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ILP Institute Insider

March 14, 2013

Urban Planners Listen to the Street

Tapping local wisdom to build urban sustainability across the globe.

Eric Brown

Now in its sixth year, the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) draws on expertise throughout MIT to help community organizations develop new models for urban sustainability. Yet, as CoLab grapples with urban challenges like climate change, resource scarcity, deteriorating infrastructure, and reductions in social spending, its greatest resource may be urban residents themselves.

Dayna Cunningham
Executive Director
MIT Colab
"Poor communities have a lot to teach us about adapting to scarcity and environmental distress," says Dayna Cunningham, Executive Director of CoLab, an offshoot of MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). "People living on the margins understand a lot about what's not working with the system, and they know how to make their way even when they get little support. That knowledge is an incredibly valuable resource."

This is all the more reason to give poor and marginalized citizens a democratic voice in community development, she adds. "We need all hands on deck to solve the problems of sustainable cities," says Cunningham. "To solve problems like water and waste management, it's not enough just to go to wealthier communities. You can't isolate one part of a city and make it sustainable. Every neighborhood needs to be involved."

Depending on the project, CoLab can play the role of student, teacher, or activist—or sometimes all three. CoLab not only studies the new urban landscape, but it shares its urban planning and business development expertise with community organizations, and often acts as a liaison between community groups and established economic and political stakeholders.

In projects such as improving energy efficiency and waste management, generating employment, and providing the urban poor with greater access to services, the group views social action within the context of new environmental challenges.

"Changes in the environment, climate change, and resource scarcity are changing the way we plan cities and organize transportation and housing," says Cunningham. "So many aspects of urban life are going to change."

While climate change poses huge challenges, it also provides opportunities to generate wealth. "Somebody's going to make a lot of money creating value within the context of environmental scarcity," says Cunningham. "We want to make sure marginalized neighborhoods can participate in that."

From New Orleans to Nicaragua, a Desire to Build

Cunningham started her career as a voting rights lawyer, but eventually came to see the limits of applying the law to social justice. "Pointing out problems and bringing lawsuits was fine, but after a while, I wanted to build things, not just take things apart," she says. "I was looking for different ways to work on the issues of poverty and democratic voice."

That search took Cunningham to the world of philanthropy and then to MIT's Sloan School where she explored market-based mechanisms to encourage social justice. "That was the beginning of CoLab," says Cunningham.

In 2007, CoLab embarked on its inaugural project: helping to identify new solutions for post-Katrina New Orleans. The group adopted a bottom-up approach, sending out MIT students across the flood-ravaged city to ask residents and community organizations for ideas on city planning. Combining the best of these proposals with its own ideas, CoLab helped the New Orleans Office of Recovery Management submit a recovery plan to the city that focused on sustainability and community participation.

Since then, CoLab has adapted this process for a variety of disadvantaged communities in the U.S. and elsewhere. For example, the group has recently been working in Nicaragua with women living near garbage dumps who have organized themselves into a trash-picking and recycling coop.

"We help them create technology that can move them up the value chain," says Cunningham. "Rather than just collect plastic bottles, we are working with them to create simple technologies to turn the bottles into chips that can bring more profit."

Other projects have included helping the coop do more effective business planning, and working with local governments to integrate the coop into the municipal waste management system. "The women are getting a more ensured output for their products, and the city can do more comprehensive waste management," says Cunningham.

CoLab also acts as a clearinghouse for new ideas that involve communities in urban sustainability. Often, academic publishing is too slow for the rapid pace of environmental and urban change, says Cunningham. To that end, CoLab began making more use of social media technologies like Twitter, and it launched CoLab Radio, a multimedia blog site where community organizers, urban planners, and ordinary citizens can share ideas on urban development and community action.

"Because everything is changing so quickly in cities, the lessons must be learned quickly," says Cunningham.

A Bronx Tale

CoLab continually searches for new ways to encourage wealth generation and economic self-sufficiency in poor communities. The group has explored solutions ranging from encouraging companies to hire and buy locally to helping launch worker-owned businesses.

Lately, CoLab has been active in the Bronx, which Cunningham calls "an amazing place of contradictions." The Bronx is the poorest urban county in the U.S., yet it has the third largest retail district in New York, she notes. Most of its neighborhoods are food deserts—requiring long trips to find fresh food—yet it houses some of the world's largest food distribution centers. The Bronx rates low in health statistics, yet it is home to a number of major hospitals.

"There's this disconnect between the resources that exist in the Bronx and the access available to local residents," says Cunningham. In part, this is because urban development projects in the Bronx have rarely sought much input from community groups or local entrepreneurs. "There are some very strong, well-organized community groups that have a lot of intelligence about the Bronx, but have had little say in planning development."

At the core of the debate about the future of the Bronx was a controversy over how to renovate the huge Kingsbridge Armory. Community groups opposed a plan to turn it into a shopping mall, which would provide mostly low-wage jobs.

"People in the Bronx have had low-wage jobs forever, and they finally said enough," says Cunningham. CoLab began to work as a liaison between the community groups and governmental agencies, development groups, labor unions, and local businesspeople, bringing them together to seek out new market-based solutions. "For over a year, we worked with the community groups, supporting their deliberations with planning and development expertise, asking people what they wanted to do with the armory. It changed the nature of the discussion."

With the shopping mall plan shelved, the groups are now exploring development plans for the whole borough that might generate higher-paying jobs—and enterprise ownership—for locals. With CoLab's help, they have begun to petition major "anchor" institutions in the Bronx to purchase goods and services from there.

"We sought out ways to work with large institutions like hospitals, museums, the Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo, and see how they could better support the community," says Cunningham.

To aid in this effort, CoLab drew on the lessons of University Hospitals (UH) in Cleveland, which after integrating community hiring goals into its construction projects, reaped rewards including more city contracts and an increased endowment. "We are now connecting the leaders of this UH effort to the anchor leaders in the Bronx to show how building deeper relationships with the community can benefit them," says Cunningham.

As part of this buy local/hire local campaign, the community groups realized they had to make sure local firms held up their end of the bargain. One solution was to establish worker-owned businesses. To help achieve this goal, CoLab has brought in representatives of the Mondragon Corporation, a Spanish industrial coop owned by nearly 100,000 workers. "Mondragon wants to help us set up the coops, and network them together to make them more sustainable and resilient," says Cunningham.

Whether the solution is a worker-owned business, a community-labor partnership, or a new technological solution for urban sustainability, CoLab keeps its eyes on its core goal. "We're looking to build businesses that create things for the market but also produce wealth for communities in which they're created," says Cunningham.