How to Become an Advocate for Healthy Cities

Posted on July 25, 2022

People biking down a suburban street

Right Now with Kevin Teater

  • What I’m Listening to – Best Bollywood of the 2000s (Spotify playlist)
  • What I’m Reading – Legion by Brandon Sanderson
  • What I’m Watching ­– Only Murders in the Building
  • What I’m Doing – Taking a break and working part-time after leaving my job with the Beaverton Downtown Association and being elected to Beaverton City Council

How to Become an Advocate for Healthy Cities

Working outside and within local government to create change

I was in college when I took a course called “Cities of the Future.” I imagined it being a class about flying cars, technology, and fancy inventions. But… it was none of those. Instead, it was about policy. It was about creating cities that are grounded in community, guided by planning, and regulated by policy.

I’ve been passionate about the health of cities (economic, environmental, and equitable) ever since. How can cities respond to the ever-imminent threat of climate disaster? How can we help provide solutions in the face of a national housing shortage? How can we make it so that children are not breathing toxins emitted from cars passing their schools on high-speed roads?

Kevin and Roopa with a street tree
Local action can mean volunteering with your neighborhood to plant trees like this one!

Local planning and community action can do this. The goal of urban planning is to address all of these issues locally and regionally, resulting in global benefit.

There are many ways to get involved in the creation and leadership of your own city. In Beaverton, our city has boards and commissions targeting specific issues, and community members can apply to serve on boards like this. Your city may have these too.

There are also great nonprofits involved in urban planning or transportation work. When I was in Asheville, I worked with a nonprofit called the Asheville Design Center, and we provided a lot of neighborhood planning services for people who could not afford private planning firms. You can volunteer, even as someone new to the field. I later worked with the Beaverton Downtown Association, which is a historic preservation and community development nonprofit affiliate of Main Street America. If you have the capacity to volunteer or find paid work in a field like this, you can advocate for healthier cities from outside of governmental roles.

I studied urban planning and public policy throughout college, but you don’t need a college degree to be an effective advocate. Some of the best advocates are parents and children. If you are a youth, organizations like the Sunrise Movement do great work in this field. Heck, you can learn most everything you need to know from sources like Strong Towns, YouTube (Not Just Bikes, City Beautiful), Planetizen, CityLab, YIMBY Action, and even more local places like Sightline Institute, City Observatory, and BikePortland. Read articles, watch videos, ask questions.

I joined Beaverton Planning Commission in 2021 after applying for the role in 2020. It’s been wonderful, though there is a lot to learn regarding the intricacies of your local government’s land use policies. We have scheduled meetings every Wednesday, and if nothing is on the agenda, the meeting will be canceled. I usually spend 5-10 hours preparing for and attending each meeting in total.

Planning policy in Beaverton is largely guided by our development code, comprehensive plan, and various other long-range plans. When planning commissioners review development proposals, the projects must meet the development code approval criteria. The approval criteria can say things like, “Adequate pedestrian safety is provided for throughout the project, and people have the ability to move within and around the development outside of an automobile.” If we don’t feel the proposal details meet that criterion, it would be grounds for denying the project.

It gets frustrating when, as an advocate, I may not like a specific development proposal, and yet I feel bound to approve the project anyways. This happens when a development is removing a lot of trees or not providing exceptional active transportation infrastructure, but it meets what our code requires. Since a project meets code, planning commissions will vote to approve it.

A roadway sign knocked down after a driver ran it over.
You may wonder why we build unprotected bike paths and sidewalks that are unsafe from car drivers. Our street design guidelines and development codes are the foundation of city design.

The development code guides all development within our city. So, if you see buildings and transportation networks that baffle you, they probably exist because they are trying to comply with what the development code requires. That’s why it is absolutely essential to have well-written development codes. Usually, your local government’s planning staff will have a list of updates they would like to make to the code, but changes require funding, staff time, and political will.

Being a planning commissioner will help you learn more about improving the long-term health of your community, and you will often feel like you are making a difference, but not every advocate needs to become a planning commissioner.

Many local elected leaders and policymakers are very accessible to their community. We want to hear from you. We want to have this relationship with you as a member of the community and passionate advocate. Don’t underestimate the value of simply inviting your city councilor, county commissioner, or even planning commissioner out for a coffee or walkaround.

Sometimes advocacy can be as fun and simple as a community bike ride or picnic!

People on bicycles in a park
Even a small group of people can create major change together. Just try to have fun doing it!

If you are just starting your exploration of urban advocacy, talk with people who are currently in the field in your own hometown. Asking questions will help you determine your own next steps:

  • What inspired you to enter this role?
  • What challenges do you see our city facing now or in the near future?
  • How can I help make a difference?
  • Are there people I should meet so that I can be better connected and more involved?
  • How can I stay up-to-date with upcoming development and transportation projects?
  • Do you have resources or advice for me so that I can learn more?

Ask questions, and your resulting actions may affect the city for decades to come.

Welcome to urban and regional planning!

Kevin Teater a councilor-elect for Beaverton City Council, a current City of Beaverton planning commissioner, and an ELGL member since 2017.

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