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Beyond the Infinite

Beyond the Infinite, Fall 2012
Volume 7, Issue 2

Building communities and careers

San Diego Foundation

DUSP student Melissa Higbee worked with The San Diego Foundation to help stakeholders plan for sea level rise in the region. Photo: Melissa Higbee

This summer, PSC Fellows and Interns served in seven countries.

One of these countries was the United States.

U.S.-based experiences are particularly popular with MIT students in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), who engage in public service by applying their municipal problem-solving skills with their passion for helping communities in need. Not only did these students spend the summer as public servants, but they also created experiences for themselves that are deeply attuned to their academic experiences and future careers.

Storytelling in the South End

PSC Fellow Jenny Larios Berlin worked with Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (Puerto Rican Tenants in Action), the nonprofit organization which developed Villa Victoria, an affordable housing community in the South End of Boston. Berlin's goal for the summer was to capture footage for a trailer for a documentary project about the Villa Victoria community. Her vision is to demonstrate the important role that Latino communities have in the evolution of an American city.

"The creation of Villa Victoria is a relevant and useful part of Boston's Latino identity that deserves to be told through a visual medium that will reach significantly more people than any other format," says Berlin.

Berlin is completing her trailer this fall, which is an important first step in engaging the Villa Victoria community and demonstrating the potential of a full documentary to prospective funders. Once she completes the trailer, Berlin will first screen it exclusively to the 1,110 Villa Victoria residents to share her progress and receive feedback.

"For so long, the community members have felt both marginalized by the greater South End community and stigmatized by the media as an unsafe [housing] project," says Berlin. "Now they feel like there is something positive surrounding the community, which begins to shift their frame of mind and reduce their fear that somehow Villa Victoria will be bought out and replaced by high-end row houses or condominiums," which she says is a perpetual concern for residents.

The documentary brings positivity to the Villa Victoria community, and it also confirms Berlin's career interest in community development.

"The fellowship certainly confirmed that I am in the right field," says Berlin. "I care about space and community development for underrepresented minorities. This project highlights for me the issues I want to consider when I am working on future development projects both nationally and internationally."

Planning for sea level rise in Southern California

Melissa Higbee helped two communities plan for the impact of sea level rise by interning with ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, an association of municipalities around the world that promotes sustainable development on the local level.

In Los Angeles, Higbee assisted the city with a vulnerability assessment in an effort to determine the impacts of sea level rise. She analyzed responses from city departments to a survey that examined the sensitivity, adaptive capacity and potential consequences of sea level rise on local assets. She presented the survey findings to local officials, conducted follow-up interviews with city employees and assisted in writing a physical vulnerability assessment for the city.

Higbee also worked in San Diego with the San Diego Foundation and San Diego Regional Research Agenda. Though Los Angeles and San Diego are only separated by about 120 miles, Higbee found that the two cities are in very different stages of their strategic processes.

"Los Angeles is just starting on its climate adaptation work whereas San Diego has already developed strategy documents, and some cities in the region have become national leaders in planning for sea level rise," says Higbee.

In San Diego, she organized and facilitated a workshop attended by local stakeholders, including representatives from city government, local businesses, state agencies and the U.S. Navy. She took the initiative of interviewing scientists to learn about existing research on climate change, and she presented a summary of her findings at the workshop.

Her experiences in both Los Angeles and San Diego affirmed her interest in climate change planning.

"I found this summer's work to be incredibly interesting and fulfilling," says Higbee. "I feel even more committed to continue a career helping cities adapt to climate change impacts than before."

Redeveloping New Orleans

Christine Curella interned with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), a neighborhood revitalization organization. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, many of NORA's efforts have been focused on neighborhood redevelopment.

Curella was tasked to identify strategies for leveraging vacant properties in the city. Not wanting to work within the norms of assumed best practices, she set forth on developing innovative recommendations that take into account the social and economic potential of vacant land.

"To be more than a report of best practices, the tools and techniques I had identified needed to be 'ground-truthed' for the city," said Curella. "I met with local stakeholders to get feedback on a more innovative agenda for vacant properties and identified step-by-step actions for moving this forward."

After meeting with New Orleans stakeholders and speaking with urban planning practitioners in Baltimore and Cleveland for further input, Curella laid the groundwork for her recommendations. Her proposal for a "Green Improvement District" is now the basis of a project that she and her DUSP colleagues are undertaking this fall.

"The project will reduce the costs associated with maintaining vacant land, create job opportunities, develop community open space, and improve the environment and public health," says Curella.

Proposed solutions for vacant land include reframing lawn maintenance costs as investments in small businesses and green jobs and creating community spaces to strengthen neighborhood safety and identity.

"Working at NORA was an exceptional learning experience that allowed me to deepen my understanding of the city, to affirm my passion to drive systems change through work in local government and to realize that I may like to work in New Orleans once I graduate," says Curella. "I am tremendously grateful for the support of the Public Service Center in this personal and professional journey, and I bring back to MIT, and to my future career, new insights and inspiration."

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