Nonprofit Reimagines Urban Planning in Dorchester

By LUCY NUNN/ecoRI News contributor

DORCHESTER, Mass. — It’s no secret: city-dwellers everywhere jaywalk, despite the danger. Earlier this year, officials at the Boston Department of Public Works proposed an effort to keep pedestrians safer and reduce the practice in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner neighborhood. Their idea? Build a fence in the middle of Columbia Road, a thoroughfare seen as particularly dangerous for pedestrians.

In an ideal democracy, of course, such a renovation would reflect residents’ needs. A nonprofit, the Design Studio for Social Intervention — also known as DS4SI — noticed that local planning initiatives “were going on without as much resident input as people would have liked,” said DS4SI’s Kenneth Bailey. In fact, of the 250 residents the organization polled, a “vast majority” were unaware that construction was coming to Columbia Road.

“We felt like it was incumbent upon us to create a way for people to participate that was also artistic and informative,” Bailey said.

Public planning
DS4SI calls itself an “artistic research and development outfit for the improvement of civil society and everyday life.” With creativity and panache, it aims to “design and test social interventions with and on behalf of marginalized populations, controversies and ways of life.”

To approach the Uphams Corner planning challenge, Bailey and his colleagues, including Lori Lobenstine, DS4SI’s youth action leader, created “Making Planning Processes Public,” which the organization describes as a “family-fun pop-up urban planning exhibit.”

Culling through pages of documents, DS4SI staff carved out the information most relevant to the community about the city, private and nonprofit developers’ plans for the area. With funding from The Boston Foundation, The ArtPlace Initiative and others, the group set up shop on the site the week of April 29.

Two local artists, Philippe Lejeune and Cedric Douglas, were commissioned to craft bold visual signage, an interactive art structure and a forum where neighbors could express their opinions.

Community feedback
On a clear window laid over a map of Columbia Road, residents of all ages drew and wrote their ideas. As it turned out, 91 percent of residents didn’t want a fence and thought it would make the road less safe. They did, however, request community recycling receptacles, cleaner sidewalks and greenery in the street median.

Since the exhibit, DS4SI has learned of a victory worth cheering: the fence construction was canceled.

DS4SI staff also asked residents’ views on the Fairmount Line, also known as the MBTA Commuter Rail’s Indigo Line. Seventy-seven percent of residents polled had never ridden the train. Eighty-two percent felt it was built to serve “people outside their community,” and many commented that it didn’t make enough stops.

As of July 1, however, The Boston Globe reported that one-way fares between Hyde Park and South Station were reduced from $5.50 to $2. Also, according to The Boston Globe, daily stops have increased from 28 to 40, and wait time at off-peak hours has lessened from two hours to less than an hour.

Bailey minimized DS4SI’s role in making those changes happen, and instead credited “transportation justice” organizations such as On the Move for their work with the MBTA on its $200 million restoration of the Fairmount Line through Mattapan and Dorchester. He added, though, that, “We were happy to be part of the zeitgeist.”

Platform for new ideas
The exhibition didn’t only elicit critiques of existing proposals, though; it also provided a platform for brainstorming new ideas.

One sign that sparked interest: a giant check made payable to neighborhood residents, with the question, “How would you spend $3 million to improve Uphams Corner?” Below it, residents were invited to complete the phrase “I would ______.” Responses included building an adult education center, funding more youth programs and offering small grants to aspiring neighborhood entrepreneurs.

DS4SI presented another exhibit component in the form of a wooden box with pictures of the Leon Building, a “structurally unsound and currently privately owned” building with no known development planned. Residents were invited to draw and write their ideas on the box’s surface. Their suggestions included affordable housing with a rooftop garden, an art studio and “a giant park with a few mobile cafés, like the financial district.”

While the fence construction plan has been canceled and the Fairmount Line improved, other aspects of Uphams Corner’s future remain in the making. In the planning process, DS4SI succeeded in opening up what Bailey calls a “third space” for residents to communicate with city officials.

“It’s a platform that makes it possible for residents to become experts, and all we do is create a set of conditions, a point of departure,” he said. “It’s creating a space for people to really come and be as smart as they are, be as engaged as they are, to bring what they know ... in ways that get acknowledged and appreciated and lifted up.”

Though the tactic may seem roundabout, Bailey said its uniqueness makes it work. In fact, the organization looks to the idea of the mythological trickster as key to its playful, unconventional strategizing. He likens such an approach to Dr. Seuss’ beloved “The Cat in the Hat.” The cat effects change in the family not by instructing the brother and sister to be kinder to each other, but rather through orchestrating a whimsical whirlwind of events that unexpectedly brings the children closer together.

“We look to the trickster because the trickster always remembers to have fun and thinks more sophisticatedly about how humans really work, how systems really work, or how social life is really organized,” Bailey said. “In order to change people you have to shape social circumstances, and in order to change problems, you have to deal with the messy, complicated systems that they’re enmeshed in and figure out how you’re going to interact with those systems and be willing to experiment with that. That’s how change happens.”

If pictures tell a story, participants did indeed appear to be having fun, doing the most unlikely of activities: participating in urban planning, an all-too-often bureaucratic and seemingly tedious process.

The Boston Globe has since reported that a city-owned building on East Cottage Street, near Uphams Corner, that had been slated for use by the Department of Public Works, has been opened to sell for development.

Though Bailey hadn’t heard about the building, he said, “As city agencies continue to take on these kinds of projects, we would love to play this third-space role and create these opportunities for residents who wouldn’t normally participate in decision-making.”