Carolyn (Carey) McAndrews: Promoting Community Input into a Major Transportation Public Works Project

Carey McAndrews is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Planning and Design at the University of Colorado Denver, and she specializes in transportation planning. In her knowledge exchange project at UW-Madison, she worked with the Verona Road Justice Coalition to provide community input into a major road-widening project in the neighborhood.

How did you feel about the knowledge exchange process going into the program?

My field is city planning and specifically transportation planning. Because it’s an interdisciplinary and applied thing, it’s not uncommon for people in planning and transportation who get funded by local, state, or federal governments to do relatively applied projects. It’s completely normal to have relationships with people outside of academia. In fact, it’s required. It’s expected of people.

In planning, one way to do that is to work directly with community groups. My definition of policy relevant includes the formation of policy, including what happens at a very grassroots level.

I’m curious about how we can design these bigger, badder roads, like arterials or highways, so that they will actually be positive for health.

I worked with a neighborhood group to try to draw attention to their concerns about community and individual health impacts of this large highway-widening project in their neighborhood. And that’s a very typical highway project. That happens everywhere. It happens to be what I’m interested in because I’m curious about how we can design these bigger, badder roads, like arterials or highways, so that they will actually be positive for health. I mean, come on, you can’t design something that’s better? Of course you can design something better! That’s the planner or engineer’s core belief in the potential of technology and design.

How did you set up the project?

I said, “Dave, I want to know who in Wisconsin is taking a comprehensive approach to public health.” He said, “Oh, go talk to my friend. She used to be the head of the state Department of Health Services.” So I talked to her, and she put me in touch with another person who does social work, Ron Chance, and he had this neighborhood-based program that linked individuals or housing developments with various services that could provide support. But that was too micro. I needed something more policy-oriented. So Ron directed me to Kim Neuschel, who is a public health nurse at the Madison Dane County Public Health Department. And it happens we had garden blocks next door to each other in the community garden. That’s Madison for you.

Kim said, “Wow, I’ve been working in these neighborhoods where we recently started to have conversations about violence prevention. Somebody was shot and killed, and the white neighbors are homeowners and they feel like their neighborhood is going down the drain. And the black neighbors, they feel like they’re vulnerable and not really protected.” As a public health nurse, she was really interested in those things, but the neighborhood happened to be next to a really big road. And she knew that the neighbors were also interested in that road.

So through her and her work in the neighborhood, I met up with my contacts who had formed the Verona Road Justice Coalition. The community saw the road widening as an environmental justice problem and part of a larger set of issues in the neighborhood that were not adequately addressed by existing policy and practices at the local level or at the state level. So that was the project.

What attracted you to this project?

If you go in and actually observe the processes of collective action, you’re going to learn stuff that you need to know in order to make decisions, and about how we can deliberately create collective action.

I work in what some consider a very scrappy discipline. Other disciplines, they’re like, “You all just don’t do very serious research, sorry.” But we do. We do. We really do! We believe if you go in and actually observe the processes of collective action, you’re going to learn stuff that you need to know in order to make decisions, and about how we can deliberately create collective action. This is policy in action!

Also, one of the things I’ve been interested in is injury prevention, mainly transportation injury. Basically pedestrians getting hit and killed. It’s one of these problems that isn’t very high on the list of priorities among other public problems. This is a problem people in the world actually care about, but policy people don’t really care about it. They don’t really actively try to make places safer. They think they do, but they really don’t.

So I thought, maybe communities do a much better job. So what if I go look at the development of combined health and safety ideas of neighborhoods? Maybe grassroots, collective action is a channel for getting injury prevention on these larger policy agendas.

That’s what I was thinking. I also thought it might help me get a job.

How would it help you get a job?

Well, when I go on the job market in planning, it’s very nice to say “And I have experience working with communities.” When you teach classes in planning, you feel like your classes need to be organized around what’s called experiential or service learning. It’s very typical for a faculty member to partner up with some city government or community group to have their class do a project for them. To show that you know how to do that is important for teaching, but also for the style of research that many people in planning value.

What was it like when you first got in touch with the community group?

They were very welcoming. I had other experiences doing this where people were less welcoming and really couldn’t care less about researchers. This group, on the other hand… The first time, we met at the local McDonald’s in the neighborhood, which is where people often meet. McDonald’s doubles as a community center, interestingly enough. And they introduced me to what they were doing.

Part of what made it easy to bond with them was that we bonded over work. We did a community health assessment specifically around the road. We did a photovoice, photomapping project. We had focus groups with youth in the neighborhood. A student worked with me, and she interviewed elected officials and people in the Department of Transportation and community members to bring all their perspectives together on how this works and what the issues are. So we really bonded around the work that needed to be done. And they were just happy to share.

I’m not sure that they had very high expectations of me or what they might get out of it. They were just sort of willing to cooperate, and honestly I’m not sure that I gave a whole lot back. Kind of the typical researcher in a community problem. When I reflect on it, I think, “Well that was one of those helicopter moments when a researcher comes in, works for a while, and moves on.” Then again, you can argue that those organizations don’t need to last forever. You do the job, and maybe you part ways or maybe you get back together.

What were the things people were most concerned about?

