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Sasaki Attends Inaugural Our Convention

On October 9th, six members of Sasaki’s staff attended Our Convention, an event hosted by City Awake as part of HUBweek. The purpose of the event, in its first year, was to create a shared civic agenda for the millennial generation—those in the age range of 20 to 34 years old. Held at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute (EMKI), the event brought together over 300 delegates representing some 70 Boston organizations to discuss major issues that this generation is facing.

Delegates gathered in a replica of the U.S. Senate Chamber, which Sasaki helped to bring to fruition in recent years. The Convention’s start within that grand, symbolic room set the tone for the afternoon’s ensuing exchange of ideas on present challenges for Boston and beyond.

After an explication of the importance and uniqueness of the event, the delegates were separated into discussion groups focused on nine broad-reaching issues, of which each delegate could relate both professionally and personally. Sasaki’s delegates attended a variety of the sessions: Urban Planners Chris Freda and Gretchen Keillor attended the housing discussion; Theresa O’Neil, also a planner, attended the economic development discussion; and Landscape Architects Nina Chase, Philip Dugdale, and Diana Fernandez attended the environment and energy discussion.

Upon their return from this inaugural convention, this group of Sasaki designers and planners presented their experiences at Our Convention to the office, and put pen to page to capture their thoughts coming out of their experiences. Energized by the discussion, Sasaki’s young professionals are full of ideas about how to build upon Our Convention next year.

Read on for key takeaways from the delegates Sasaki sent to the 2015 inaugural event:

Gretchen Keillor

The advertised intention of Our Convention was for millennials to come together to chart an agenda for our generation: an ambitious pretense! The 300 of us fell a bit short of outlining a comprehensive agenda, but we did come together—and found that this simple act, of joining our young, collective energies within one physical space, was perhaps more powerful than any content actually discussed on that day.

The convention was hosted at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, whose main feature is a large room that is an exact replica of the United States Senate Chamber nestled within a stark, powerful concrete building. The location was clearly chosen carefully, and as we took our places in the Senate seats, the weight of what we had been gathered there to do was palpable. It felt momentous—and the introductory speakers felt it too, throwing out phrases like “generational responsibility” and “just the beginning.”

These leaders encouraged us to be brave, to recognize that it was our time. They challenged us to not be dismayed by the cranky and ignorant criticisms thrown around about our generation—i.e., “the only millennial agenda is moving out of their parents’ basement”—but to instead celebrate how hard-working, socially-conscious, and forward-thinking we are (even if we could stand to take a few less selfies!). As the day continued and we split into smaller, topic-based groups, we were able to connect with each other and mutually recognize the amazing work that young adults are already doing right here in Boston: to ensure equitable access, combat climate change, create vibrant places, and take care of each other.

We left feeling encouraged, respected, and empowered to tackle the problems that previous generations have stumbled on, ignored, or not done enough about. Establishing this forum for our voices – and encouraging us to speak—seems to me the most valuable function of this year’s Our Convention, creating energy for positive change that I hope will spread.

Chris Freda

Today, few topics generate as much passionate debate in cities like Boston as housing does. Whether viewed from a perspective of development trends, economic mobility, equality of access, quality of space, or the future of our communities, the issue of housing the growing and changing populations of popular American cities yields many opinions and cries for reform and relief. While the housing topic at this month’s Our Convention event was broad, the conversation quickly centered around two main threads of concern: the ever-growing shortage of affordable housing that has reached the level of crisis for many of the region’s populations, and the perpetual (and also growing) problem of homelessness in our communities. Anyone who has explored these problems knows how stubborn they can be, but the room of thirty-or-so delegates representing public, private, non-profit, institutional, and personal interests remained thoughtful, optimistic, and eager to tackle the problems.

While many of the considered tools and techniques for combating these issues were familiar to many of us involved in these work sessions, there was consensus around two fundamental changes that need to occur in order to unlock reform in a serious way. First, these issues need to be considered on a regional scale more than they have been so far. With municipalities and neighborhoods working independently to address the problems in silos, resources prove lacking and efforts can often be duplicative if not contradictory. Working with planners, policymakers, community organizations, and community stakeholders to address these issues on the scale that we all work and live is key to providing the flexibility needed for truly reformational action.

