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Episode 86 guest Dr. Mariela Alfonzo

Amenities that make communities more attractive, more walkable, and better places to live can also lead to gentrification. Dr. Mariela Alfonzo of State of Place shares why using data to make better decisions—and thus create better policy—can mitigate the perils of rising housing costs and displacement.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Alfonzo: Mariela Alfonzo

Cohen: Welcome to The Movement podcast. This is Josh Cohen, and I’ve got L’erin Jensen here with me.
Jensen: Hey, Josh.

Cohen: L’erin and I are joined today by Mariela Alfonzo, founder and CEO of State of Place.

Jensen: We’re going to let Mariela break down what State of Place is, but what’s exciting about it is the potential to use data to address issues of special inequity. Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Cohen: Dr. Mariela Alfonzo is the founder and CEO of State of Place, an AI-driven urban-design data and predictive-analytics software that helps create more livable, equitable, and sustainable cities. In addition to her entrepreneurial work, Mariela is a research assistant professor at New York University and has taught courses in entrepreneurship, leadership development, and urban design. Welcome to The Movement, Mariela.
Alfonzo Thank you so much, Josh.

Cohen: Let’s maybe get started here by introducing us to State of Place. I mean, maybe give us the origin story and maybe help understand a little bit of the problem that you’re solving.

Alfonzo: So kind of like what you said. You know, to give you a high-level description, State of Place is an urban design, data, and predictive analytics software that helps city-makers use data to make places more livable, equitable, and sustainable in a cost efficient, effective way and then also use that data to communicate the value of making those places better by quantifying the quality of life benefits that accrue because of better urban design as well as the actual return on investment of any projects or plans or proposals. So it’s both a data-driven decision-making and communication tool that’s aimed at helping identify the best urban design changes to make to facilitate equitable quality of life increases given, of course, limited resources and then translate that into evidence of how exactly those changes are going to benefit communities with the aim of getting buy-in and support more quickly and in a more streamlined way.

So to tell you the origin story, you know, I can tell you straight out that I had absolutely no intentions of ever becoming a founder and CEO of a software company, although I definitely always knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. because I’ve been the consummate nerd. I mean, I guess it’s obvious given the fact that I ended up becoming this data geek, I guess. But I just didn’t know in what when I first thought about getting a Ph.D. You know, I grew up in the suburbs of Miami, and I want to qualify that because when people think about Miami they think about, you know, like Miami Vice—

Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Alfonzo: —and Will Smith’s “Welcome to Miami.” Like, that’s not the Miami I grew up in. I grew up in the very car-dominated, suburban kind of low-to-middle-income parts of Miami, which really lacked a sense of place. And it’s because of that lack that I’ve—you know, it really fueled my passion for place to this day. Because, you know, I remember being a teenager without access to a car and trying to kind of get around on foot, which already made you kind of a crazy person in Miami because, you know, if you didn’t have a car it meant you were poor basically. Everything was about cars.

And I just always asked myself that question, you know, “Why are we designing cities for cars and not for people?” And so through kind of a longwinded story which I won’t get into—it’s just a story for a different podcast—I ended up coming to identify urban design as the area that I wanted to focus on. It was really for me about advocating for better urban design using data and evidence, again, kind of bringing in that nerd focus. I didn’t want to just advocate by telling people that urban design was better; I wanted to prove it to them.

So I ended up getting a Ph.D. at University of California Irvine in urban planning but really with a focus on urban design and behavior or what you could call kind of environmental psychology. And my goal there was to quantify the value of place. And ultimately how I ended up getting to that point was first quantifying what we meant by good places so that then I could quantify how place influenced us in terms of our behaviors, our perceptions, our feelings, our connection to places and then ultimately translating that to specific aspects of quality of life, how did this have, you know, social benefits, health benefits. So for me that—

Cohen: Well, before you go on there I want to just make sure I understand that. Like, across communities from suburban Miami to, you know, New York City what a good place is, did the data kind of reveal there’s a kind of specific kind of definition even across all those wildly different communities and types of people and what their family background? I mean, all of that. Like, it seems like that might change kind of, like, what kind of space is appealing to you maybe. I don’t know. Help me understand that a little bit.

