What Does It Mean To Improve Our Communities?

written by Catherine An
November 3, 2010
Today’s guest post comes from Alliance research associate Pete Witte: homelessness researcher, urban planner, and brand new dad. Last week I attended a meeting with the local D.C. chapter of the American Planning Association. Xavier Briggs - urban planner, academic, and current Associate Director at the Office of Management and Budget - spoke to the group. Briggs is most acclaimed for his work on the concept of “geography of opportunity,” the idea that race and class segregation affects the well-being and life potential of people with fewer means. As a former urban planner turned homelessness researcher, Briggs caught my attention when he dropped the h-word into the conversation: “…and planning for low-income housing and for those who are homeless.” One of the things that I quickly learned in my post at the Alliance is that there is plenty of overlap between my former role as an urban planner and my current role as a homelessness researcher. Namely, I still spend my time asking one central question: what does it mean to improve our communities? As an urban planner, that meant considering the best way to incentivize “green space,” or deciphering what the zoning code had to say about “FAR,” pondering what it meant to “rethink the auto” and encourage “TOD.” As a homelessness researcher, it means new and different things. I’ve learned that one way to improve communities would be to increase the amount of permanent supportive housing options for persons who are chronically homeless. We could also rapidly re-house individuals who, under incredibly difficult circumstances, have lost their home. We could make small changes that could better our homelessness system – by creating a central point of contact, coordinating services, and targeting homelessness prevention programs. As an urban planner, I often thought about what it meant to improve our communities. I rarely thought about what it meant to end homelessness or what ending homelessness might look like. Today, I still identify as an urban planner, only now I think about community improvement in at least one more significant and important way: through ending homelessness.