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Boston AIR Spotlight: Lily Xie and Boston Planning and Development Agency

For her residency, Boston Artist-in-Residence Lily Xie has been working with Kristina Ricco, Senior Planner at the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA).

For Lily's residency project, she and Kristina have been exploring the ongoing changes within the BPDA, as well as ways to empower community members throughout City planning processes. Read their conversation below to learn more about their work to date.

Boston Artist-in-Residence Lily Xie kneels in front of two young people as she uses a microphone to record an interview with them.

Lily, what have you been working on as part of your Boston AIR project? 


For my project, I’m working with Kristina in Downtown and Neighborhood Planning at the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA). I’m making two short animated films and a phone hotline. The work was inspired by Mayor Wu's call to abolish the BPDA. When I first started this residency, the work of “abolishing” the agency was just beginning. It was interesting to grapple with this language of abolition, and think about how we honor and apply the wisdom from prison abolitionists to something like planning and development. What exactly are we trying to abolish about the BPDA, and if we abolish it, what comes in its place? Prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore wrote about how, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It's about building life-affirming institutions.” I think the question for me in this residency has been, “What would a life-affirming institution of planning and development look like?”

To answer this question, I’ve been working with groups of people who are marginalized or have been systemically disinvested from by agencies of planning and development, and trying to understand - what is living in Boston like for them? What could a more life-affirming institution do for them? What would that look, sound, and feel like? I’m working with a group of young people from Roxbury at the Roxbury Youth Programs and a group of residents and community organizers from Chinatown, including Jeena Chang, Lydia Lowe, Angela SooHoo, and Regina Tham. With each group, we’re collaborating to create a short animated film that touches on the idea of a life affirming institution of planning, in some way trying to make real what that institution could be. 

How has that process for creating these films differed between each group you’re working with? Did you learn anything from that?


From the start of my project, one thing that I was really attentive to was the power dynamics between BPDA and communities. Oftentimes with planning or development processes, the power is in the hands of the developer, the planner, or the government official. And so part of what I was trying to experiment with in this project was to see what “community engagement” could look like if we were putting more of the power of design and vision in the hands of folks who usually don’t hold power in this process. 

For both groups, I worked with them to first understand what felt important and interesting to them, and what kind of film we could make together that would make them feel proud. For one film, I’m working with teens in Roxbury Youth Programs, who are activists and artists who live or work in Roxbury. The film that we're making together answers the question, “If you could build anything in Roxbury, what would you build?” I was originally invited to the program to teach the young people about gentrification, and in those conversations something that kept coming up was this question of “What could this neighborhood be like?” without things like gentrification, urban renewal, or highway development. And the topic of the power of residents and young people kept rising up. So, the film that we're making together is about what would happen if young people controlled development, and how it feels for them today to grow up in a city where they don’t have a say in what gets built.

For the other film with residents and organizers in Chinatown, our initial conversations focused on planning and development. These folks have all worked in that realm before and they spoke on the exhaustion of marginalized communities that have to show out to public meetings or participate in public processes that often aren’t made to benefit them. The focus of their film is about what would happen if an institution of planning and development was really centered on understanding the dreams and the history of the marginalized communities. The film asks, what would Chinatown be like if she was a person, and what dreams does she have?


Can you describe why you chose animation? It was the medium that we landed on but it wasn't really the first thing we started with, and I love hearing you describe why it was sort of the natural medium for the project. 


When we first started working together, we discussed a lot of possible mediums and projects before landing on animation. I think one of the reasons that this project works as an animation project is because the BPDA is going through this moment of transition and metamorphosis, and animation is a medium that is all about visualizing change. You draw 12 or 24 individual images for every second of motion, so the whole process is about breaking down the steps of movement and transformation. So I think on a poetic level it felt like a good medium because it embodies change. And it helps us break down what change looks like every step of the way.


I love that so much because I feel like that's one of the things that I've learned through this process, that more can be done collaboratively than you thought. I didn't think that there could be a process for a lot of people contributing to a single image, like a collage. I feel like that was poetic for me to learn, like I never would have assumed that animation could have been a team medium. 

Tell us more about the phone hotline.


We're calling it “Dispatches From the Future”, and the idea is that you can call a number and be transported to the year 2100, 77 years after the abolition of the BPDA. You can hear news headlines that adults and teens from Roxbury and Chinatown recorded about that future, and record your own headline too. It’s interesting because these headlines help us understand what's at stake and what could be possible. And some people even talk about the dystopian side, like what if things go really wrong? What could that look like? 

