my fellowship in Albany, and extended far beyond the sad case of the yellow house on Myrtle Avenue. In a state capital where bad repair economics plague an already aging housing stock, it’s often a better financial decision for property owners to not fix properties than to provide for their upkeep. Examining the house on Myrtle, we could blame the owner for not having kept the property in good health. Or, more interestingly, we could begin to explore why deception—maintaining the façade of the home instead of investing in the interior—was a better financial decision than repair, and the consequences of this mis-structured system for vulnerable residents in Albany’s rental housing market.

This is where my work began. I was situated at the intersection of two major Harvard Ash Center projects underway in Albany: first, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which seeks to help mayors and city leaders step back from day-to-day responsibilities and pursue cross-siloed innovations and systems change; and second, the Harvard Innovation Field Lab-New York’s Cities RISE initiative, facilitating a million dollar grant competition in conjunction with the New York State Attorney General’s Office to address problem properties in upstate cities disproportionately impacted by the 2008 financial crisis. From this unique position, I was able to support the city with a human-centered design approach to creating innovative housing policy interventions.

Human-centered design begins with empathy. On the first day of my fellowship, Mayor Kathy Sheehan told me, “More important than what we do know is what we don’t know. And that’s why you’re here.” To better understand what the city didn’t know about its residents’ experiences with problem properties in the rental housing market, I developed and conducted an in-depth qualitative survey of landlords and tenants in Albany. In one-on-one and small group settings, I asked people to share their stories and was astounded by the honesty and vulnerability that greeted me.

This process of collecting stories helped us define the key problems the city had to confront, some of which included landlords’ misuse of the eviction process, an inability to collect on judgments in code enforcement cases, bloated labor licensing regulations, and siloed social service delivery models. Defining these problems with more clarity allowed our team to imagine creative solutions that we could then prototype, develop further through community engagement sessions, and ultimately propose as part of the Cities RISE grant application.  

Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s vision for Albany is one of self-empowerment. She wants her city to be a place where “every neighborhood works.” There’s a dual responsibility embedded in the word “works,” and my role this summer was to tease out what that means. If we are to acknowledge the deeply insidious and continuously pervasive nature of racialized redlining and public disinvestment in certain neighborhoods, it isn’t easy to parse out where poor residents’ responsibilities should end and city government’s responsibilities should begin. But when we create public policy with the understanding that those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution—in other words, by using human-centered design—we allow for the development of more responsible, and ultimately equitable, interventions that Albany is well on its way to achieving.

A city’s youth development in three questions

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SEPTEMBER 2019 | LANSING, MI
BY LINA HASHEM, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL

Against a backdrop of youth violence and the murder of a 17-year-old in broad daylight in downtown Lansing, MI—a few blocks from my desk at the Mayor’s Office—my fellowship project on youth development was far from an academic exercise. The unfortunate summer events grounded my work and reinforced the importance of having the “human element” front and center.

What started as a summer project focused on improving youth interactions with the Lansing Police evolved into three broader questions: what particularly challenging circumstances do youth face in Lansing, what does the city already do and fund for youth, and how can the city do better? Expanding the project scope allowed me to explore violence from a wider lens than just youth disadvantage. It also fed into Mayor Andy Schor’s priorities and initiatives. Since he took office, the city has partnered with several organizations to improve its use of data and evidence and move to a priority-based budgeting system. Answering my three project questions would complement the mayor’s work by suggesting youth priority areas and ways to redirect investments to maximize returns and better align them with city priorities. In the first hour of my fellowship, I attended Cabinet to learn about city leaders’ priorities and plans. In the following weeks, I would accompany a police officer on a six-hour ride-along, speak at length to city officials, attend community events, and explore challenged neighborhoods on foot to pursue my project objectives.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and  Bloomberg Harvard Summer Fellow , Lina Hashem.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and Bloomberg Harvard Summer Fellow, Lina Hashem.

To address the first question—what areas are particularly problematic for Lansing youth—I compared Lansing to youth across Michigan and nationally on many indicators. I also compared current data to past trends to identify worsening problem areas. The data revealed that more children in Lansing (41 percent) were living in poverty than children across the state (22 percent) and country (20 percent). Furthermore, child poverty trends in Lansing were heading against national and state trends of declining poverty. For all identified poverty indicators, Lansing children were significantly disadvantaged, as was true in many other areas: e.g., education, employment, crime, environmental conditions, and racial disadvantage.