Alfonzo: Well, that’s what we wanted to know. We wanted to create essentially an objective tool to quantify specific aspects of urban design. So this is back in, like, 2001 or so when we didn’t have as much evidence around the tie between the built environment and in particular physical activity and how that related to chronic disease and health. And so there was actually a call put out by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They funded this initiative via the Active Living Research group to begin to really tackle that question and bring in evidence to the fold around that link between the built environment and health so that that could influence practitioners and policy. So the first step, you know, they actually were the ones to identify that first step, that we needed an objective tool by which to allow researchers to test their hypotheses specifically about what you just said, Josh, like, so what is that link, what things matter, what things don’t, when do they matter, who do they matter for. But that was missing at the time.

So ultimately that led to the development of a tool called the Irvine Minnesota Inventory which made up about 162 features of what we call micro-scale urban design features. So think about the things that kind of influence you maybe subconsciously or, if you’re really into urban design, in a more conscious way that ultimately influence how you feel about a place and whether you decide in this case to walk or not but many other aspects of behavior and sentiment. And so these are things like street trees, sidewalks, curb cuts, you know, even crosswalk markings and, like, the colors that they are, the colors of buildings. All these different things, we wanted to at least allow researchers to test how these things mattered and when and how much. So ultimately the tool became quite popular, however especially from a practitioner standpoint, you know, it lacked an analytical framework, meaning, like, “Okay, if I collect all this data, what do I do with it? How do I pull this together?” Because, again, we weren’t thinking about practitioners; we were thinking about researchers, and we were thinking, “Well, maybe they’ll use parts of the data or they’ll figure it out on their own and how to kind of plug it into regression models and things.”

I of course had been doing that as a researcher myself and kind of pulling the data together into some sort of score, which is really what the practitioners were wanting. And ultimately I ended up doing my very first consulting gig in 2005 when the IMI was freshly published. And I went into a Houston community and used a very, very early version of what became the State of Place algorithm, which is kind of how we aggregate this data into a score from zero to 100. So we used that to rate 12 different neighborhoods’, well, state of place; and that’s really where the name came from back in the day. So it was sort of the first indication that this tool could be used more than just a research tool; it could be used in community practice but also as an interesting communication tool about the value of place, you know, and get kind of communities thinking about this in an objective way and maybe even spurring some friendly competition.

So in any case—you know, so now we had this kind of framework that we could use to quantify place and then, of course, test those relationships. So the first set of relationships that I started to look at were things specifically around sense of community and social value and attachment to place and how people’s relationships to in particular retail destinations mattered and how the built environment influenced that. So I was actually looking at failed shopping malls. This was around 2003 to 2006, was when I was working on my dissertation. And using that framework for State of Place to show, “Okay, actually yes, you know, these kinds of mixed-use environments that are being used to readapt or revitalize these malls if done correctly with a certain mix of urban design features does lead to a higher sense of community and also—because I was already interested in the economic piece of things—higher use in terms of shopping and people were spending more time there.

So that narrative became that much more important as I continued with my work and really got into sort of the real estate space. So I started to become quite active in the Urban Land Institute and having these conversations around the value of place with folks that weren’t, you know, advocates for urban design. You know, they were commercial real estate brokers or working for pension funds and making decisions about what to invest in. And design was not on the table for them at all. And so when I came to them saying—

Cohen: Really?

Alfonzo: “Oh, look,” you know, like, “Look at this value, social value. This is great,” they were like, “That’s great, Mariela, but, you know, that’s not how we make decisions.”

Cohen: Were they just looking at it from a pure economic perspective?

Alfonzo: Exactly.

Cohen: Okay, so just however we can design this so that it can cash flow positive or whatever the metric they were looking at, not trying to necessarily invest more to have a higher return. Right?

Alfonzo: Yeah. Well, I mean, their whole thing was return on investment. And they didn’t disqualify the fact that design mattered; for them there was no way to quantify that. Right? So that propelled me to sort of add onto that mission to say, “Okay, I can’t just—it’s not just about quantifying the soft value,” which is really honestly what I cared about and still care about, “it’s about quantifying the hard sort of economic value so that they can justify these decisions.” And so that’s when I started to work with Chris Weinberger [ph] via the Brookings Institution to essentially do just that, to tie what eventually became State of Place to a variety of real estate values.

