Scott Goldstein, FAICP — Urban Strategist
Scott Goldstein, FAICP
Working as a principal for a planning consultant firm like Teska Associates has provided me with the opportunity to work with communities ranging from small rural hamlets to urban neighborhoods with tens of thousands of residents.
My focus as a planner has always been on how to provide the tools and resources to empower communities, focusing most of my career on how to channel economic opportunities to less advantaged neighborhoods.
I started my career as a planner and development specialist with Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association in the South Bronx in New York. It was exciting to be part of one of the nation’s early approaches to comprehensive community-driven development to address the enormous challenges facing the area.
Through this experience, I began to appreciate the policy barriers that were leading to disinvestment. Working for the Chicago region’s Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit organization of business and community leaders, I was able to lead policy research and campaigns to address fundamental barriers to strong communities such as inequitable school funding, the need for affordable housing investment and natural resource protection.
Perhaps the best part of my career path has been building long-lasting relationships by working with local communities on multiple assignments as they have grown and developed.
Economic Development vs. Gentrification
One of the great challenges facing us in cities today is how to harness the potential of economic development while ensuring that the benefits support residents and local businesses. The tension between supporting new investment while preventing displacement is real, but it can be addressed.
I see great work taking place across the U.S. The Northwest Side Housing Center in Chicago is setting a new course — one that invests in the community and preserves affordability through tools like a community development corporation, and developing corridor plans to support local, Latino-owned businesses.
Another interesting project in Chicago is the Englewood Trail which will convert an elevated freight line into a multi-use trail. But different from the High Line in New York or the 606 in Chicago, the trail is through a low-income, African American community and is explicitly being designed to spur on economic investment, urban agriculture and jobs to revitalize the area.
A unique coalition in Portland is turning the tide of gentrification by concentrating resources in environmental investment, housing, and community development. The effort is being led by Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East, Hacienda Community Development Corporation, The Native American Youth and Family Center, and Verde.
Planners have the unique skill set of bridging divides and helping communities form intentional strategies so that economic investment leads to opportunities for local residents and small businesses.
Perhaps more than any other field, planners can look out at the community interests as a whole to help path a set of policies, programs, incentives, and land use regulations to promote balanced, equitable development.
Community Engagement Techniques
Engagement is all about building trust. Whether it is gleaning the most important elements of discussion into a visual representation, listening to and being able to retell the story of a community’s wishes and dreams, or using the power of social media to expand participation, all engagement techniques need to be genuine.
My favorite techniques are often the simplest. Nothing gets to the heart of the issue faster than the “one-word game” that asks each person to describe their vision for their community in just one word. “Plan it toys” that allow local residents to lay out 3D cutouts of buildings, parks and community amenities on a map to share what they would like to be improved in their community. Or taking quick polls on smartphones using tools like Mentimeter bring instant input from everyone in the room.
Sometimes the toughest part of engagement is, to be honest, regarding data and facts. It’s easy to go along with a group and report back on what a community would like to see happen or not happen. It’s harder to bring in data and challenges that may require a change in perspective — whether it is the need for affordable housing or letting people know that larger parking lots aren’t going to solve a main street’s empty storefronts. But it is through those conversations, backed up by hard evidence, that can lead to new approaches.
Finally, urban planners and urban designers can take the narrative through engagement techniques and visualize change. These visualizations can catapult the conversation and overcome differences in language and tactics.
Working in a Team
Central to the task of a successful planner is being able to develop different ways of working with a wide range of professions, experiences, and backgrounds.
When I walk into a room, I don’t know what challenges each individual dealt with that day — whether it is the planning director who just dealt with a difficult situation or a parent who just wants to find a safe place for their family to live.
It’s not only about finding the common ground between a wide range of perspectives but laying out a path to work together.
I remember talking to a large foundation once about how they make tough funding decisions. The answer I got back — “doing good isn’t good enough anymore” — became a rallying cry for a citywide coalition of community development organizations who realized that they need to demonstrate the impact of their work through hard numbers and evidence.