Once I deepened my understanding of the types of disadvantage Lansing youth faced, I wanted to understand how this burden was distributed across the city. This would help identify locations that needed city investments the most. Using extensive data analysis, I pinpointed a specific Census tract that had the highest rates of child poverty, child lead exposure, and residents with less than a high school diploma. This tract was the only one to rank among the five most disadvantaged tracts for every youth indicator explored across project areas of poverty, education, employment, environmental conditions, and mobility. Surprisingly, despite the tremendous challenges this tract faced, its proximity to the downtown area, and its relatively large population, it was also disproportionately underserved, with nearly no city agencies or non-profits operating there. Based on this analysis, I outlined locations where the city could redirect investments in alignment with the Mayor’s focus on neighborhoods.

One page of Hashem’s analysis on the progression of child poverty in southwest Lansing.
One page of Hashem’s analysis on the progression of child poverty in southwest Lansing.

To address the second question—what does the city already do and fund for youth—I worked with city departments to develop an extensive inventory of youth programs that the city provides or funds across 22 data categories for 52 city programs. I also assessed the effectiveness of city crime-reduction and policing programs based on secondary research.

To address the third question—how can the city do better—I compared existing city offerings to proven approaches that address identified youth challenges. All recommendations were fundamentally driven by focusing on the local context. For example, my analysis revealed that murder was worse among Lansing youth compared to other violent crimes. As such, the new strategic framework for violent crime reduction focused heavily on interventions for reducing homicides, shootings, and gun violence.

Street mural in Lansing, Michigan.
Street mural in Lansing, Michigan.

My work feeds into the city’s efforts to effectively use its constrained resources to improve residents’ lives. City leaders suggested that they will draw on the project to (1) identify neighborhoods of focus, (2) guide investment decisions, (3) use the process as a template for addressing other city problems, and (4) adopt recommended interventions to improve youth outcomes.

My summer in Lansing exposed me to the essential work of cities as front-line responders to some of the nation’s most challenging issues. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Elmendorf once invoked the expression “lighting a candle instead of just cursing the darkness.” Lansing city leaders embodied this approach and showed me how to face complex challenges with a constructive attitude.

Igniting the citizen engagement machine

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SEPTEMBER 2019 | TOPEKA, KS
BY RODRIGO DORADOR, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL

Last summer, Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla intentionally placed me at the Greater Topeka Partnership (GTP), a public-private coalition of nine economic development organizations that merged to lead Momentum 2022, a strategic economic development plan first launched in 2018 that coordinates the work of the city of Topeka, Shawnee County, the GTP, and various private businesses and nonprofits in Topeka-Shawnee County (TSC).

After my first conversation with the senior vice president of strategy and lead coordinator for the Momentum 2022 coalition, the problem was clear: TSC residents were discouraged about their hometown. When I ventured around town to explore and listen to locals, the feeling was palpable. Residents complained to me about the lack of things to do, the crime, and the city’s dull appearance. Many people I met expressed a desire to leave Topeka where, already, forty percent of individuals who work in Topeka and earn above $40,000 per year live outside the city. As people left the region, the city and county lost its tax base. Once potential visitors heard there was little to do in Topeka, the region lost revenue from tourism. Low morale was impacting the community’s ability to engage in Momentum 2022’s economic and community development efforts.

“We developed this beautiful strategy, and all of us understood the strategy. All of us were celebrating the great things we were seeing happening, but the community was missing that engagement piece … I think the missing piece that we had, we have obtained with Rodrigo,” said De La Isla, who also is a Momentum 2022 tri-chair. “Rodrigo just blew all of us away.” (   source   .)
“We developed this beautiful strategy, and all of us understood the strategy. All of us were celebrating the great things we were seeing happening, but the community was missing that engagement piece … I think the missing piece that we had, we have obtained with Rodrigo,” said De La Isla, who also is a Momentum 2022 tri-chair. “Rodrigo just blew all of us away.” (source.)

What many residents did not know is that Momentum 2022 is transforming the face of their hometown. Just in the 10 weeks that I lived in downtown Topeka, the new coalition opened the Washburn Technical Institute East campus, hosted the region’s largest country music festival, started the process to pass a land bank policy to address blight, and convinced Plug and Play, the world renowned Silicon Valley business accelerator where Google was incubated, to open its Midwest headquarters downtown.

In short, the Momentum 2022 coalition is making Topeka a more attractive place to live, work, and play. The transformation will lead to an increased tax base and a growth cycle that should bring opportunity for everyone. But eighteen months into a five-year implementation plan, most information was tightly held within the Momentum 2022 coalition. The information needed to get out to everybody.

