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Sustainable Urbanism and Community Input: An Interview with Dr. Megan Heckert

Photo via Megan Heckert

Dr. Megan L. Heckert ’00 is a Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at West Chester University. Her academic focus is urban sustainability initiatives, particularly how they intersect with urban development policy. Recently, Dr. Heckert has studied equity indexes and the use of green infrastructure in cities. Dr. Heckert graduated from Brown University in 2000, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Aquatic Biology. She received both a Master of Arts in Geography and a Ph.D. in Urban Studies from Temple University.

Charlie Adams: Your biography describes you as an urban geographer. This is the first time I’ve heard of that term. Can you trace your path from Aquatic Biology at Brown to Urban Geography? 

Megan Heckert: When I left Brown, I went into the Peace Corps and I spent two years in Jamaica where I was working with a nonprofit that was trying to use a participatory method to develop a management plan for a marine protected area. I did a lot of work with schools but also with different local stakeholder groups to talk about protected areas, why they would want them, and what they would want from them. And the conversation that I had most of the time with them, but also with my boss as we were talking about how to approach this, was thinking about building connections between the environment, the economy, and quality of life in a context where most Jamaicans don’t spend time in the ocean. Most of them don’t swim.

Valuing the coral reefs is a tricky thing, right? Especially when most Jamaicans are also living in poverty. So that to me was a really interesting conversation. I should say, I grew up in Philadelphia and in a working-class neighborhood. And I had always been interested in the environment but also a little bit turned off by the environmental movement and the feeling that it felt disconnected from my life. And so my experience in the Peace Corps got me focused on thinking about, okay, how do I take these ideas about the connection between the environment and quality of life and put them in the urban context that I grew up in? 

That led me through a very weird, circuitous path, mostly just in terms of finding it, to a master’s program in geography, and I was like, “Oh, this is really, really cool.” And of course, Brown doesn’t have a geography department. So it was not something I had been exposed to in the true academic sense of what geography is, other than in seventh grade, which I think was the last time I had a geography class. Getting to think about it as understanding people’s connections to and relationship with their surroundings was a different way of thinking about what geography was. And it turns out that I really liked it.

And then the reason my PhD is in Urban Studies is actually—and I think I have the only one from Temple—because at the program where I did my PhD, the department was Geography and Urban Studies. It was a brand new PhD program. I was in the first cohort, and it was originally called Urban Studies. I finished and then they decided, “You know what? We should really call it something that’s actually interdisciplinary.” So then they changed the name to Geography and Urban Studies.

CA: Moving into some of what your research has explored, in a recent paper, you discussed the relationship between green infrastructure and health outcomes during the pandemic. What implications do your findings have for city planners and how does equity enter the conversation? 

MH: Oh, that’s a big one. Basically, it says that as we think about planning for future pandemics, which at this point sort of feel inevitable, we really need to think about access to parks and green space. Particularly in terms of thinking about coping strategies, right? The evidence about the impact of green space on the Covid-19 pandemic itself is fairly mixed, but it seems clear that spending time in parks didn’t exacerbate the pandemic. But what it did do was really improve mental health for people who were able to access parks.

The trickiness of that is accessibility happens in lots of different ways, right? So literally, is there a park nearby? And particularly thinking about the context of lockdown, it was fairly important that it be nearby, especially in places around the world where your movements were really, really restricted to within close proximity. But also it depended on who was working from home or wasn’t working and therefore had time. There were lots of folks, particularly in service industries, who were still having to work and didn’t have that time available because they were also having to manage their kids and all of the things that came with that period of lockdown in particular.

One of the things that it highlighted is the importance of a park system where everyone has parks in proximity but also thinking about what amenities those parks offer. I’m saying parks, but really I mean all kinds of green spaces, not specifically parks. Also, this wasn’t specifically in the paper, but there’s some evidence also that just views of greenery and having trees nearby were also really valuable.

CA: As a Midwesterner, your work on greening legacy cities fascinates me. What sorts of patterns are you seeing emerge from these urban areas that are legacy cities and during their transitions into post-industrial landscapes? 

