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August 2, 2023

Government-Resident Communications – Viola Tan, BArch Architecture ’24

by aweek05

It feels surreal to be done! The last few weeks have been mainly focusing on wrapping up my work and writing reports for both of my projects. What’s fun about that? Well, it’s actually pretty interesting!
For my independent project on co-living, I’ve been going a bit back and forth all summer, since there are so many different aspects we need to tackle. Writing the report helps me keep track of all of them – zoning approval, licensing, meeting the sanitary code, support programs and funding, initializing a pilot program and so on. 
Looking at some of the City precedents who initialized programs on co-living, many of them (City of Alexandria, VA; City of Denver, CO; Salt Lake City, UT) have conducted surveys to gather residents’ opinions on co-living, which was so interesting to me. I’ve been a huge fan of community engagement since freshman year at RISD. However, this summer has been a lot of “it’s not that simple” learnings for me. I was very lucky to have a conversation with the Director of Communications at the Mayor’s Office of Housing (thanks to my supervisor for introducing us to him), who told me a bunch about communications between government and residents. For example, he told me how some people just “fundamentally disagree with” what the City is doing, even on issues like spending government money on addressing homelessness. This provided some context for me when sometimes the the iLab is more of a “let’s just try some stuff to see if it works” vibe versus a “let’s do a bunch of surveys first” vibe. That makes sense, but I still think good government-resident communication is so important in general though!
I’ve always had this question of how we can ensure equity and fairness in government-resident communication. Instead of answering it, it’s more like this summer’s experience has given me a deeper understanding of what the question really means, and triggered more questions for me. Somehow, these questions parallel some of the questions I had during middle school when I was first introduced to the subject “Politics” in China. Is what the public “want” really the same as what they “need”? Is “the minority listens to the majority” really democracy? (This is a Chinese phrase that I don’t know how to properly translate, I know it sounds so wrong, but it’s referring to a voting context and such, where the decision is made according to the number of people agreeing to it.) If there is no one public, is it even possible for a decision maker to be completely “fair” and “for the public”? And these are not rhetorical questions – I’m not saying “no” – just some questions I’d continue to explore throughout the foreseeable future. And of course, the question of what can design and designers do in it? I believe there’s a lot we can do.
Overall, I would like to express my endless gratitude towards RISD Career Center (Kevin, Lisa, Scott and Karen), Maharam, and the Boston Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab (my supervisor Paige Roosa and all my colleagues – Nick, Arun and Holly), for this awesome summer that was challenging, exciting, fun, and most of all, curious. As Lisa said, the Maharam Fellowship is a learning experience. I learned a lot indeed!

Me and Holly kayaking on the Charles right before a thunderstorm

A tour to the Boston Public Library, Roxbury Branch

A rainbow on my last day in-person!

(P.S. Our Building Differently final presentation won so many “Great job!”s within the Mayor’s Office of Housing!! Yay!!)

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