During my fellowship, my main priority, and one of the missing puzzle pieces of the implementation efforts, was to create a Speakers Bureau to engage local residents in conversation about Momentum 2022, and increase community morale. The thought of recruiting and training participants to educate TSC residents and share their personal experience during my ten-week tenure was scary. I would need to craft careful talking points and public narratives that explained the Momentum 2022 vision succinctly, create training materials, and convince a dozen people to give up their time to do this.

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The task seemed nearly insurmountable. Still, I felt positioned to succeed. In a previous role, when I worked at Immigrants Rising in San Francisco, I managed a program coordinator and a team of college students to provide inspirational college access presentations to undocumented youth. In my previous role, I had six months to recruit and train speakers. Now I had ten weeks.

I spent the first two weeks listening to community leaders about engaging local residents. They taught me about the importance of reaching out to neighborhood associations, told me stories that would engage TSC residents, and even recommended speakers that could speak credibly to target audiences. I spent the next three weeks recruiting speakers, crafting materials, and doing research in the community.

Then came a key breakthrough. During a conversation about crime at a Neighborhood Improvement Association meeting, I told a story about Cody Burger, a police sergeant involved in Momentum 2022, who was working on neighborhood level initiatives to prevent crime. The mood changed, and people seemed more interested. One resident told me she hadn’t known that “Momentum 2022 was working on neighborhood level things. I thought it was only about revitalizing downtown.”

Putting people first in addiction care

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SEPTEMBER 2019 | CALGARY, CANADA
BY HASAN SHEIKH, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL

The opioid crisis has affected cities across North America, and Calgary is no exception. Half a dozen Calgarians die every week from opioid poisoning, and alcohol-related mortality is even higher. Meanwhile, crystal meth has eclipsed opioids in Calgary as the most commonly used street drug. Unlike opioid use disorder, there is no effective medical treatment for crystal meth addiction.

Services for substance users are often disjointed and difficult to navigate. For one, medical services, like addiction physicians, are funded provincially while other services, like the police, are funded municipally. Still others—like shelters—are funded by a mix of provincial, municipal, and philanthropic sources.

Just over one year ago, the Calgary City Council approved $25 million in funding over five years to develop and implement a Mental Health and Addictions Strategy. As an emergency and addictions physician and medical lead for a low-barrier rapid access addiction medicine clinic in Toronto, I was immediately drawn to this unique opportunity to work on a systemic view of addiction medicine care. The strategy was in the final stages of development when I arrived in Calgary as a Bloomberg Harvard Summer Fellow in May 2019.

Early in my time with the city, we encountered a challenge: the strategy developed by the city’s administration was rejected at Committee. It would still go before the Council, but the clock was ticking on whether or not the city’s role could be salvaged.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi introducing Sheikh’s presentation of a person-centered view of Addiction and Mental Health Care in Calgary to approx. 30 service providers, community advocates, and people with lived experience.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi introducing Sheikh’s presentation of a person-centered view of Addiction and Mental Health Care in Calgary to approx. 30 service providers, community advocates, and people with lived experience.

I took this opportunity to redefine my summer project. In meetings with the mayor, we discussed the similarity between the concepts of patient-centered care and citizen-centered government. This led me to take a person-centered view of addiction medicine care in Calgary. I wanted to know: if I was someone using drugs in Calgary, where could I go for needles? For medical treatment? For counseling? How could I get housing, or an ID card? Substance abuse is complex and requires understanding and addressing distinctive biopsychosocial factors.

I met with service providers who worked in addiction clinics, managed opiate programs, supervised consumption services, shelters, recovery centers, jails, and much more. I wanted to understand their service, but in particular, I wanted to know: what was the most frustrating part of their day? I wanted to know where—despite their best efforts and intentions—their help was limited. I also met with people with lived experience to understand their barriers navigating the system. I was initially concerned that both providers and individuals with lived experience would be hesitant to speak to me, given my “authority” representing the mayor’s office. But I was taken aback by how readily every single individual I met opened up about the challenges they faced and their desire for better care for people who use drugs. One individual I met in a harm reduction facility was so engaged in our conversation that he asked me to meet him in the waiting room after he had injected so we could continue talking.    