Second, the various voices, opinions, and efforts of these passionate advocates for reform must find a way to organize. While so many individuals and organizations recognize these crises and largely agree on the direction of reforms needed, the lack of an organized, unified, and coherent message fractures proponents of progressive policy changes in the face of adversaries who are often well-financed and in lock-step against any additional regulation or public intervention. While these are only first steps, they are critical ones. If the present and future coalitions of changemakers on these issues resemble the diverse collection of participants at Boston’s first Our Convention event, then we’re well on our way to a better city.

Nina Chase

While the discussion within the Environment and Energy group primarily focused on sustainable and renewable energy-use in Boston, a small subset of delegates tackled the future of our physical environment. Today, we’re facing environmental and urban challenges that will change the shape of our city. What will our streets look like in 2100? How will development look different, as more and more people rely on public transit? How will our coast adapt to rising seas? Can our parks function both for play and protection?

Public spaces, such as our streets, sidewalks, parks, and fields, are the communal glue that keep a city lively and diverse. As we continue to improve our urban fabric, we owe it to ourselves to design incredible, multi-functional outdoor places. Let’s design vibrant, public spaces that democratically mix people and ideas. Let’s design beautiful, accessible streets and sidewalks that connect residents to public transit. Let’s create habitat for people and animals alike, providing places to recreate and relax, while also capturing rainwater and restoring ecology.

Multi-functional public spaces can tackle many challenges at once. Let’s invest in versatile, equitable public spaces now, to serve our cities in the future.

Diana Fernandez

Known as a green city and as a hub for innovation, the city of Boston is positioned to become one of the most energy efficient cities in the country. Despite this opportunity, the city is challenged with environmental inequality. According to the Metro Boston Indicators Project, “the 20 municipalities most heavily burdened by hazardous site exposures all have median household incomes under $60,000 per year, lower than the statewide median”. This is a trend that is reflected across the United States, and is an important issue to tackle.

Environmental inequality creates neighborhoods that struggle with significant losses in property value, limiting development and adding to issues of blight in the city. Environmental inequality does not exist in a silo—it affects all drivers of what makes a city livable (e.g. economic development, health, transportation, housing, etc.). This is a particularly important issue for designers and planners, as the processes of urban renewal and planning have failed these communities. As millennials, we are positioned at the forefront of change that ensures environmental equity for the city at large. Our generation embodies traits of collaboration, and greater awareness of our local and global communities, and we are “the most racially diverse generation” according to the Pew Research Center. Despite the negative connotations associated with millennials, we are poised to be the most adept generation in solving the issues that previous generations have failed to address.

Theresa O-Neil

I have had countless conversations about economic development that explore topics like how to bring big business and strong corporations to a city while also supporting small businesses and maker culture. Because we often work in legacy cities that are losing population and need jobs and business desperately the primary question is “what can we do to bring and support businesses here?” There is always the implication and assumption that businesses just locating there is an automatic win, because it brings jobs and population. While this is often true, the second phase of the thought process is often neglected. The questions often missing from the conversation are “how can we push businesses to maximize their investment and impact on the community?” and “how do we make sure the prosperity is distributed and helpful for all citizens in the city?”

I was heartened by the clear consensus in the economic development discussion group that Boston, a city with tremendous recent economic growth, cannot pat itself on the back until it takes care of the outlier neighborhoods that are currently not sharing in the prosperity. There are no easy answers; the core nature of economic development is often one of competition between cities and regions. I am, however, encouraged that this bold group of leaders is at least beginning to ask the right questions.

Philip Dugdale

What is it that sets a generations apart from the next? This month’s Our Convention gave “Gen Y,” otherwise known as millennials, a platform to get together to discuss what our agenda should be and how we might turn that into action for the city of Boston.

Millennials have been the generation of Myspace, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This has meant that their voice has been louder and further reaching than ever before, the downside to that has been the opening up of these voices to public scrutiny, and, as a result, millennials have at times been labelled “over entitled” or “Generation ‘Me'”.

Millennials are in fact an extremely diverse, technology savvy and community driven generation, fighting to be understood. That said it is sometimes easy to think that a lot of today’s agendas for change are unique to our time. In fact, these battles have been continually fought throughout modern history, repackaged and repurposed for each generation. It is easy for us to separate ourselves from previous generations and blame each other for today’s problems, but what is missing is a collaborative approach where we work together for the greater purpose. We have a unique opportunity to use technology to educate, learn from and develop key agendas. Millennials can be at the forefront of uniting each generation in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Events such as Our Convention are valuable for providing a platform to begin to define this agenda, and the reason why I am excited to be a Landscape Architect in the city of Boston.

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