So we did this study in the Washington, D.C. metro region. We looked at almost 70 different neighborhoods that varied from high walkable, low walkable, dense, urban, you know, low density, suburban, exurban, rural even to try to understand essentially how much of the difference between, let’s say, one neighborhood’s retail rents versus another neighborhood’s retail rents was attributable to their difference in urban design as measured by State of Place. And we found amazing correlations, like, beyond what I would have expected. Basically we found, like, for every 20 points on the State of Place there was an increase of seven dollars a square foot for office rents, nine dollars for retail, an increase of 80% in retail revenues, I believe like a $200-per-unit increase in rents from the residential side, and like $82 a square foot of for-sale residential value. So I had, you know, finally proven to the powers that be, at least on the real estate side, that these things mattered from an economic perspective.

And that’s really where the idea for State of Place came to be in earnest, because I saw, “Okay, now we have this tool that’s been used in the past to diagnose communities, to help them understand their assets and needs and where they can improve, and now we have this economic tie-in that could help them not only identify the changes that had the biggest bang for the buck but also use that same data to advocate for those changes and why they matter at least from an economic perspective.”

Cohen: Wow.

Alfonzo So that’s where the nugget of the idea came. I mean, I at that point was a consultant. I had my own consulting practice, and I knew I never really wanted to grow that into something big. If I was going to do that, I wanted something that was more of a product, more scalable, and so here was that chance. So but turning from a consultant and an academic to a software tech owner was just—[LAUGHS]—completely, you know, a baptism under fire kind of thing. You know, so I worked very closely with a handful of I guess what you would call alpha customers to translate a 20-page research report into an actual product that solved, you know, a key problem. And long story short I got a National Science Foundation small business innovation research grant. That funded the development of the actual software, and I went through various accelerator programs that taught me all the nuts and bolts of VCs and growing a startup company and that kind of thing.

You know, and today we from a technological perspective, you know, State of Place has evolved so much. You know, the IMI that I mentioned, it was a paper-and-pencil tool back in the day that was collected onsite, and then we eventually started to collect that via digital imagery like Google Street View. And we’ve now just this year—in the midst of all the chaos of 2020 we have finally converted that manual data collection process to an automated one using visual machine learning, so we can now extract this data automatically from imagery. So that’s what we’re doing now. We aggregate this data into the score from zero to 100. We call that the State of Place index. It’s broken down into 10 areas of urban design that we call the State of Place profile. And these are all—these are things like density, connectivity, pedestrian and bike amenities, all things that have been empirically linked to those behaviors that we talked about in the beginning, Josh, the, like, yes, these things do somewhat vary in terms of people’s preferences for certain aspects of urban design, particularly from the more architectural aspects, but when it comes to sort of the nuts and bolts of street design, people, they want a sidewalk; they need that to walk on. You know, they want that to be wide. They generally don’t like wide streets or too narrow streets. Right?

So that’s what the profile allows you to do, is kind of understand this both visually and graphically using, you know, heat maps and things like that. And then we’ve translated the results of that research from Brookings into a way to prioritize, to say, like, “Hey, actually some of these urban design changes matter more than others depending on which goals you’re trying to achieve,” so the customers are able to kind of say, “These are things that matte most. Okay, now here are the urban design changes that you should focus on.” And that helps a lot with budget prioritization. There is a scenario analysis tool a little bit like SimCity that the customers can use to actually map out different changes to see how it would impact their score. And so this is good even just for testing ideas that have come in through the request for proposal process or just an iterative design process or even community engagement. And then ultimately the tool allows them to actually create their own return-on-investment forecast based on the scenarios that they’ve modeled out in the software. So if you increase State of Place by 30 points, you might get a 4.5-X return on investment.

