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Developing Best Practices to Enhance Planning Leadership

As a public employee, if the market is encouraging development of luxury apartment buildings, how can you nudge that same market to also produce more affordable housing? Similarly, if your mission is to increase equity across education, economic opportunities, mobility, and affordable housing but your constituency is singularly focused on improving transit to gentrified areas, are there chances to introduce equity into your plans and legislation? Reflecting on a career of more than twenty-five years of professional engagement that includes directing planning, economic development, and urban development organizations in Somerville, Brookline, and Portland, Jeff Levine, DUSP’s Lecturer of Economic Development and Planning, hopes to address if urban planners in leadership roles can work with the interests of the citizens of a city, while also advocating their own personal agenda priorities.

Prior to joining DUSP, as the Director of Planning & Urban Development for Portland, ME, Levine introduced best practices in housing policy, land use, and equity planning, while managing the greatest private investment since rebuilding after Portland’s Great Fire in 1866. Over his career, Levine has been involved in a number of land use transformations projects in New England, including the redevelopment of the Assembly Square district in Somerville; planning for the introduction of a new light rail transit line in Somerville; redevelopment of mixed-income housing developments in Brookline; launch of the Hubway bikeshare system (now Bluebikes), and the redevelopment of the Bayside district in Portland. In his new role at DUSP, Levine is interested in developing and applying best practices for the intersection of public finance, private equity, and land use across multiple scales of governance. In addition to his teaching and advising duties, he is working on a book on leadership in urban planning, and consulting with municipalities and developers on how to balance good land use planning and economic feasibility. His current research interests include the land use and community development issues and opportunities raised by the expanding cannabis industry.

Q1: One of the roles of an urban planner is to be a facilitator for the various stakeholders in cities, ensuring that all voices are given a space for input on envisioning what the future ought to look like – based on your professional career do you see ways we could enhance teaching at DUSP to make more impactful planners?

Levine: Building a common language between planners, developers, and the community is essential. So often there are opportunities for all stakeholders to get most of what they want if they come to the table with the right approach, and use the right language – which is to say, language that all parties can understand. For instance, planners often like to write height restrictions at even numbers, but that preference does not reflect the heights used developers by to determine the number of floor heights for their projects. If planners shift their metric to help set standards that are meaningful to developers, both parties are able to collaborate more efficiently on envisioning the future of an urban environment. Other times, misunderstandings arise from an issue of different dialects. For example, planners refer to “permitting” and developers talk about “entitlements” – they are speaking about the same thing, but often talk around or through each other because of a difference in lexicon. Part of what is exciting about DUSP is that it houses the Center for Real Estate (CRE). This is a major opportunity for aligning these interests. I hope to collaborate with CRE to advance a discussion of the role of private development in accomplishing public planning objectives.

Q2: Could you speak more to your research interests and upcoming projects at MIT?

Levine: I am interested in the relationship of land use planning and pubic finance. Figuring out how to use public finance tools to accomplish land use and community development objectives – and vice versa – is fascinating to me. You don’t need prioritize the budget over everything else- I am not talking about “fiscal zoning” – but these factors need to be understood and reflected. I am also looking across the state and city government levels to examine the roll out of legislation on cannabis business. Regardless of how you feel about the industry, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for planners to develop rules for a whole new industry, maximize community benefits, and tease out lessons from many, varied iterations of implementation processes. Finally, I am writing on a book on how to be a leader as an urban planner, to help planners understand how to find opportunities to advance their goals strategically and without losing their jobs!

Q3: When you joined DUSP, what topics were you most excited to teach and why?

Levine: I’m looking forward to teaching classes that take the best practices students learn in DUSP and apply them to real world settings. There are lots of things students need to learn about government function (and disfunction!) and how to be strategic about keeping planning as part of the agenda. I love working with clients that want to learn from students, and can teach students how to get things done. I’m also hoping to teach public finance for planners. Finally, I am looking forward to build links between planners and those in other public administration fields so planners recognize that their work is part of a larger pantheon of public servants.