The initial project deliverable was a presentation to the mayor on these gaps and barriers. But as I met with the various stakeholders, I realized that the whole City Council might benefit from hearing a comprehensive overview, and I extended the invitation. The subsequent discussion was robust, informative, and clarified concerns about the strategy that were not clear at the committee meeting. We learned that there was much more common ground than it appeared when the Committee initially rejected the strategy.

I also realized that while the city was determining its role, community organizations could start reducing the barriers right away. I convened approximately 30 service providers from diverse backgrounds, presented my findings, and kick-started a discussion on how they could collaborate to lower barriers and provide more comprehensive care for drug users.

This assembly inspired us to not only revise the strategy, but to have it driven by front-line service providers, with the City playing an essential role in coordination. The revised community-based strategy was passed unanimously at Council on July 29th, 2019, cementing the city as a national leader in Addictions and Mental Health.

Sheikh’s approach to going from a systemic view of addictions care (the "Four Pillars Drug Strategy") to a person-centered view of addictions care.
Sheikh’s approach to going from a systemic view of addictions care (the "Four Pillars Drug Strategy") to a person-centered view of addictions care.

My ten weeks in Calgary were extremely rewarding. It was an ideal opportunity to build on my clinical background and inform upstream work on policy issues that affect the health of vulnerable populations. I am extremely grateful to the community that welcomed me and spoke candidly about their successes and their failures. It was obvious that almost every service provider, bureaucrat, and politician I met wanted to help people who use drugs live safer and healthier lives, even when there was disagreement on how to achieve that goal.

I am proud to have helped start an ongoing conversation on how to reduce the barriers to care that people who use drugs face. I recently had a phone call with one of the Community Health Centers' directors who mentioned that my time in Calgary has inspired them to replicate our low-barrier rapid access model, and they are collaborating with others to coordinate that service. With approval of the strategy, it is exciting to see that the work will continue after my brief time in Calgary.

From paper forms to an online data center

SEPTEMBER 2019 | SANTA FE, NM
BY JOANNA BELL, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL

“We just don’t use data.” That was the lament that I heard from top members of Mayor Alan Webber’s administration in Santa Fe. Good data helps city governments be transparent and accountable, measure performance, and predict where city resources will need to be deployed. Santa Fe’s data infrastructure, however, lagged far behind cities that follow current best practices.

Mayor Webber and his staff are used to working for data-driven organizations: He founded the magazine Fast Company and many of the directors he hired previously worked for cities recognized for their ability to leverage data to improve residents’ lives. And yet Santa Fe heavily relies on paper forms, and each department has its own systems and processes. This meant I walked into a city in transition. Many people were itching for change, but with the City so far behind, and with only limited staff capacity, there was a sense of spinning wheels. My task was to create a roadmap to break down Mayor Webber’s goals into achievable steps, giving clarity and structure to his goal to implement data-driven governance.

The Mayor and his Chief of Staff, Jarel LePan Hill, were interested in the following questions:

Luckily, other cities have tackled these questions in creative ways, so I had countless examples of where to start. However, most other cities that use data successfully are much larger than Santa Fe’s population of 83,000. Additionally, Santa Fe’s motto is the “City Different” and there’s a culture that bucks convention. I needed to take all the lessons learned from cities that successfully use data and translate these lessons to the unique Santa Fe context.

I quickly learned that the narrative that “we just don’t use data” was actually not true. While the City didn’t collect or use data organization-wide, being a small city meant that there was leeway for staff across all levels to run projects in creative ways. Pockets of staff in departments from Fire to Community Services were collecting data and, most importantly, using that data to inform how they ran programs, funded contractors, and budgeted for the future. Gaining this overview of data use across the City was one of the project’s biggest successes. Both the Mayor and Chief of Staff were surprised and happy that data-use was ingrained already in some departments and projects. This also gave us a set of practices and skills to create the final Data Roadmap.

In creating the City’s data strategy, I created a Data Inventory for Santa Fe. Despite the feeling that there wasn’t much data even being collected, I recorded metadata for over 400 distinct data sets collected, used, or updated across the City. I then made this inventory and other data projects or datasets clearly accessible to City employees through a “Data Center” intranet page. It also included links to MySidewalk dashboards that I created to report on progress towards the City’s goals.

A screenshot of the “Data Center” – the first single point of access for City-wide data in the City of Santa Fe.

While my work provided the City with a foundation to build on, my main recommendations addressed the need for someone to own the data strategy going forward. The City of Santa Fe website shows much evidence of past attempts to make government more transparent through data use. To make sure that Mayor Webber’s goals have staying power beyond his administration, Santa Fe needs a Director-level position with the power to manage change and improve data use city-wide. To bridge the gap until this position is filled, I recommended that the City take advantage of the staff that are already leveraging data by creating a Data & Innovation team to bridge silos and share data practices across departments.

