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Boise zoning code outreach efforts visit laundromats, Hispanic markets and coffee shops

(left to right) Lindsay Moser, Kyle Patterson and Tara Bingham
City of Boise, Kory Gaona
(left to right) Lindsay Moser, Kyle Patterson and Tara Bingham

When the City of Boise began the once-in-a-generation massive effort to recraft its zoning code, officials knew that some fresh ideas for public outreach were key.

Indeed, there have been a good number of roundtables and community forums, inviting stakeholders and the general public to weigh in on the opportunity. But the city’s Planning and Development Services tried something else … with great success.

The first step was for Kyle Patterson, the city’s Director of Innovation and Performance to visit a Boise State professor.

“So I was talking to Dr. Kendall House, who's an anthropology professor about this, and he said, ‘Oh, I've got this student for you. She can do some great work for you. It'll help you solve this problem.’”

Thus began a process where Boise State Master’s candidate Tara Bingham visited laundromats, Hispanic markets, coffee shops and more locations to hear more from Boiseans who, for one reason or another, haven’t had a voice at the proverbial table when it comes to policy change.

Bingham and Patterson joined Lindsay Moser, community manager for Planning and Development Services to visit with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the innovative, yet grass-root effort.

“If you think about it, really, anthropology is really about meeting folks where they're at, learning from them, understanding their values and their beliefs, which is really what we're trying to get at when we're doing engagement around this issue.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. We're going to spend some time this morning talking about inclusivity, the effort to get input from the public and the effort to try to increase diversity with that input. Once upon a time, it was face to face, door to door. Then more of those conversations might have been over the phone. Of course, the Internet expanded databases using mass emails or social media, but recently there was an effort, a face-to-face effort, here in Boise that caught our attention. And we are pretty sure that you'll want to hear about it, too. So, let's invite three guests here. We have three voices. Here they are, Lindsay Moser. She is the community manager for Planning and Development Services for the City of Boise. Kyle Patterson is director of Innovation and Performance for the city, and Tara Bingham is here, and she is going for her Masters at Boise State. And tell me what your studies are.

TARA BINGHAM: I'm studying anthropology with a graduate certificate in user research.

PRENTICE: Oh, my gosh. So, let's set the frame here. The City of Boise is deep into the process of rewriting the city's zoning code. Lyndsay Moser What's the elevator speech on this? This is pretty much how people live, right?

LINDSAY MOSER: Absolutely. So, the city started undergoing rewriting its zoning code back in 2019. Our zoning code hasn't been updated since the sixties, and it's pretty outdated thinking about how our community has grown and changed since then. So, we started the process. We're coming to the end of that process. Right now, it's kind of been broken up into three phases called modules, and through each of those phases we've had some really big community efforts to hear from different members of the community, whether that's public meetings and some more of deeper community engagement that we can really hear from all voices of the community, which is where we saw the opportunity to bring Tara into this paradigm.

PRENTICE: Can I assume you've been pleasantly surprised at the engagement?

MOSER: Absolutely. It's been a large effort overall. We love hearing from all different voices within the community, but we also know that there are barriers coming into some of these general community meetings and can be intimidating for a lot of folks.So, we took the approach with Tara's help, to meet the community where they're at. It takes a lot of time, effort and resources. And Tara was a great ally that we had that was able to do some of that work for us. And her findings are very interesting.

PRENTICE: For the record, for our listeners, Tara, this is part of an internship and this is where I bring you in, Kyle Patterson. So, Director of Innovation and Performance. Do I have that right?

KYLE PATTERSON: That's right, George. And I know those sound ike buzzwords, but really those are functions that I think dozens of cities across the US have had for the last ten or 15 years. And they're really based on this idea that many communities like ours are facing really complex challenges, things like housing affordability, climate change. These are challenges that don't have silver bullets, right? There's not one single solution to them. And I would argue the challenges that nobody has really solved. So, if we're going to be successful as a city in combating those challenges, we really have to get creative and try new things and experiment. And sometimes that means we'll try new things that don't work and be okay with that. Right. And of course, we have to try things in the right way. We don't want to spend millions of dollars and years of time trying something that fails. We want to try things in low cost, low risk ways. Do we really want to build and create pathways for great ideas to come from anywhere in the community really, and be heard by decision makers? Because we have such a smart, creative community and we want to leverage that to help us make an impact. And third, really, we have to do a better job, frankly, of leveraging data to help us get better, to measure our progress and to inform decision making. So in a nutshell, that's really what innovation and performance is all about.

PRENTICE: So, Kyle, I've been told that while Tara is interning, it's through your department, is that correct?

PATTERSON: That's correct. And I'm actually located within the mayor's office.

PRENTICE: Okay. So, you are the supervisor, Tara. You can listen or not listen. Kyle, what can you tell me about Tara?

PATTERSON: Tara is really amazing and just a super smart person. It's a little bit embarrassing because she's so skilled. You know, she's great at design, user research and ethnography. And to add to that, she's like an artist to boot. I've seen some of her work and it's really impressive. So even at her age in grad school, she's already like more skilled than I, and probably one day I'll work for her. But we've just been super pleased with the work Tara did this summer, I was her supervisor and sort of finger quotes, but really I just sort of gave her some guidance about what we're trying to accomplish and let her set her loose. And she just spent the summer in the community really doing her work and she did some really amazing stuff that we're excited to see the results from.