So, you know, the problem, it remains the same, sadly. You know, I think that planning and urban design—and this ties into the equity conversation that has really been uplifted in the midst of this pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, but, you know, they tend to start with very top-down, expert-driven approaches, which we now know often leads to kind of exclusionary, inequitable solutions that often miss the mark. And they don’t take advantage of decades of evidence to guide, you know, more efficient and effective use of resources and ultimately sometimes alienate stakeholders, stalling approvals, funding, and buy-in. So it kind of defeats its own purpose even if the plan itself was somewhat a good plan. So we’re hoping that by using data from the beginning you can create a more bottom-up, inclusive approach that builds trust and garners consensus and really leads to real equitable change.

Cohen: Yeah, and I think that’s certainly consistent with the approach to Leadership Upside Down, which is the framework that I put together earlier this year, which that’s a fundamental component of that, is really starting from the folks who are closest to the situation, who understand the problem and the potential solutions much better.

Jensen: Mariela, I’ve got so many feels about all of that. It’s interesting, one, that you went to UCI for your doctoral degree, because as I was researching about you I was thinking to myself you mention that people are always asking you about displacement, like, “What happens when we improve these cities, make them more walkable, and plant more trees and the value goes up so people are being displaced?” And you note that this is just a symptom of an unjust system. So my thought was while I wonder what a master-plan community, like, in the vein of Irvine and the Irvine company would look like if Mariela designed one. [LAUGHTER]

But I really like what you said at the beginning when you first started about why are we designing cities around cars instead of people. So, yeah, it kind of ties into this whole equity thing. And you wrote this really amazing blog post in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers. So can you kind of just share how people can use your tool or cities can use your tool and others to specifically address some of these racial inequities that still exist in our communities?

Alfonzo: Yeah. Thank you so much, L’erin. That’s—[LAUGHS] If I had my druthers, man, the campus for UC Irvine and Irvine itself would be completely different, but I digress. You know, in terms of equity I think we see using State of Place to advance more equitable development in a couple of ways, really first by that bottom-up approach—right—so allowing for better community engagement and building community trust. You know, when you start with data to start a conversation, you know, it gives you an objective sort of benchmark to begin that conversation and also allows for a very transparent or more transparent and accountable approach especially between the city and its residents. So, I think, laying that bare for everybody to see, I think, is incredibly important and powerful and often not done.

So I also think that data can lead to a really inclusive process, because now you can use that data as a starting point and say, “This is where the community is” and validate them because the data will validate them. Like, they know; they’re the experts. You know, data is a means to an end at this point. Right? I’ve never conducted a study where I had a result that was counter to what I thought it was. Sometimes there’s a little digging and stuff, I’ve got to do some special regression analysis because there is something funny, but it always ends up leading to the obvious answer to the hypothesis or the research question that we had. You know, my colleagues and I always joke like what we do is absolutely not rocket science. However, building that data and evidence base to quantify that, it does matter at the end of the day both in terms of that validation process but then thinking about in terms of, “Okay, this is what we know. What does the community want? What’s feasible? And what’s the best way to get there?” And the data and evidence really facilitate that process.

So in terms of State of Place specifically, we’ve incorporated that into two of the aspects of the tool as it stands, which is the prioritization tool that I mentioned and our SimCity tool. Now, granted, our SimCity tool—that’s a very generous description of what it looks like right now. You know, it’s basically the old-school, you know, IMI, the Irvine Minnesota Inventory, in a populated form, and there’s little sliders, and you can say, “Yeah, I’m going to add trees, and I’m going to add sidewalks and things like that.” But, you know, granted, the language, you know, some of the questions say, like, “How much fenestration is there?” you know, so, like, how much the buildings sort of differentiate from each other and protrude or whatever, very architectural term, not a community-friendly term.

Cohen: Right.

Alfonzo: So we have plans to translate this into a 2D version and then eventually a 3D version where you can actually drag and drop stuff and anyone can really use it. But at the very least right now we encourage our customers who are often cities but also private real estate developers to use that as part of their community engagement process, because it doesn’t mean the community can’t learn; you just have to kind of spend a little bit of time, so there’s a slight higher learning curve than there would be. You know, when we get funding to build out the more 2D and 3D versions, then we’ll—you know, you literally can just hand it over to citizens, which is great.