In addition to these recommendations, I drafted many different “plug and play” products so that as the City hits milestones on the way to becoming a data-driven City, there will be policies, RFPs, and job descriptions ready to be implemented. This included the job description for the Director of Data, Performance, and Innovation, an Open Data Policy, a guide for collecting data on constituent needs, and many more resources.                                                    

By laying the foundation and providing as much structure and support as possible, I am hopeful that my work will guide the City of Santa Fe’s transformation from a paper-based government to a more efficient data-driven one, leveraging the “City Different” energy and the creativity of the City staff to use this data in new and unexpected ways.

Data-driven decisions for affordable housing

SEPTEMBER 2019 | ATLANTA, GA
BY SARAH ZOU, HARVARD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF DESIGN

An analysis by Governing magazine in 2015 ranked the City of Atlanta fifth among US cities experiencing the most gentrification. In line with these findings, residents have been feeling the impacts of the growing population, changing economy, increasing housing prices, and rising rental rates. A city with a history of racialized red-lining is now facing uneven rates of homeownership recovery from the 2009 recession and inequitable effects of real estate speculation. As such, the City is concerned about balancing the needs of its longtime residents with the changes brought by increasing urbanization and economic development. Fortunately, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is prioritizing affordable housing and is working diligently to ensure that all who desire to call Atlanta home, can.

In the City of Atlanta, there are five City Agencies that independently administer, fund, and shape the city’s affordable housing portfolio: Atlanta Beltline, Inc., Atlanta Housing Authority, City of Atlanta - Office of Housing & Community Development, Invest Atlanta, and Fulton County Land Bank Authority. These City agencies contribute to Atlanta’s affordable housing stock using a web of different funding sources, regulatory charges, and success metrics. Prior to the mayor’s appointment of Terri Lee as Atlanta’s first-ever Chief Housing Officer (CHO), it was rare (if not impossible) to find the heads of the five city agencies in the same room creating and implementing a city-wide, comprehensive affordable housing strategy.

At the press release of the One Atlanta: Housing Affordability Action Plan with Chief Housing Officer, Terri Lee.

In the last eight months, under the leadership of Terri Lee, the City of Atlanta saw great strides in coordinating affordable housing efforts with June 2019’s launch of the One Atlanta: Housing Affordability Action Plan. This Plan was a joint effort of the five city agencies and was carefully linked to the efforts of HouseATL (a cross-sector group of civic leaders committed to building the political and community will for a comprehensive and coordinated housing affordability action plan in Atlanta). The Plan outlines four main affordable housing goals to which the Bottoms administration is committed:

1.     Create or preserve 20,000 affordable homes

2.     Invest $1 billion from public, private, and philanthropic sources

3.     Ensure equitable growth for all Atlantans and minimize displacement

4.     Support innovation and streamline processes

As part of the Mayor’s commitment to transparency and accountability, the Plan also outlines the specific metrics that will be used to track the City’s progress.

Presenting preliminary findings and updated data management procedures to the five City Agencies.

That is where my summer assignment came in. For 10 weeks, I was tasked with creating a public-facing dashboard that would track the City’s progress towards its four main goals. Quickly, I discovered that this would be equal parts data management/visualization and city agency coordination/alignment. Because the CHO was a newly created arm of the Mayor’s office, there was no existing management infrastructure before January 2019. As such, the first holistic tracking of all the city agencies’ affordable housing projects/investments in one database was finished just earlier this year. To begin my summer task, I inherited the first iteration of this tracking document and soon found that the amount of data being entered into the document was increasing at a pace that the existing template and updating procedure could not manage. This meant the tracking document was prone to data quality issues, duplication of projects, and general inconsistencies.

To ameliorate the underlying systemic problems with the data tracker, I spent a lot of my summer working closely with the city agencies to clean existing data, reconfigure the data entry methods, and create new coordination procedures around data management. Once the data was generally free of errors and included more crucial metrics, I spent a significant percentage of time visualizing the data in a PowerBI dashboard.

One page of the City of Atlanta Housing Affordability Tracker dashboard.
One page of the City of Atlanta Housing Affordability Tracker dashboard.

