The Metropolitan Washington Region is comprised of 24 independent municipal jurisdictions spread across Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The region spans over 6,000 square miles and is home to over 5 million people and over 3 million jobs.
A strong region depends on the collaboration of local public and private sector leaders to make the regional economy competitive with other metropolitan areas. ULI Washington is dedicated to playing a key role in maintaining and sustaining the strength of the region, which is why ULI Washington hosted in 2017 its first Regional Fellows Program for Public Leadership, and recently released a Report Documenting this Unique Regional Program.
ULI Washington’s Regional Fellows Program: A brief description
The mission of the Regional Fellows Program is to empower public sector leaders in the Metropolitan Washington Region to build and sustain successful 21st Century communities by providing access to information, best practices, peer networks, and other resources to foster creative, efficient, and sustainable land use practices.
The inaugural cohort of the nine-month Regional Fellows Program consisted of 15 senior public-sector decision-makers who, together, represented three jurisdictions within the Metropolitan Washington Region: The City of Alexandria, VA; Montgomery County, MD; and Fairfax County, VA. Between February and September 2017, each Fellowship team selected an intractable challenge and hosted a Panel of experts to study and make recommendations on that challenge through a two-day Technical Assistance Panel, or TAP.
City of Alexandria, VA Fellows, pictured above. Top Row, L-R:
Mark Jinks, City Manager, Honorary Fellow; Yon Lambert, Director, Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, Fellow; Stephanie Landrum, President and CEO, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Fellow; Karl Moritz, Planning Director, Department of Planning and Zoning, Fellow; Hilary Orr, Special Assistant to the City Manager, Coordinator (not pictured).
Fairfax County, VA Fellows, pictured above, Middle Row, L-R:
Sharon Bulova, Chair, Board of Supervisors, Honorary Fellow; Barbara Byron, Director, Office of Community Revitalization, Fellow; Kirk Kincannon, Executive Director, Fairfax County Park Authority and Interim County Executive, Fellow; Fred Selden, Director, Department of Planning and Zoning, Fellow; Lauren Murphy, Revitalization Program Manager, Office of Community Revitalization, Coordinator (not pictured).
Montgomery County, MD Fellows, pictured above, Bottom Row, L-R:
Isiah Leggett, County Executive, Honorary Fellow; Jewru Bandeh, Regional Director, Montgomery County Eastern Region, Fellow; Peter Fosselman, Implementation Coordinator, White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, Fellow; Greg Ossont, Deputy Director, Department of General Services, Fellow; Amy Donin, Planning Specialist, Department of General Services, Coordinator (not pictured).
The Program’s Focus: Solving Three Intractable Challenges through Technical Assistance Panels
The City of Alexandria sought recommendations on strategies to improve the competitiveness of the West End of office buildings in both the near term and the longer term, and expressed a willingness to consider new and creative approaches for this area including new land uses, infill development, infrastructure improvements, incentives, marketing and positioning.
Montgomery County sought recommendations to maximize the opportunities for the White Oak Science Gateway, an area of the County that has been identified for major development initiatives after nearly 20 years of development moratorium. The focus of the TAP was to examine potential ways to market the area that would both encourage already planned redevelopment projects and promote revitalization in areas not currently slated for redevelopment.
Fairfax County sought recommendations to advise the County on the development of a community engagement process, including a communications plan, for a specific site which can be used as a template for other future com- munity engagement exercises. This TAP touched on several issues, including: broadening outreach and engagement, particularly to those who don’t currently participate; increasing public understanding of process; promoting creative engagement; better utilizing technology; and identifying implications for resources and culture.
Two Big Regional Takeaways: Public Engagement and Equity
A major underlying tenet of this program was to work intensively in three different area jurisdictions on three separate intractable challenges, and in doing so, observe and address shared trends that emerged. Although each jurisdiction is unique, there are similar challenges faced by all the participating jurisdictions. Over the course of the inaugural Regional Fellows Program, two major trends emerged: The Changing Nature of Public Engagement and Equity in Revitalization and New Development.
The Changing Nature of Public Engagement
In each jurisdiction, the role of public engagement emerged as a central issue. In today’s fast-paced world, the traditional meeting-centered public process can no longer serve as the only source of engagement. This approach fails to engage enough people, and can alienate key constituent voices.
If public engagement processes and techniques are to authentically engage a representative sample of the public – one that is increasingly characterized by changing demographics and lifestyle habits – local governments must embrace creative new approaches to engagement in order to cast a wider net. Strategies like maximizing the potential of technology and innovative communication tools are important, as is the need to visit constituent groups where they are.
But engagement extends beyond the ability to reach increased numbers of voices. Establishing trust and credibility with community stakeholders is critically important for public engagement to be effective. Public engagement must also feel authentic for participants. If stakeholders do not feel as though their voices count, they will be less likely to engage in the future or at all. Working to build trust through local contacts and regularly sharing information in simple, digestible ways is equally critical to unlocking the potential of engaging more people and hearing more voices.
Equity in Revitalization and New Development
In each Regional Fellows Jurisdiction, issues surrounding equity in revitalization, new development, and representation emerged. Revitalization and new development are most likely to occur in locations where market forces, public investment, and government priorities align, as well as in places where assets present easy opportunities for capitalization. As a result of this dynamic, development can occur unevenly from one community to the next. This uneven development can lead to areas with significant new investment, and to areas that lag behind by comparison. The lack of equity can cause a “have” and “have not” perception to form when investment is targeted to more obvious development opportunities. Once the more ideal sites are developed, attention typically turns to areas that need more coordinated efforts, longer timelines, and increased flexibility in process and requirements.
These development dynamics are not new, and remain a reality for local and regional governments alike. Such dynamics were illustrated tangibly in both Montgomery County and in Alexandria, where stakeholders’ overwhelming “Yes in My Backyard” or “YIMBY” response to development and investment resounded loud and clear. In both jurisdictions, stakeholders shared that, after years of feeling ignored compared to other more affluent areas in their same jurisdiction, time had finally come for the opportunity to improve their communities. On the whole, development and investment were welcomed, and the desire of stakeholders to have an active voice in the pending development came across loud and clear.
Both Montgomery County and Alexandria will be faced with a unique opportunity to harness these positive opinions as development opportunities continue to arise. But the process of soliciting, hearing, and incorporating many points of view in a development process can be tricky – particularly if a public engagement process is relegated to a traditional “meeting centered” approach. In Fairfax County, probing issues related to representation in a public engagement process underscored the kinds of equity challenges that can arise when a public process inadvertently limits participation. It is imperative to design public engagement processes that invites representation not only from the regular and often vocal attendees at traditional public meetings (sometimes referred to as “frequent fliers”), but also from the greater populace – including members of society for whom attending traditional public meetings is either undesirable or impossible. Equity in engagement by providing different options for input, and by establishing equal priority in the way feedback is received, is key to inviting and incorporating as many voices into the process as possible.
From a regional perspective, sharing these stories about equity is important – it exposes the reality that many jurisdictions are struggling with similar challenges, which can, in turn, open the door to authentically addressing how equity in development can become more mainstream and accessible. Once common challenges are discovered, then local, neighboring governments have an opportunity to collaborate to solve these challenges, rather than shouldering the challenges on their own.
A Final Word
The Regional Fellows Program endeavored to unearth the universality of such challenges among neighboring jurisdictions through integrated problem solving, public/private collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. ULI Washington will continue to build on these efforts in service to and in support of the Metropolitan Washington Region.
For more information on the Regional Fellows Program, click here.
To read the Report documenting the Regional Fellows Program, click here.