This emerged really organically from the process of working with community. The idea of writing a headline from 2100 was a warm-up activity I would do with people during workshops that became its own thing. It’s interesting because I wouldn't say that I necessarily agree with all of the things that people have said, but I think the hotline is a way for people to see themselves reflected or not reflected in these particular people's visions of the future. And there's also the option for listeners to record their own vision. So I hope the hotline prompts people to grapple with their own imagination of the future, and I hope they add what they feel is missing or what they want to see.


You know, there was this process of transformation at the BPDA that Lily referred to that is happening simultaneously. And there's really not a forum publicly that invites people to imagine, if not the BPDA, then what? There are almost 700,000 Bostonians. I don't think it would be particularly useful or relevant to ask 700,000 people to weigh in, but is there an opportunity or forum for people to say, “This is what I think life-affirming planning is. This is what the institution that replaces the BPDA looks like to me.” The hotline is a really democratic way for people to engage in that question.

How do you hope this work will be received given the ongoing transformation of the BPDA?


It's hard for me to know how it will be received. We are sort of mid-stride in this transformation process, and I know very little about what we're going to look like as an institution on the other side. But I think for me personally, staying connected to the original concept of the project, which is "What would a life-affirming institution of planning look like?", is challenging, and not a question that occurred to me. The function of planning is not literally going away, but I didn't think that what is on the other side of it is about being something that's life affirming for folks. And so I hope that people who work inside the BPDA see themselves or see their work reflected in the animation. Or, maybe not work that they do today, but work that they hope that they're doing through this transformation process. But I think we'll know that in time. 


Yeah, it's a really challenging moment. I especially have a lot of compassion for folks like Kristina – the planners, the project managers, all the folks that are just trying to live through the transformation and trying to get to the next day. And that many of these people have themselves pushed for transformation in BPDA for a long time, often in unrecognized ways. My hope for folks inside the BPDA is that the artwork can provide a moment of reflection or contemplation or even productive friction with the ideas that are being represented. Because folks at BPDA hear from constituents all the time, but it's in a very different environment than the kinds of voices they’ll hear from the films or on the hotline. Rarely do we get these sets of people together into a space where they're talking about the softer side of feelings and hopes and dreams and memories.

Kristina, what have you learned through this partnership with Lily and how has it impacted your work at BPDA? 


I think a lot of what I have learned from Lily is related to self reflection, but also how we approach community members directly. When Lily asked the Chinatown participants “What would make you proud?”, I've never asked a question like that. Even though planning is work of the imagination, it is very rooted in the tools we already have. And so a lot of my questions are like, “How high?” or “How dense?” or “From what point to what point?" Very literal and less abstract. And I think when you approached folks and said, “What do you need, what can I do to help you?”, we could say the same thing. “I'm a planner, these are my skills. What can I do to help?” It's not that it's never occurred to me, it's just that approaching it with that kind of openness, working in this project has sort of reconnected me to that. 


I feel like I've learned so much from you too during this process. I'm so happy that we got to meet each other through this process and the partnership as well. I just really appreciate how deeply you think about things and how much tenderness and care you put into this relationship and into all the work that you do here. 


I couldn't have imagined that we would have been assigned, for both directions, more suitable people with more aligned interests or personalities. It's incredible that this works out the way that it did.

What was it like being a City partner in the AIR program? 


In addition to all the benefits of working with an artist as a person who works inside of bureaucracy, the exposure to other people inside who are working for City departments, who have some of the same feelings you have and experience some of the same challenges, is so important. It's so wonderful to be exposed to those different mediums and care about the different projects that they're working on, but I got a lot personally out of meeting the other City partners.

What do you imagine the long-term impact of your work together will be once Lily’s residency ends?


That one feels really tough for me to answer, actually, because I don't even know that this group of people will be the same group of people even in the near term. I know for sure that there will be long-term impacts for me as an individual and likely for some of the individual planning staff who Lily has had the chance to meet and work with. A lot of those staff actually were new at the time when Lily was onboarding. I don’t know what the future is as this little constellation of folks, but I hope that this isn't the last time. I hope people in decision-making roles see the value in doing this kind of self-reflection, intensive listening outside of the form of public meetings. And in an ideal case, facilitated by someone who is able to solicit that kind of feedback in the way that Lily has. I hope as the project becomes more and more public, the animations have their day sort of out in the real world.

What’s next once this residency ends?


Just resting. This has been a really fun collaboration. The topic of planning and development is really, really important to me and so much of my work involves this topic, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it.  


I hope that what’s next for us is something that’s more life-affirming for folks. I know that it’s meaningful that the BPDA won’t be the BPDA for much longer. To have a City planning department is nothing short of revolutionary. I don’t know what that looks like, but I’m here for it.

To learn more about Lily and the other Boston Artists-in-Residence, visit the Boston AIR website. 

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