People's Collaborative Governance Network

An Attempt to Democratize Vacant Lots

Image by Courtney Humphries — The Strangest Sea

As a student researcher with the People’s Collaborative Governance Network (PCGN), I worked in tandem with other students and community leaders, trying to integrate practices of collaborative governance in re-envisioning Boston’s public spaces. In addition to being a member of the ‘Communications’ team, I also participated in the ‘Democratizing Public Spaces’ team, reimagining how to approach possibilities for vacant lots in Boston with the help of community members. After many iterations attempting to generate a tool to further collaborative governance, our team is currently working on a prototype focused on creating mechanisms for communities to make collaborative decisions about vacant lots.

This prototype will be known as the ‘Intersection Tool’ whereby various resident leaders can see what other folks are doing, whether similar or different, and build off shared knowledge to cultivate communal power, innovation, and creativity. Instead of pre-established processes determined by the government with little-to-no input from residents who the processes involve, our prototype focuses on co-creation and collaboration, which gives communities agency — in any capacity — in determining what their needs are. The ‘Intersection Tool’ works with instead of for communities in supplying helpful tools to transform public space, among other things.

To help increase the efficacy of our prototype, I researched the seemingly endless bureaucratic, inaccessible, and unclear nature of current vacant lot systems in place within Boston. Given the limitations evident in the process, including but not limited to language and technology barriers, I saw how not only public spaces themselves mirror ethno-racial inequities, but the process creating these spaces do too.

As an illustration of where public spaces can be sites of ethno-racial exclusion, I found a lack of non-English language signs, brochures, maps, etc, further reproducing exclusion in these spaces. In conversations discussing our prototype, the critical piece of language is always present. Everyone who wants to be involved, independent of the languages spoken, must be present to fulfill the process of democratizing these public spaces.

Besides language barriers, cultural histories of the non-democratic creation of public spaces impact how they are used today. From zoning, to redlining, to property taxes, to other land use systems, space has always been political. Legacies of racial segregation do not disappear but rather are amplified in public spaces. For me, co-designing this prototype means acknowledging that even vacant lots cannot be de-historicized nor depoliticized. This co-design project must bring history and politics into our prototype to ensure that it exists in the public spaces it seeks to build. Our prototype can serve as a vehicle for people to share and amplify the intergenerational, communal knowledge of the history and politics of public spaces.

Through my research for the prototype, I’ve observed how public spaces exist as microcosms of broader social inequities reflected in our past, present, and future. To begin reimagining public spaces, we have to leverage collaborative governance as a medium for change. Working on the prototype alongside the ‘Democratizing Public Spaces’ team challenged me to interrogate seemingly harmless government-established processes and explore how they could instead draw on community assets and voice. To function within Boston, our prototype needs to reflect our belief: public spaces are instrumental to democratization, making spaces by the community, para la comunidad.

Sarai Hertz-Velazquez was a student researcher at the People’s Collaborative Governance Network in Spring 2021. She is a student at Wellesley College.

PCGN is reimagining how local government can partner with communities to transform policy and services in Boston. https://collabgov.mit.edu/