I’m constantly looking at ways to expand my skills and learn from others. Whether it has been economic and fiscal analysis or stormwater planning, I’ve tried to hone my skills on the key forces that shape the form of development. Sometimes professionals from different skills speak in completely different languages. As a planner, I want to be conversant across these fields by understanding what the developer, municipal official, architect, and transportation engineer are each saying needs to be accomplished.
There is no one set of skills that are needed to succeed in planning, but certainly, honesty, integrity, and willingness to listen are at the top of the list. I’ve found that equal parts passion and technical expertise are essential traits in what makes a great planner.
APA has been a great resource in meeting both like-minded people, learning new skills and broadening my networks. Publications such as Planning with Diverse Communities are great resources that not only provide an overview of best practices but can be used to back-up practices that may take more time and effort but will result in more robust engagement and better, more impactful results.
I’m certainly out of the office quite a bit. As much as videoconferences and social media provide new ways to communicate, there is no replacement for face-to-face meetings and interactions.
I make it a habit to do one-on-one outreach with local leaders prior to any large community meeting, especially to those groups that may have concerns.
We have an office culture at Teska of being able to talk to anyone in the office without calling a formal meeting. We bounce ideas off of one another constantly. It’s a team environment on every project.
I also like to block out time to write, translating what I’ve learned in the field into narratives with supporting visuals. We don’t follow standard templates from one assignment to the next, so this takes some time to think of new ways to convey the essential points in a persuasive manner.
My biggest surprise has been the resurgence of the importance of cities. Twenty-five years ago, many central cities were declining. The press was writing off older cities during the “dot com” boom predicting that companies would abandon cities for isolated campus environments. Yet, the opposite has happened. With changes in technology, business leaders can choose wherever they want to locate. And they are locating in cities — not just the big ones like New York — but smaller cities with a high quality-of-life, access to cultural amenities, a diverse workforce, and an openness to innovation.
What Might You Do Differently?
I wish I had explored my visual skills earlier in life. I loved to draw and make things, but it was often discouraged at school and seen as frivolous. When my kids were young, I made sure that they wouldn’t be told to “draw between the lines.”
My advice to new planners is to seek out jobs that provide a broad range of experiences. Every planner should understand how to put together a basic pro forma, understand a zoning code, and be able to facilitate a public meeting. Beyond basic skills, it’s about building a network of relationships with fellow planners, developers, designers and local officials that can tackle any challenge that may be faced in your day-to-day work.
Schools and Education
BA in Art and Architectural History, Tufts University
MSUP, Columbia University
I have also been teaching urban policy at Northwestern University’s MPPA program for the past ten years.
First planning job:
Development Director, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, New York
The seminal work of Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells defined the role and characteristics of global cities. Through the lessons of their work, I try to make small and midsize communities competitive in the global economy, by building the social networks, ladders of opportunity, infrastructure investment and conservation of natural resources to attract and retain local talent.
Planning was one of the first professions to take advantage of technical tools such as GIS but has been somewhat slower to evolve compared with other fields. We’re trying to get the information out to the community to test scenarios in real-time, whether it’s through project websites that we create or by driving traffic through social media sites where people are already engaged.
What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful?
I like to relax through running. I don’t take any gadgets with me. It’s a time to turn off the electronics and take in the quiet and peacefulness.
I joined Teska due to the work of two of my mentors, Bob Teska, FAICP, who founded the firm in 1975, and Lee Brown, FAICP, our current president. They have each set the standard for ethics and professionalism in planning.
I learned from MarySue Barrett, the long-time president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, that planning cannot sidestep the political process. To advance effective policies, planners need to be able to communicate and speak up for change.
I have also been fortunate to have worked and learn from Sue Schwartz, FAICP, Director of Planning in Greensboro, North Carolina. She constantly brings together people from all different perspectives to address key challenges and opportunities, making the city more economically competitive while expanding equity of opportunity across the city.