By Galen Laserson
“My idea of a perfect school…is one that has no children in it at all. One of these days I shall start up a school like that. I think it will be very successful.”
– Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (from Roald Dahl’s Matilda)
Building sustainable cities would be easier without the presence of a confounding factor: the people who live in them. Living PlanIT illustrates some challenges of building and attracting people to a green field “city.” For the most part, sustainability efforts focus on making infrastructure improvements to existing cities teeming with residents who are accustomed to or aggravated by the status quo (or both). Thus, managing change is integral to urban redevelopment.
Residents are the gatecrashers poised to overrun the public-private partnership party. In the Dharavi case, the interests of the area residents, which should arguably be a central priority of any city plan, were expressed as an afterthought. Though Dharavi offers a pointed example, the complexities that residents surface through their behaviors and desires are omnipresent and powerful – from the dueling interests of groups of citizens in Bogota to the conflicts between citizens and water bandits in Mexico City.
People generally do not like change, especially when it involves accepting short-term pain to achieve a long-term goal (ask anyone who lives on Second Avenue about Manhattan’s new subway). How, then, do entities responsible for championing infrastructure improvements or urban development engage effectively in change management?
In launching its BRT system, New York City government pitched a new mode of transportation to Manhattanites, residents well known for their ability to dish out criticism. In publicized documents, community meetings and press conferences, the city clearly communicated the rationale and process behind the project (i.e. the value it is trying to capture); for example, why the BRT will be faster than current buses and less expensive than building a subway. The MTA posted employees next to every bus stop to retrain residents to use the pre-board payment system (and posted a YouTube video of the process). Mayor Bloomberg took some dissenters in stride, telling reporters on the morning of the launch: “I’m sure there’s going to be confusion this morning […] you’ll write a big exposé that it’s a total failure, and six months from now, you will never write the story that it’s the success that it’s going to be.” Because New York collected and published outcome measures of improvements such as route speed and traffic time, several newspapers wrote exactly such a follow-up story.
Myriad factors affect the communication around an urban development project, from what and where the project is to whom it affects and how inconvenienced (or convenience) they may be. Frequent communication, process transparency and the ability to measure outcomes may serve as a starting point to building trust with affected residents, an essential skill for the city planner who wishes not to undermine his or her own efforts.
 Jaya Saxena, “Select Bus Service Even Worse On Weekdays,” Gothamist, October 13, 2010, http://gothamist.com/2010/10/13/select_bus_service_even_worse_on_we.php, accessed February 2013.