The dashboard I created transformed the spreadsheet’s numbers and letters into a story. With the interactive dashboard, it was clear which zip codes were being heavily invested in, where the major affordable housing projects were being developed, how many units were created for which level of Area Median Income, what the breakdowns were between project type and funding source, and more. Creating this dashboard (and the underlying coordination that made it a reality) was a crucial step in helping the City of Atlanta make more data-driven policy decisions and be more transparent in their municipal operations.

This dashboard will be showcased on the City of Atlanta’s affordable housing website and is planned to be updated quarterly.

Testing an engagement strategy with rapid transit

SEPTEMBER 2019 | SASKATOON, CANADA
BY BENJAMIN NOTKIN, HARVARD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF DESIGN

The City of Saskatoon is growing rapidly. Its population of a quarter-million expects to double in 20 years and has the second highest immigration rate in Canada. Bus rapid transit (BRT) is one prong of Saskatoon’s strategy to prepare for its new size, and was the focus of my work there this summer. Change in size, though, is not only physical—it is also social. As such, preparing for growth is a matter of developing physical infrastructure, such as a bus network, as well as institutional and cultural infrastructure.

Saskatoon has set its sights on developing a new culture of collaboration. The new bus system is important not just as a transit initiative, but as a means of fostering this culture, both within City administration and the public. As Mayor Charlie Clark advised me, a city can announce its values and aspirations, but it is through flagship projects that a city really learns.

While I was in Saskatoon, the City declared its values by passing a new policy for authentic community engagement. My role was to lay the groundwork for future transit engagement so that it could be an archetypal application of this new framework.

My primary deliverable was a request for proposal (RFP) for community engagement and communication regarding the transit overhaul, and a guide for the City to use when selecting and working with the engagement firm. Though the ultimate objective was to develop a culture of collaboration and participation within Saskatoon, I believed my role was not simply to research and report on best practices. The BRT engagement strategy could not just be the product of one person, me, essentially an external consultant, entering the city for 10 weeks.

My deliverables were actually an opportunity to start practicing the City’s collaboration vision. I listened to, reconciled, and incorporated Saskatonians’ distinct desires for engagement on BRT; the engagement strategy and the RFP were the products of an iterative and polyphonic collaboration process. I also investigated best practices for transit-related engagement and communication. I explored what other cities have done to learn what their current and not-yet transit riders want, and to prepare them to use a new system. Many exciting new technologies exist to facilitate public participation in transit planning, but more important than the flashy innovations are the lessons of citizen empowerment that transcend any particular method’s technical code and equipment.

Saskatoon at sunset.
Saskatoon at sunset.

RFPs are not, of themselves, exciting documents. Still, as the overall goal of Saskatoon’s BRT project was to kickstart a culture of collaboration and participation, I believed it was important to involve the best community engagement firms and inspire them. I wanted an engagement process that was creative and portfolio-worthy. A process that simply obtained the necessary information but didn’t excite Saskatonians about becoming involved in civic culture wouldn’t be enough. I asked the engagement firms to describe their favorite projects. Modus Design, of Vancouver, and Interboro Partners, of New York, graciously responded with lists of attributes they look for.

To help applying firms develop the strongest proposals, I provided background information about the city and transit project based on interviews and spatial analysis. I produced maps of transit- and engagement-related indicators, such as transit ridership and civic election turnout. I used these indicators to cluster neighborhoods so that firms could tailor engagement strategies to a few neighborhood profiles. In presenting my work I was surprised by people’s appreciation of these maps. People were hungry for spatial information, not only for the BRT project, but for other city issues as well.

Near the end of my time, I learned that the City may not in fact use the RFP I drafted, as they may conduct the community engagement in-house. I believe this is a success: by not outsourcing engagement to an external firm, but instead exercising its own engagement capacity, the City will further embody and entrench the values of collaboration and civic participation.

While the RFP was my primary output, my work will still prove useful. As Michelle Beveridge, the mayor’s chief of staff, described it, I piloted the City’s new engagement policy. I affirmed to stakeholders that the City cares about engagement and, within City administration, I served as, in her words, “the hub between different departments, recognizing the differences between departments and working to align different perspectives and sectors.” The research I put into drafting the RFP and guiding the selection process will also be useful for guiding the in-house engagement.

I was honored to have the opportunity to be brought into the civic life of Saskatoon, and I am grateful to everyone who so warmly welcomed me. Before coming to Harvard, I worked for an architect who often preached the role of mediating between different actors in local governance. Through my work this summer, I was able to begin to practice this collaborative role and look forward to further developing this skill.