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Community engagement in planning: who's perspective do we capture?

Updated: Nov 23


Melissa Peters, AICP, is the Director of Community Planning for the Community Development Department at the City of Cambridge, MA. In her position, she manages a group of planners and urban designers responsible for long-range planning, with a focus on comprehensive, neighborhood, and open space planning. Melissa previously worked for CDM Smith in Chicago and Boston developing comprehensive, neighborhood, sustainability, and climate change plans for municipalities nationwide. She is an award-winning and passionate planner skilled in creating integrated urban solutions that balance goals of diverse planning disciplines.


Melissa Peters is a graduate of the UEP cohort of 2008, getting her Master's in Environmental Policy and Planning. The foundation of the UEP program established a strong commitment to equity and justice in Melissa's work-- something attendees of the most recent Cities@Tufts Colloquium got a taste of during her presentation: The New Rules of (Planning) Engagement: Restructuring planning processes to ensure inclusive decision-making and equitable outcomes.


As planners and decision-makers, we have to ensure we are listening to all community members. While working in the City of Cambridge, Melissa showed colloquium attendees data indicating the average city planning meeting attendee fell short of what could be considered the average citizen in the City of Cambridge. Where most attendees are white, male homeowners over 50, Cambridge is a young and diverse city where 75% of residents rent their homes (the average age in Cambridge is 35, and recent census data indicates 36.7% nonwhite or Hispanic residents), indicating public meetings lacked representation, therefore misrepresenting community opinion.


In the context of inequitable planning history, Melissa set the tone for this colloquium by presenting income inequality in Cambridge alongside inequity in tree canopy. That kind of climate inequality is exactly what Melissa and the Cambridge Planning Department are trying to prevent, based on. a toolkit put together by Peters. This included coming up with a core set of values to utilize while analyzing the implementation and design of community planning strategies.


Pre-planning asks how the planning department can hear underserved voices. By hiring outreach workers from the community the department is trying to reach, they can listen to voices already working and serving the community of interest. In addition, Peters advised the use of Cotico, a type of AI software that utilizes keywords and ideas to tell the story of outreach and highlight what planners heard in their outreach meetings.

Visioning also takes on this role of hyper-focus on community needs, underscored by their investment in equity and outreach in the planning process and adapting/ promoting alternatives that the community has expressed interest in.

Data Analysis applies an equity lens here as well, asking questions like how can redesign parks to reflect climate equity and resilience, additionally concerned with designing composite maps of income, park need, and tree cover to uncover the most useful park implementation or infrastructure development process.

Strategy Development asks how we can change the rules when it comes to development. For example, Cambridge has updated its zoning policy to allow for an affordable housing overlay, stripping bureaucratic red-tape from development sites and empowering developers interested in 100% affordable housing complexes the flexibility to quickly and easily combat Cambridge's housing issues.

Implementation, an essential part of the planning process, works to ensure municipalities are following through on their process. Peters indicated it is the conversation of "we have established we care about this, now we have to do it". 57% of proposed equity building projects in Cambridge are under development!


Questions following this presentation focused on getting the whole community invested and on board, especially in this time of post-pandemic rebuilding and restructuring. The goal, as a municipality, is to reconcile competing opinoins and ensure equitable development in the process.


To hear Melissa's talk, head over to our Youtube page. Podcasts of each colloquium are available via our partner, Shareable, wherever you get your podcasts.