Stephen Miller joins Streetsblog NY as a reporter. He’ll be covering the transportation beat in New York City, bringing you the word from the livable streets. He’s currently studying at Pratt Institute’s City and Regional Planning program and has worked to engage the community on Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington D.C. Stephen sat down to talk about where he’s been, what he’s been doing and where he plans to take us.
Welcome aboard Stephen. You’ve now been here and cranking out posts for 3 weeks. How do you like working at OpenPlans?
I’m really enjoying it. The organization does a lot of interesting work, and it’s fun to be around people who are so passionate about what they do. Even though I started in the slow-news month of August, there have still been plenty of issues to cover at Streetsblog, and the team here has been really welcoming as I get started.
What were you doing before you came to OpenPlans?
I moved to New York in August 2011 to start as a graduate student at Pratt Institute’s City and Regional Planning masters program. I was halfway through the program when I began work at Streetsblog. Before coming to New York, I lived in Washington, DC, where I worked for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. I worked on RTC’s Urban Pathways Initiative, which aims to encourage trail use and physical activity in low-income communities.
What aspects of design and implementation were you dealing with?
We worked with neighborhoods and trails across the country to identify best practices – things like programming, trail design and outreach. On a local level, I worked with trails in Washington, DC and New Orleans. Working in DC was especially rewarding, since it was in my backyard.
Looking back, whats been your favorite project that you’ve work on, either in school or professionally?
Hands down, the Metropolitan Branch Trail. I started work at Rails-to-Trails focused on transportation. I came out interested in community engagement and neighborhood organizing, and it’s because of the communities and people around that trail. It takes a lot to make something a success – even something that seems as simple as a strip of asphalt. Getting people to care about something is a long process. They have to determine that for themselves. Fortunately, a trail is a very flexible canvas.
How would you help trail stakeholders paint on that canvas?
The community can do lots of things with it – from gardening, to bike riding, to art. Showing people how the trail could help meet their specific needs can only happen after you build trust with them – and sometimes, that’s not easy. But I know there’s a network of talented and passionate people – past, present, and future – who keep that trail going. I was lucky to be a part of it.
How were you working to build trust and help the trail become part of the surrounding community?
I was fortunate to join an organization that had been working on this trail for a while. Before the trail was even built, my boss had been going to community meetings and asking people what they wanted on the trail. So by the time it was built, we had a blueprint for what to do, based on what community members had told us. People didn’t yet have to really engage with us in a meaningful way, because there was no trail to engage with.
How did that theoretical work go into practice?
We developed a network of people in the neighborhood – some who had been working with us from the start, some who we met while working out on the trail and at community events – who cared about the trail and did their part. Did we reach everybody? No, you never can. But we were able to help coalesce a network of people – from lifelong residents walking their dogs on the trail to bike commuters who otherwise wouldn’t be in the area – and connected them.
How did you end up shifting from a traditional career path in Urban Planning to becoming a journalist?
I was thinking of going into either journalism or city planning. I had been writing less and less as I focused more on planning, so it’s nice to be writing again. New York is orders of magnitude larger and more complex than most other American cities.
What do you hope to accomplish while at Streetsblog?
I’d like to learn more about the wide array of people and issues that drive transportation and planning decisions here. School is good, but there are some things it can’t teach you. Those are the things I want to learn here. But, as my experience at Rails-to-Trails showed, I went in focused on one thing and came out appreciating something else entirely. So this answer is subject to change!
A way of classifying the many different people at OpenPlans is to ask if they’re more into the idea of bettering cities or making software open, but those choices don’t quite work with Streetsblog people. To amend that, are you into bettering cycling, bettering cities or opening up planning?
Oh man, that’s a tough question. I’m into all of them, but I would say I’m into cities first, then bikes, then planning. As a small kid, we would have to drive through Boston to visit family and I always got very excited about going through the city. They are incredible places where it almost feels as though the rules of space and time are different. I still get that twinge of excitement on a regular basis. It’s what keeps me going.
I got into bikes after I got into cities. I always biked around as a kid, and never stopped. When I moved to DC, biking was an obvious way to get around, since I had been doing it all my life. On the other hand, planning is really about rules and process. It’s the necessary tool to achieve things within a city. So although I love it, it doesn’t animate me in quite the same way that cities do.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Well, ride my bike – that’s obvious. I grew up in Rhode Island, so I enjoy sailing and being on the water, which I don’t get to do enough. It’s one thing I like about living in New York – there is water all around you, even if you don’t get to be out there every day. I also enjoy traveling – but I’m trying to focus nearby. There are a lot of historic towns around the region I haven’t been to, and my goal is to take the train or to bike them.