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Post by Danielle Spurlock

Danielle Spurlock is an Assistant Professor in the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning

When creating local policy, community values and experiences can be marginalized if we limit public participation to unilateral flows of information where we seek to inform or educate the community versus seeking to craft bilateral lines of communication. UNC’s commitment to research and public service provides me with a unique opportunity to examine how approaches to the integration of technical data and local knowledge can contribute to better policymaking. With the support of the Institute of the Environment, I am currently working on two projects that have enabled me to explore innovative engagement techniques with respect to neighborhood environmental quality.

Community Environmental Empowerment- Durham

Gentrification, the phenomenon where higher income households move into traditionally lower income areas and displace lower-income households and small businesses, is a controversial topic in urban planning and within public discourse about neighborhood change. A grant from the Kenan Creative Collaboratory enabled me to work with colleagues from North Carolina State University (Kofi Boone – College of Design) and Duke University (Kay Jowers – Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Deborah Gallagher – Nicholas School of the Environment) to explore how improvements to the natural and built environment can be associated with consequences such as displacement.

Communities in Partnership, a nonprofit lead by Old East Durham residents, invited us to meet with them in the summer of 2015 and the resulting partnership has been one of my most rewarding experiences since joining the faculty at UNC.  It is a privilege to work alongside the Old East Durham neighborhood where dedicated community residents/activists acutely feel the threat of displacement due to gentrification and who work every day to make sure their neighbors thrive socially, economically, and physically. Working closely with this community means embedding a critical analyses of the roles that race, class, gender, and privilege play in the reshaping of the built and natural environment through public policy.

As part of this project, I lead community mapping events to explore an approach to combining the lived experiences and expectations of residents with technical information from neighborhood socio-demographics and a property value analysis while my research partners completed projects using Photovoice (a type of documentary photography) and Walkshops (workshops conducted on the move).  Through a series of Community Town Hall meetings, the project has expanded to include conversation about food insecurity, economic opportunities for small scale entrepreneurship, and transportation access.

Urban Stormwater Management- Chapel Hill


In fall 2016, Sarah Martin, a graduate student in the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning approached me about advising her master’s project. After focusing her studies on land use and environmental planning, she wanted to explore the implementation of best management practices to improve stormwater. Over the coming months, she explored the connection between community engagement, plan quality, and planning outcomes in the Bolin Creek watershed.

Her findings support the need for the creation of a bilateral connection with respect to the implementation of decentralized stormwater infrastructure. Using her research as a foundation, and with support from the UNC Nutrient Study, I will examine the elements necessary to create engagement techniques that identify community concerns about environmental quality, increase awareness of stormwater management tools like green infrastructure, and enable the community to participate more fully in the decision-making around the use of best management practices within their community.

Both of these projects illustrate the significant value of engaging communities and the public in the development of local policy decisions.  Our research, in each instance, is intended to enhance and strengthen that community engagement.

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