PRENTICE: Tara, this is fascinating. So, it's a fair amount of left brain, right brain, while with most other opportunities, it's one or the other. But it sounds as when you engage  on something that's so important, and yet you're engaging on a personal level….can I assume this is exciting when you have a moment like that?

BINGHAM: Oh, it's very exciting.

PRENTICE: So let's talk about this. Spoiler alert, we're going to talk about laundromats here in a second. Kyle, give me the germ of this idea here.

PATTERSON: Yeah. There's a professor out of Boston University named Dr. Katherine Einstein, and she's done some super cool research about how residents engage with local government, especially around topics of housing and land use. So think like what gets built where? And one of the core findings of her work has been that the folks who tend to engage with government tend not to be representative of the community as a whole. And that's really not that surprising when you think about all the barriers we put in place, frankly, to have to engage with government. So if you think of somebody who wants to come to a city council meeting and give a public comment, right. They have to not be working on a Tuesday evening. Right. So they have to have a traditional 9 to 5 job that they can do, that they have kids and they have to find childcare. They have to get downtown. And if you have a car, you have to pay for parking. If you don't, you're going to ride a bus. And busses aren't as frequent in the evening. And once you get down here, you're tasked with talking with really powerful people, which can be super intimidating. And George, part of my job is to present to mayor and council, and it's intimidating for me. So just for an average resident that doesn't know these folks, it's incredibly intimidating. So it's not surprising that only certain folks are able to overcome a lot of those barriers and come participate in government. And so we know that this problem exists… layer on that, we're in the middle of this zoning code rewrite, which is such an important thing for our community. And we really have an obligation to make sure we're listening to the community as a whole. Right, doing whatever we can to do that. And so I was talking to Dr. Kendall House at Boise State, who's an anthropology professor about this, and he said, “Oh, I've got this student for you. She can do some great work for you. It'll help you solve this problem.”And I know probably the listeners are thinking like, what does anthropology have to do with this? Butif you think about it, really, anthropology is really about meeting folks where they're at, learning from them, understanding their values and their beliefs, which is really what we're trying to get at when we're doing engagement around this issue.And so I was fortunate to be connected with Tara and able to hire for the summer, and she's really done great work to try and sort of fill that gap.

PRENTICE: So, Tara, do I have this right?. This took you to laundromats.

BINGHAM: It did. It actually took me all over Boise. I began in laundromats and then we ended up going to several Hispanic markets. I did some outreach on social media. We talked to some unhoused residents and even went to grocery stores and recreation areas.

PRENTICE: Paint me a word picture. You walk into a laundromat, you approach a stranger, which I think is the number one fear of most humans, right?

BINGHAM: Definitely.

PRENTICE: Yeah. And you say, “Can I ask you some questions?” What was your speech? How did you engage?

BINGHAM: Yeah. So basically I went up and I said something like, “Hi, I'm a BSU researcher interviewing people for the City of Boise Zoning Code Rewrite,” and then asked if they had a few minutes and would they be interested in talking about housing and their hopes for Boise's future?

PRENTICE: Did some people think it was a joke or they were being punked?

BINGHAM: Oh, people were very taken aback and I did have to re explain the process a few times to some people.

PRENTICE: But an anthropologist knows this. It's about being heard. And here is a population that is not heard, let alone heard often enough.

BINGHAM: It is, and people were very interested in being heard once they realized what I was offering.

PRENTICE: How did you chronicle this?

BINGHAM: So I did a mixture of iPad surveys and actual audio recording if the people approved of it.

PRENTICE: So I have to assume that your first experience was a good one or possibly even exceeded your expectations. Otherwise, you wouldn't have kept doing it.

BINGHAM: Yeah. People were very, very friendly and the first several people I talked to were quite elderly and my initial goal was to target young renters. So the reason we went to several other locations was just to get a broader swath of the population.

PRENTICE: And did you find that broader swath?

BINGHAM: Yeah. So we reached several different populations. We reached younger renters, which were the primary target. We reached Spanish speakers, and we did that by bringing along a translator. And then we reached lifelong renters, homeowners, the unhoused and people even in non traditional housing arrangements.

PRENTICE: Tara, this almost sounds like a thesis unto itself.

BINGHAM: It definitely could have been my thesis.

PRENTICE: Kyle I just as a layperson, can I assume this exceeded expectations?

PATTERSON: Oh, no question. Tara did such great work, and it's just really fascinating to see some of the comparisons and contrast between the group of folks Tara talked to and some of the other outreach that we've done is one one example. As part of one of the drafts, we did a big survey of residents to get a sense of their feelings about housing and the built environment and those things. And one of the questions we asked was sort of like we ask folks to rank the most important things to consider in allowing new types of housing. And the top three things that folks in the survey said were the size of the building, the height of the residences, and how close the residents are to one another. Those were the things that they were the most concerned about. And then you contrast that to Tara's work, where she's going out and talking to folks in other communities, and they had very different ranked list of interests, and so they were most interested in pedestrian safety and comfort. Wow. Private open space and the way residents residences looked. And so a very different perception and preferences about sort of the built environment around folks. And we just wouldn't have gotten that information without Tara's help.

