Planning June 2019


Creating Space for Community Ownership

By Ariel Ward

"There is no moral distance between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham." Acclaimed writer and activist James Baldwin offered the following observation in 1963 after a visit to Bayview Hunters Point and Western Addition, two predominately Black San Francisco neighborhoods braving the impacts of neglect and racial discrimination.

Ariel Ward is a transportation engineer and planner by day, and all things creative by night. Follow her on Twitter @dubonthestreets.  Photo courtesy Ariel Ward.

Ariel Ward is a transportation engineer and planner by day, and all things creative by night. Follow her on Twitter @dubonthestreets. Photo courtesy Ariel Ward.

The tale of a once-thriving Black community plagued by isolation and disinvestment is a familiar one. Baldwin's critique of society helps frame a critical dilemma many planners face today: How can urban planning be used to generate solutions in a community where it once furthered inequity?

In working with the Bayview Hunters Point community to increase transportation mobility and safety, I learned the power of creating space for community ownership and planning from a place of authenticity. The following insights capture a few of my favorite lessons.

Bring institutional resources to the table, but leave your agenda behind. Bayview Hunters Point boasts a strong legacy of homegrown community leaders. Through our project partnerships, I learned the importance of stepping back and providing resources and platforms necessary for communities to empower themselves. As planners, we cannot be afraid to let go of what we think is the best approach in favor of being open to the community's ideas. Introspection is a prerequisite for sustaining meaningful relationships.

Work to close the gap between intention and impact. One of the most poignant lessons I learned through community planning in Bayview Hunters Point is that honesty is one of the greatest assets a planner can have. Be forthcoming with community members about the potential impacts of your work, both the intended and unintended. Take a genuine and intentional approach to equity by defining it, and then share and validate that definition with the community. Developing metrics for accountability can help ensure an authentic representation of the community's lived experience throughout the planning and implementation process.

Your voice matters; speak up to make change. Just as planners strive to build equitable and just communities, we should seek to prioritize people over policies and institutional norms. Using my voice to champion critical conversations between internal strategic decision makers led to the development of a statement of intent for our project, which establishes a framework for our organization to tie our intentions and commitments to direct actions. Oftentimes, I am the only one who looks like me in the room. Navigating this dynamic in the workplace can sometimes make it challenging for me to speak up. However, open dialogue is often necessary to disrupt the status quo. When I am afraid to use my voice, I've learned to remind myself that change, not comfort, is the goal.

Creating equitable and just solutions is not just people work, it's heart work. Empathy has helped to strengthen the foundations of my work with the Bayview Hunters Point community. As a woman of color serving a community of color, I've learned that I have a responsibility to bring my heart and the fullness of my experiences, insights, and passions to my work.

Fostering equity in transportation and community planning is a delicate dance. It requires us to waltz with uncertainty, rigid organizational structures, and decades of righteous communal distrust. But no matter the milieu, community-centered partnerships and on-the-ground empowerment should always take center stage.

Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at