MH: I think there is an increasing awareness that some of these cities are not necessarily expecting to grow, at least not back to their previous populations. We need to rethink what should happen with vacant lands and vacant properties, especially vacant land where properties have been torn down. There’s an increasing understanding of the value of greening as one possible management strategy both in terms of how it takes land off the market—so it potentially helps to increase the value of the land that still is on the market—and how it provides amenities to the folks who are still around in those communities. I will say that my dissertation work was on vacant land, but I have moved a little bit away from that specifically. I’m not as steeped in the literature now as I was 10 years ago, but I think that’s still a large part of the conversation, thinking about reuse strategies that aren’t necessarily redevelopment for increasing population in those areas. Greening is recognized as one potentially valuable thing that can happen.

James Hardy: It was really interesting reading your early paper from 10 or 11 years ago on greening and then reading the policy brief two years ago that talks about greening in terms of its displacement effects. How has your view of urban greening changed over time, especially in terms of an equity component broader than just the actual kind of reuse value?

MH: Yeah, it’s a real challenge. You do have this increasing literature on green gentrification, which is the idea that greening increases property values, which a lot of us have shown. I’ve shown that, in certain contexts, it presents risks, particularly in disadvantaged communities because property values go up and then property taxes go up. Folks who have been longtime owners, especially older residents, won’t necessarily have additional income that they can get based on that. So there are real risks of displacement, both for longtime owners who are on fixed incomes but also obviously for renters as they see rents increase. There have been a number of directions for going with this.

One of them is this concept of “just green enough.” The idea of “we want to make communities green, but maybe not so green that it tips into gentrification.” I understand the impulse, but I have to say that this one doesn’t sit well with me, because why shouldn’t disadvantaged communities be able to have really great parks? I have moved toward thinking that there is a need for an intersectional approach to thinking about both greening and neighborhood revitalization so that greening is paired with measures to ensure affordable housing and to ensure no displacement. I’m not a housing person, so I have general thoughts, but I’m sure other experts in that area would have more direct thoughts about how you can do that.

I know one of the things that I have thought about in Philadelphia—and again, this is just based on me being a resident of Philly for my whole life and not my academic research—is what if you didn’t actually change or significantly increase the value of properties until they sell? This way, people who are long-time residents wouldn’t have to have their values and property taxes increased. In particular, we have a 10-year tax abatement that’s in place that’s supposed to incentivize redevelopment and redesign because the property taxes won’t increase. It’s not like no taxes, but they don’t increase over what they were. And so it encourages developers to come in and develop because they know that they can then sell that property and say, “Well, the taxes are gonna be lower.”

But what’s happened is that you have residents who have these really nice, brand-new homes come in and are paying really low taxes, whereas neighbors who have owned their homes forever are seeing their taxes increase. They’re essentially subsidizing the wealthier newcomers into the community. I think on some level fewer people feel like the 10-year tax abatement has been a success. We’ve seen lots of redevelopment happening, but from an equity perspective, it raises some real questions. I think there has to be some way of combining these ideas of greening and doing other things to make neighborhoods fantastic but in a way that protects the long-term residents of those communities.

JH: That’s a really interesting idea. Does it just delay the process of displacement by 10 years because, eventually, the assessment value will jump when the abatement ends and people see an immediate large increase in their tax payments? 

MH: Right. Well, the tax abatement is only for the property itself that was redeveloped. These are usually wealthier residents coming in. So yeah, after 10 years, their taxes go up. And that’s where the equity argument comes in. It’s specifically for those properties. The top taxes often do go up for the residents who’ve done nothing to their properties because they have lived there a long time and they’re just doing their thing. Then it gets tricky because you get a lot of people arguing, “I couldn’t have bought this house if it didn’t have the tax abatement,” to which I say, “Okay, that’s great. Then you couldn’t afford the house. You shouldn’t have bought it.”

CA: Continuing with this conversation about equity, in one of your papers, you talk about struggle spaces. What are they, and how do they undermine long-term climate planning? 

MH: That idea actually came from one of my collaborators who was taking a taxi to the airport to go to a conference, and I guess the cab driver had asked her about it, and she talked about what we were doing related to equity and development. He said, “Oh, some of us were just living here in the struggle space.” And what he was talking about was this idea of understanding long-term concerns and long-term needs but also struggling to get through today, to get food on the table, to get the rent paid. Recognizing that as much as long-term planning is really important, especially as we face the changing climate and all of the issues going on in the world right now. In communities that are in this struggle space, long-term planning is also something of a luxury.