So and then the prioritization piece is really about kind of that balance of, “Okay, what’s feasible for the community? What do we know from the evidence matters most to achieving which goals?” and then prioritizing those goals and having the community be a part of that. Actually, it’s funny. One of my customers, the City of Philadelphia, didn’t realize I had this podcast today, and she was like, “Oh, I put together a meeting for the participatory budget director for the city” to showcase the work that we’re doing for them. And it’s funny because this kind of tool can and should be used as that kind of process whose goal it is to create a more equitable budget—right—that’s accountable to community needs. For us, that’s really one of the key ways that we’re addressing this. To your point about the displacement, L’erin. Often when I do these demos of the software, that’s the question. “Oh, but you’re just creating a gentrification tool because you’ve just increased this value,” and, like, no, when you make places better they’re going to become more valuable. Why not think of it the other way around and say, “This is how much more expensive this place is going to be. Let’s guide policy and practice efforts to address that.” Why not put money into the table to look at that gap and stimulate the existing residents to be able to address that, you know, either through workforce development or other types of affordable housing to ensure that people can stay in place?

Now, with COVID, you know, I think that the conversation around equity really has completely—I wouldn’t say it changed, but it’s just been amplified. Nobody can deny the special inequities in particular that vulnerable communities have been dealing with for decades and in some cases centuries. So what we’re doing with the City of Philadelphia is to use this data to essentially highlight and, again, quantify those special inequities because, again, we all know this but it just helps when you see it right in front of you. You see the numbers, when you see heat maps, and then use that data to prioritize those specific communities that need the most help and identify which specific changes they need help with. So with the City of Philadelphia we’re mapping out about a third of the city. It’s just a small pilot that we’re doing with them where we’re using the automated data collection process for State of Place. So it’s like 15,000 blocks that we’ll be able to process in a few days time.

Cohen: You’re collecting, like, hundreds of data point on each of those blocks, right?

Alfonzo: Yeah. Yeah, with the VML it’s 150 data points now per block. It used to be almost 300.

Cohen: Wow.

Alfonzo: It’s pretty cool, I have to say. And then we—so we’re mapping these neighborhoods out. We’ve kind of picked very purposefully places that were high with COVID, places that were vulnerable, places that were not vulnerable so we can see kind of differences, and then also places that were prone to other natural disasters, because we have this hypothesis essentially at least from a COVID perspective, is that these built-environment links to behavior that I’ve been talking about, especially those behaviors that lead to health outcomes, that link predated COVID.

Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Alfonzo: That’s what led to many of these preexisting conditions or what have been labeled comorbidities tied to COVID. And that’s one of the reasons that Black and Brown communities have suffered most from COVID. Right? And then during COVID many of these same neighborhoods, they lack the kinds of public spaces and public realm that would facilitate better social distancing. And with transit being more limited or seen as unsafe, that makes everything very hyper-local. So if you don’t have the kinds of amenities that are needed for a healthy lifestyle or better quality of live, this just exacerbates all of that. And we think that these same aspects of urban design are the same things that end up leading to things like urban flooding and urban heat islands.

So that’s the purpose of the study with Philadelphia, is quantifying all of these layers that show the exponential impact of urban design and then specifically creating a predictive model that ties State of Place—the same way that we did with real estate value—ties State of Place to COVID, you know, including transmission, hospitalization, and fatalities but also the likelihood of these disasters with the aim of identifying the specific urban design changes that we can make that will have the biggest impact on mitigating those.

Cohen: I think that’s so important. And, L’erin, I didn’t even share this with you. On Friday afternoon I sat in on a webinar from the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors. And it specifically was kind of getting at racism’s impact on the public health crisis and barriers to physical activity especially in the Black community. It was just such a powerful—Charles Brown who has been on the podcast was kind of the keynote. Tamika Butler and Veronica Davis who have also been on the podcast were also participants in that. And it was just such a fantastic thing, so I’ll link that. I think they recorded that, and I’ll link that when we do this. But I think that connection between public health and these communities is really, really important, so I’m glad that’s been a part of the work you’re doing.