In this particular case, they cared about the direct exposure to hazards: exposure to fast-moving cars, where you could get killed or injured; exposure to air pollution. Because there is a fair amount of truck traffic on that road, they were concerned about environmental exposure.

They were also concerned about access barriers. This road and the project to widen it was not really helping them carry out life’s daily activities—getting to work, getting to school, getting to shopping, especially if you have a population with any sort of difficulty with mobility.

And the third thing that people cared about was that it affected the pride of place that they had. The traffic generates blight. It creates places where people can engage in norm violations, and the people who lived in this neighborhood said, “This doesn’t represent us at all.”

There’s also all this stuff about democracy and participation. Robert Caro, who writes all these books about LBJ, also wrote a book about Robert Moses, The Power Broker. I think the first sentence may have been, “As a democracy, we haven’t actually created the tools of democracy that we need to deal with large infrastructure projects.” We have voting, we have representation, and that helps us deal with being taxed or X, Y, and Z decisions, but to deal with infrastructure in your backyard, we don’t really have democratic processes that are perfect. We’re still working them out. They’re under construction.

This was an example of neighbors trying to influence the policy agenda, to use civic participation to create public outcomes that work better for them.

In a lot of ways, this was an example of neighbors trying to influence the policy agenda, to use civic participation to create public outcomes that work better for them. That was one of the main things that they were actually concerned about. And overlay that with this particular neighborhood that systematically hasn’t had access to the kinds of forums in which those decisions are made. They thought of it as a matter of justice in that way.

Was the group more concerned with specific changes or having a voice in the process?

They wanted both. They had a long list of very specific things that would benefit them. They were extremely organized. They wanted the small ways to help their neighborhood be a better place to live, but they also saw their work as part of a bigger story about how regions develop. Why is it that people who live in the suburbs should have this privileged access to infrastructure, while those who live right next to the road bear the costs of access for others?

How did you measure the results?

What about policy impact? One of the things that we learned from this is that this particular situation is not very open for agenda change. So that’s kind of depressing.

I wouldn’t necessarily say the outcomes for neighbors in terms of working with the university were all that spectacular. The working relationship was positive, and an indicator of this is that I can continue to go back and talk to people, and I’m on email lists. When I’m back in Wisconsin, sometimes I check in with one participant, in particular, who is still active.

You probably don’t want to find an agenda that’s closed and try to open it. What you want to do is find an agenda that’s open.

You probably don’t want to find an agenda that’s closed and try to open it. What you want to do is find an agenda that’s open.

Do you think there were any tangible changes as a result of the work you did?

I didn’t have a follow-up study where I measured any of it. I could have gone back to the kids [who participated in the photovoice project] a year later and said, “Did you remember doing that? What do you think about it today, now that you’ve done it? Are you interested more now in photography? Do you feel like you would ever do that again if you had a situation where you wanted to use it?” I can now think of situations in which I would maybe look for that kind of impact, but I didn’t actually measure it.

Did this project have lasting effects on your work?

What we want to hear is that in the face of monolithic policies that don’t seem to change, what do all of these smaller actions, maybe not even small, add up to?

I’m obsessed with this question of, OK, so if we can’t change the agenda, why do we even bother? Maybe if we frame the question like that, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. There’s probably another way to frame the question that actually lets us highlight, or show, or observe what kind of change happens.

What we want to hear is that in the face of monolithic policies that don’t seem to change, what do all of these smaller actions, maybe not even small, add up to? It’s not the kind of calculation where you can just aggregate them, like sum across all actions. You can’t do that. There’s some other logic, and I don’t know what that logic is.

A lot of people that have had this problem before think “Yeah, no duh, you use the dominant framework and the dominant framework is there to essentially silence oppositional outcomes.” But if we use a framework that actually flips it on its head and allows us to see other forms of power, then we may have a better theoretical foundation to work with. That’s kind of what I’m looking at now.

Are you involved in any knowledge exchanges now?

In transportation, there’s an organization that’s part of the National Academy of Sciences called the Transportation Research Board. It’s a little bit like the Institute of Medicine.

The TRB hosts an annual meeting that has 12,000 people. It’s a little like the APHA in that way. They’re all from all parts of the field. Everything from pavement to drainage to bridges to operations… from traffic signal systems to policy.

This is an organization that combines people from academia and government and consulting… public sector, private sector, NPOs, basically the whole field. And here is this little subsystem within it, the Health and Transportation Subcommittee. And that’s the environment in which I’ve run into the “Oh, that’s research talk, nobody can understand that. You can’t say that. Here’s how we talk about it here. Here is how you network and organize in order to change thinking. Here’s what this group is doing.”

It ties back to the Verona Road project. The Verona Road project is about arterial roads, highways, all of these other high-traffic roads. Working with Ed Christopher over the past 3 or 4 years now, maybe 5 years, we finally have an official task force with about 30 people on it that will specifically address integrating public health ideas into the planning and operation and management and construction of arterials. So the Verona Road project didn’t necessarily produce any information that led to changes in policy there in Wisconsin, but doing that project and being involved with the TRB has given opportunities for engaging with that particular issue, and I don’t even have to be in charge of it. We have a whole task force doing it. It’s not me anymore, it’s them.