Again, recognizing that the long-term greening and planning stuff is really good unless you’re dealing with “we want the dumping to stop right now, we want to deal with the air pollution that we’re experiencing right now, and we want to deal with crime.” Recognizing that some communities have lots of competing struggles that need to be addressed makes certain kinds of work feel more like a luxury. They should be part of what is the natural part of life, but we all only have so much energy to devote to things.

CA: Do you have any ideas for how to address that while preserving their voices in the future of their neighborhoods? 

MH: Ideas? Yes. Can I guarantee any of them would work? No. The biggest project that I’m working on right now is a project we’re calling PREACT, which stands for Planning for Resilience and Equity through Accessible Community Technology. The idea is to build a planning platform that centers equity, so that would be based on lots of different existing indicators of need and vulnerability but that also could be informed by community stories. Ultimately, a lot of the things that make up our day-to-day lives are not necessarily the things that show up in indicators, even air quality indicators or the amount of green space. It’s also things like dumping. It’s also things like the kinds of flooding that happen, where the whole corner is flooded because the drainage isn’t working properly, or where basements are getting flooded, and those aren’t in official data sets.

It’s thinking about the idea of letting community residents input data and tell their own stories, so it’s a much more qualitative and rich sense of what’s actually going on in communities. And then that could be combined in some fashion with the other traditional indicators of risk, need, and vulnerability. It would enable residents to advocate on their behalf to say, “Look, this is what we’re dealing with. These are the concerns,” and push that at the government to say, “You should be doing something about this”—but also for government agencies or for other organizations that are really concerned about equity to use that as a planning tool to be able to say, “Okay, what’s going on in these communities? What are things that they might particularly need or value?”

We started this work in the context of green stormwater infrastructure, where we were thinking that there are lots of different forms of it. And so you could use it to say, “Well, okay, this community really needs more green infrastructure, but they’re also lacking a playground.” Maybe we need to put in a rain garden around a playground that has permeable pavement or something like that, as opposed to another community where tree trenches are more appropriate—it’s about being targeted and conscious of what’s going on in communities. The idea behind it and the challenge of it is thinking about it through this intersectional lens, that it’s got to meet the needs of lots of different people, but also have all of the data in there—without being overwhelming—so that you can look at greening and housing, for example, and say, “Okay, we want greening but also we need to think about affordable housing measures to protect residents.”

CA: I’m curious what you think the role of geographic information systems (GIS) is in synthesizing that and presenting that effectively and whether there are any pitfalls of using that specific medium.

MH: I am a proponent of GIS. I think it’s wonderful, and I think all these things that we’re talking about are kind of spatial, right? Thinking about access to parks and green spaces is about understanding where they are and what that spatial relationship is. I definitely see GIS as central to this in terms of being able to bring all the data together. Also, maps are really valuable for telling stories. Writing things in prose and even sometimes showing them in charts doesn’t give you the same impression that you can get from a really well-designed map that can highlight the variations that happen across the city.

For example, in terms of heat, we all know about urban heat islands, which are often a reference to heat in cities and how it’s different from suburbs. But even within the city of Philadelphia, there’s a 22-degree difference across neighborhoods in the hottest parts of the summer. You can say, “Okay, this place is this temperature and this place is this temperature.” But when you actually see it on a map and you see how close they are and yet how disparate their temperatures are, it really hits you in a way that is hard to do without a map. I think that visualization, particularly spatial visualization through maps, is important and valuable.

JH: I find the call for more community control or community input really interesting and important, especially the way you phrase it in the intersectional way around greening. But community input can often become kind of a captured mechanism by upper-income areas to block any kind of development, even the creation of green space. Do you have ideas for how we balance these two things? 

MH: Right. One of the biggest challenges around community input is who’s able to come to community meetings—who has the time, who has the childcare. Time poverty is such a big thing. But also, certainly when we’re talking about adding a GIS interface on some level, who’s comfortable with the technology to do it that way? I think one of the challenges, particularly in what we’re calling the struggle space communities, is the sense of being over-researched and always being asked to give up your time and not necessarily getting anything back from it. I don’t know that I have a solution. I think on some level the solution, or some part of the solution I should say, is providing different ways to participate. The NIMBY thing is also a significant challenge. It’s really about finding as unobtrusive a way as possible to give a voice to those who don’t necessarily have the resources and the ability to contribute and to feel safe and comfortable contributing. There aren’t easy answers to these questions, unfortunately.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.