Urban Planning Students Examine Equity and Development in Brooklyn Park

Students (from left to right) Mustafa Omar, Sarah Strain, Elizabeth Dressel, and Jared Staley visiting Brooklyn Park

By Hannah Gary

Brooklyn Park, this year's Resilient Communities Project partner, is rapidly changing. The sixth largest city in the state, it is also one of the most diverse. More than 50% of Brooklyn Park residents identify as people of color, and one of every five residents was born outside of the United States.

Although the City is experiencing economic and population growth, significant income disparities persist among residents. Brooklyn Park is facing unique challenges as a suburban community, and many Minnesota cities will soon face similar challenges. Brooklyn Park’s demographics reflect projections for the state as a whole by 2040. As Brooklyn Park continues to grow, the City is dedicated to finding a way to grow equitably, and this commitment is reflected in several projects that are part of this year’s RCP-Brooklyn Park partnership.

In 2005, Brooklyn Park developed a Stable Neighborhood Action Plan (SNAP), focused on the Village Creek neighborhood, to identify and meet the needs of residents in the community.

“[The City of Brooklyn Park] really wanted to. . .look at what has changed in the area and then. . .use that information to be able to evaluate how we should move forward and what development strategies we should use,” said Emily Carr, development project coordinator with the Community Development Department and the staff lead for this project.

Development projects began in the early 2000s, but much of the development halted due to the 2008 recession. The City currently owns 20 acres of vacant land in the area. This fall, the City worked with RCP and a team of students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to update the SNAP and identify equitable development strategies for the Village Creek area.

Neeraj Mehta, an instructor at the Humphrey School and director of community-based research at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), is guiding students in his Neighborhood Revitalization Strategies and Theories course through the process of creating equitable development proposals. The course is focused on equitable neighborhood revitalization, something Mehta believes is critical for future development.

“Our cities and regions are changing. Racial inequality and poverty continue to be predictable, persistent, and durable, and as metropolitan growth looks differently in our region, as cities and suburbs are changing and our demographics are changing, from an economic perspective, you can’t ignore that racial inequality is a drag in our region,” said Mehta.

A core component of the course is connecting students with community partners to work on real-world projects. Mehta was a student in the same course in 2003, and worked full-time with Project for Pride in Living as a graduate student. He believes his work on real-world projects enhanced his graduate school experience and is integral to understanding the topics discussed in class, a sentiment shared by students in the course.

“In class you can talk about ideas, you can talk about theories, you can see pictures of ‘successful projects,’” notes Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) candidate Sarah Strain, a student in Mehta’s class. “But having a real-world client project you can get on the ground, you can talk with people, you can talk with staff about what is going well, what went well, what would you change in the future,”

Students are given the option of working on several different projects for a variety of partners as part of the course. The suburban context of Brooklyn Park was a draw for Strain, and Mustafa Omar, also a MURP student, was interested in engaging with the large Liberian population. Omar has many years of experience working in international development, and has been involved with projects in Liberia since 2008.

Working with Strain and Omar, fellow MURP students Elizabeth Dressel, Elizabeth Caitlin Showalter, and Jared Staley will update Brooklyn Park’s SNAP and offer recommendations for equitable development strategies in the area. Throughout the semester, the students will work closely with Carr and Mehta to develop their final report.

Throughout their work, the students anticipate challenges.

“I come from a background of working with communities to solve problems,” said Staley. “Due to time constraints and other impediments, it will take more effort to be close to the project and gather the necessary input to make it successful. Working in an academic setting is safe, but this work can be incredibly impactful, doing it justice will be a challenge in and of itself.”

First-year MURP student Frank Alarcon will also be taking on this project through a GIS course, and will focus primarily on school mobility in the Village Creek neighborhood. A high level of school mobility has negative impacts on both students and communities, and measuring school mobility will help Brooklyn Park to better address the issue.

Alarcon was interested in working with the Brooklyn Park SNAP because of the city’s diverse demographics and the opportunity to work on something of value for a city.  Additionally, Alarcon thinks equitable development is important for correcting inherent biases in market forces.

“Equitable development looks to correct that bias and provides opportunities for people of color and people of less privilege,” said Alarcon.

Taking on the project from two perspectives with the help of RCP, Brooklyn Park is hoping to paint a more complete picture of current conditions in the SNAP study area, how these conditions have changed since 2005, and how the City can best move forward to develop an equitable and inclusive Brooklyn Park.

Hannah Gary is a dual-degree graduate student in the University of Minnesota's Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Master of Public Health program in the School of Public Health.

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