Jack Popper, MUP/MPA 2018
Organization: Beyond Housing, St. Louis, Missouri
Sponsor: Joint Center for Housing Studies Community Service Fellowship
“This summer with Beyond Housing was a perfect experiential complement to my prior professional background. Before beginning graduate school, I worked in economic research for three years, wherein research output was the product of collaboration between individuals of similar backgrounds (economics Ph.D.’s who specialized in housing). In stark contrast to that environment, the success of the Pagedale Town Center master planning process hinged on collaboration between individuals whose backgrounds and day-to-day professional endeavors varied dramatically, even if they all focused on the same geographic area. Consequently, I was extremely fortunate in being able to engage substantively with the planning process from more than just the vantage point of my direct supervisor’s department.
My work with the landscape architects at Forum Studio proved to be exactly the kind of professional experience that the Core Urban Planning Studio at the GSD intends to mimic. Under their guidance I dramatically expanded upon the skills I had developed in the studio, principally spatial analysis and the art of clear spatial data visualization. But much of what I enjoyed the most was the opportunity to witness their creativity and boldness in thinking through master planning schemes. Whereas I tend to approach community development brainstorming with budget and implementation constraints at the forefront of my mind, these two landscape architects would often intentionally eschew the limits of reality in order to force themselves to push boundaries.
This approach added enormous value to meetings. Even when bold ideas were rejected, they often elicited responses that helped the design team to better understand the context surrounding the development. At other times, it forced the management team to reconceptualize aspects of the development that otherwise had been accepted as given. For example, on one occasion the design team was presenting an iteration of the master plan that was unrealistically dense, only to give a sense for what maximum full buildout could look like. At one place within the plan, this meant squeezing an additional property on top of what are currently parking spaces sandwiched between an existing building and the street. The area was deemed much too tight to accommodate a meaningful amount of square footage. However, while the idea for a building was rejected, it sparked a conversation about whether the parking spaces that currently rested there were the best use of that corner. By allocating those parking spaces elsewhere, the corner could, among other possibilities, become a pocket park that may better serve surrounding establishments.
The tasks delegated to me by my direct supervisor allowed me to dive deeply into research covering initial-phase economic development strategies relevant to supporting mixed-use corridors in the context of low-income neighborhoods within post-industrial cities. I investigated cases in placemaking experimentation in cities around the country; I wrote a memo that explored strategies for promoting daytime foot traffic in the name of attracting and supporting future retail. Each week I would report back to him with my findings over the course of a two-hour coffee date at a local Starbucks. Through these discussions and his assignments, I came to develop a much broader conception of what economic development can encompass, as he harbors a more holistic and human-centered conception of the field than I had previously been exposed to.
In the final few weeks of the internship I started working more directly with Beyond Housing’s community engagement team, which coincidentally is run by an alumna of my program at the Kennedy School (the Master in Public Administration). My primary projects in working with her team were to develop (a) maps and aerial views of the development area to support discussion in community meetings, as well as (b) image boards intended to solicit input from residents regarding their hopes for the Town Center regarding residential density, public space amenities, public space programming, architectural style, and non-residential uses. Through our preparations for this multi-month community engagement process with residents, civic leaders, and business owners, I gained a much greater appreciation for the level of precision in preparation required to ensure that these meetings elicit meaningful feedback. The time availability and scheduling constraints associated with gathering focus groups large enough to represent the broader community necessitated that every visual be precisely selected and every question meticulously worded.
Each of these individuals provided me an opportunity to substantively engage with the master planning process from a different angle, to an extent far greater than I would have expected for a summer internship. I am endlessly grateful to the Joint Center for Housing Studies for the financial support that made this experience possible, and to those with whom I worked at Beyond Housing and Forum Studio for their mentorship and trust. It was exceptionally fulfilling to contribute to this early phase of the Pagedale Town Center, a project with great potential to meaningfully mitigate the differential in access to amenities between communities served by Beyond Housing and the rest of St. Louis County.”