Fox Professing
Academic Papers Opinion Columns Personal Essays Course Materials




Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Town's Comprehensive Plan

Sketchy on Diversity

Dennis Fox

June 20, 2002


The 75 residents who met last week to talk about Brookline's 10-year Comprehensive Plan arrived with energy and ideas. The community forum's small-group brainstorming generated creative possibilities, some of which town planners might even pursue. Despite the good intentions and good mood, though, the evening's rushed format and ambitious agenda left little time for serious discussion.

Our primary task was to list what should change in Brookline by 2012 and what should not. The small groups suggested many goals, which town committees responsible for transportation, open space, housing, and other fundamentals will consider after the summer when the process resumes. (To follow developments, see the town website.)

I was glad some others in my small group shared my own primary hope: Making diversity meaningful where it counts, in town decision-making. Indeed, the Comprehensive Plan's preliminary reports identified diversity as a significant value. Yet some of us wondered why that diversity doesn't extend as far as it might.

Demographic details included in the planners' information sheets may come as a surprise. Perhaps you know that 23 percent of town residents are at least partly non-white and/or Latino. But did you know a third of Brookline residents are between the ages of 20 and 34? That more than half our population rents rather than owns? That the majority of residents have lived in town five years or less?

Keeping these demographics in mind as I assessed the room of policy shapers, I saw one person of color and very few twentysomethings. I'm willing to bet there weren't many renters, and although I've only been here four years myself, it was clear from the discussion that newcomers didn't outnumber old-timers. Following the pattern of every similar meeting I've been to since my arrival, thus, the attendees were older, whiter, and wealthier than average.

I wonder how many were aware that their own perceptions might not represent the town as a whole.

This now-familiar reality flies in the face of one of the Comprehensive Plan's formal goals: "Engaging the entire community in defining what change is desirable." That goal is a prerequisite for another: "Reaching a Plan that reflects community consensus -- and makes a difference." But without more diverse input, seemingly consensual conclusions won't reflect Brookline's true mixture of opinion.

If we took diversity seriously -- if we wanted it to mean more than eating at ethnic restaurants and listening to exotic languages in the street -- we would devise methods to broaden participation in everything from planning meetings to Town Meeting to School Committee to the Transportation Board. That broad participation, of course, might disconcert those who find our longstanding decision-making traditions safe, responsible, and comfortably predictable.

One example: in its summary of prior neighborhood forums that led up to last week's meeting, the planners say "no participant suggested eliminating the [overnight parking] ban altogether." Can anyone who reads the TAB's many letters opposing the ban believe those neighborhood forums were truly representative when not one person -- not one! -- proposed ending it?

My own small group reached no parking consensus, but we did agree the town should finally address the parking problem rather than continue to duck it. We mostly doubted this would happen, however. Officials know that those who more often suffer from the ban -- younger or newer lower-income renters or condo owners, as well as many single parents -- have little influence over Town Meeting, the Transportation Board, or the Selectmen.

Parking isn't the most significant issue. The town gives a lot of lip, but not much service, to affordable housing. We moan and groan about sparse town funds, but we don't lay the groundwork for a progressive income or property tax or some other method to get more money from those who can afford it and less from those who can't. We hope the chain stores won't displace more independents, but we don't do much to keep them at bay.

If Brookline decision-makers truly represented the community demographically and financially, discussion about plans for the future might proceed very differently. As things stand now, though, the Comprehensive Plan's final proposals won't hold too many surprises for those who like things just the way they are.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

Back to Gadflying Columns List

up to top

personal/political observations
Academic Papers Opinion Columns Personal Essays Course Materials
some political, most not


Page updated September 30, 2007