PRENTICE: Lindsay Moser, the nuance in this … and the value that comes through this, as simple as this sounds, this was a bit of a heavy lift, but lessons learned, right? I mean, this is a story worth repeating.

MOSER: Absolutely. And, you know, as we go through this zoning process that has taken several years, you know, surveys is one of the great ways that we can read a broad reach. But we also know that we're only hitting a certain amount of our residents and community members. And so for Tara to go and hear some of those members of the community there that are very valuable that we're not hearing from and actually get their perspective on such a large project and large undertaking of how our community will be built for the future was very valuable and very difference of opinion. So this is where the city then comes into play and says, okay, we have a few different thoughts here. Where can we find a ground that we feel is appropriate to make our city grow in the way that we need to? For all of our residents, not just certain populations that we tend to hear from in these type of projects.

PRENTICE: So, Tara, can I assume that this real world example, this project that you spent the summer on, this is a confirmation of your studies?

BINGHAM: Yes. It was definitely a bit of a proving ground, especially when compared to more academic research.

PRENTICE: Kyle This had to be a little bigger than your initial thoughts.

PATTERSON: Oh, without question.  When you're just trying out a new idea.. And you hire a summer intern to do something, you're just kind of thrown out there and see what happens. And of course, Tara really exceeded our expectations. She finished her work just a few weeks ago and was able to present it to the mayor. And it's just fun to see different perspectives from different folks from outside of City Hall. I really loved that. Tara peppered into her presentation to the mayor, some of her art sort of telling the stories of the folks that she talked to, using art, as well as some of the data that she had, which was really, really exciting to see.

PRENTICE: I want to ask about that in a second. Tara, did you like giving that presentation? Was that a very natural thing for you? Because I don't think many of us could stand in front of the mayor and make a presentation.

BINGHAM: Oh, I was definitely nervous, but I was very excited to just have the voices of the people heard.

PRENTICE: Talk to me about your art. What kind of art we're talking about.

BINGHAM: So what I did is I created little profiles of different people that I had interviewed. And I used real quotations. Phrases like “Walkability, especially with these gas prices, is actually saving my life.” That was one of them. So, they are actually digital artwork.

PRENTICE: And you took these quotes and gave them life.

BINGHAM: I would say.

PATTERSON: And George, can I jump in there, please? I get to work with data quite often and data is such an invaluable resource. But often it's hard to see the people and the stories behind the data. And so for Tara to really be able to illustrate that in a way that makes some of this data feel real and understandable and relatable, it's it's a big deal. And it really helps us think through how we design policy around the needs of those folks.

PRENTICE: Lindsay Moser, this almost transcends my stereotypical thought of what an internship is or what an intern does.

MOSER: Absolutely. I think we in our Office of Community Engagement, there's all different types of levels of engagement that we do. And to do this type of deep engagement, like I said, it takes a lot of resources and time. We're spending most of our evenings out in the community at those laundromats and coffee shops, and that's just invaluable time that, you know, sometimes we don't have the resources or time to do as well ourselves. So very invaluable and kind of made you rethink what an intern can do, especially at her caliber of experience.

PRENTICE: Tara, whomever ends up as your employer, they'll be pretty lucky. But what is the big dream for you? What do you what do you want to do someday?

BINGHAM: Well, I would like to keep working in Boise and just create sort of deep engagement and help facilitate ground roots action.

PRENTICE: Okay. Lindsay, as far as the end product, this has to be an important piece of that. The you've met with stakeholders and different groups with the public. What that continues through the fall. What's your timeframe like here?

OSER: Yeah. So this summer we wrapped up kind of our first and second part outreach. We had heard from the community back in the wintertime that we didn't quite have the zoning code right. So we went back to the drawing table and we made some pretty big changes and we wanted to make sure that we shared with the community that we heard them and we understood the direction that they wanted to go. And we found a middle ground and really went back out in the community this summer, had very positive feedback that was reassuring to our staff of, Yep, we're headed in the right direction. Let's keep moving forward. This fall in October, we'll be releasing the third part module three, which is on process and procedures. So what type of process our planning department has to go through. And then what goes to public hearing? What goes to a planning and zoning commission? When do neighborhoods get noticed on certain types of projects? So that'll be kind of our last big outreach. And then the goal is still to submit to planning and zoning and have to go through the public hearing process. So the goal is to have that submitted in February and then that will take some time and end goal is still to be adopted by summer of 2023 by city council.

PRENTICE: She is Lindsay Moser and there is Kyle Patterson and there is Tara Bingham. Congratulations to all of you. And I never thought I would be as interested in rewriting a zoning code as I am now. And the fact that we have voices that are a part of the process that probably never would have been. And their voices count as much, if not more than anyone's. So congratulations to you all, and thanks for giving me some time this morning.

PATTERSON: Thanks, George.

BINGHAM: Thank you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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