We’ve got a few minutes left, and I want to pull back to maybe the 30,000-foot view here, which is what are some of the themes that have emerged as you’ve looked at some of this data? And I’m really kind of interested in connecting this to the people—right—as opposed to the infrastructure. Right? Because, you know, obviously we can talk about specific level of infrastructure, that access to a park or crosswalks or whatever, but I’m specifically interested in the people part of this. Because even your example with Philadelphia that you were just giving, it requires a person to say, “We need to invest in this technology to get the data to then be able to tell this story effectively.” Right? So, you know, and then we can kind of address some of the actual physical infrastructure. So can you maybe help connect that less from the physical infrastructure but more from the people, kind of what themes have emerged as you’re saying the communities have been able to make more livable and equitable and sustainable places?

Alfonzo: Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s funny. Like, the Philadelphia project has its own trajectory. Emily Yates who is the Smart Cities director for the city—and she and I have known each other for about a decade or so. And so this is—we’ve been vying to work together for that long. So I just want to speak to the leadership aspect of this, because you’re right. I mean, it definitely needed somebody to say, “This investment needs to be made.” And part of her purview, not just as the director for Smart Cities but also with respect to championing this project, is to build consensus and buy-in and really facilitate more cross-departmental partnerships when it comes to addressing these issues of special inequity using this data.

So a big part of this pilot isn’t really the data collection itself and all the fund-regression analysis that I geek out on but rather making all of these connections. We talk to the violence prevention department, which, you know, like never would have thought that they would be interested in urban design stuff. Right? I mentioned earlier the participatory budgeting office. We’ve of course, you know, talking to public health. We have talked to their streets department, their emergency management department, their fire department. Right? And so it’s been really interesting to push forward this more trans-disciplinary approach within city government in particular, because they tend to be so siloed. And I think that the data can afford those connections in as way that maybe other tools haven’t been able to do in the past because people can see, like, “Oh, this part matters to me,” and you start to create all these, like, overlapping Venn diagrams, if you will. So I think that that leadership and connection and partnership component is super important in getting buy-in for this kind of stuff.

You know, I think that’s been one of the barriers to implementing State of Place. One way or another, this is something I’ve been working on since 2001; and nobody was thinking about this kind of stuff back then. Emily Yates and others have said, “Oh, you’re just ahead of your time.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s great,” but—[LAUGHS]—it’s been a hard road. So I do think that these conversations we’ve been having this year in particular will lead to people thinking through the value of data, the value of a more evidence-based approach because it has that tie-in to more inclusive and equitable design. You know, in terms of the actual community, it’s funny, because I talk to—in the beginning I said our goal was to tie or my goal rather was to tie the build environment to behavior—right—and then tie that to quality of life. And that was where I started in the beginning. I haven’t really gotten back to that; I’ve been kind of focusing much more on the value piece of things. But as part of the Philadelphia project we’ve applied to this NSF civic challenge which would allow us to do a more participatory-based, community-led research process where the community wouldn’t just be engaged in what we’re doing but would actually be co-leading and co-designing the project, including hypothesis and research questions and all that kind of thing. So I think that that’s really the next frontier. We should have been doing it all along, but it’s difficult to do and difficult to get funding for, so I’m really excited that the NSF is allowing for that.

While I haven’t been focusing so much on tying the urban design to people’s behaviors, what I have been trying to build is this narrative around the exponential benefits that accrue to people via this relatively simple solution—right—you know, adding wider sidewalks and bike lanes in certain communities that lack access to that and access to more public space and green open-space. When you think about the structural issues that we face, those things are relatively attainable, so that’s one of the reasons that we’ve been focusing on it but also trying to amplify and quantify those exponential benefits that accrue from something relatively simple.

Jensen: It says something about our society, I think, that you have to tie it back to the economic benefits instead of saying, “Hey, this is just better for people.”

Cohen: Yeah.

Alfonzo: Yeah.

Cohen: That’s a great point. You know, I was trying to put my finger on that. You put your finger on that much better than I did, but it’s a sad state. But, you know, I guess the economic value is you can kind of determine the people are going to pay for it. Right?

Jensen: Right.

Cohen: Versus when you’re just talking in general about how to improve the community, it’s one of those things that is a lot harder to identify who is going to be the one who is going to write the check. Right?

Alfonzo: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah, it’s hard, because with city governments you figure, like, they’re not a business. You know, they’re not supposed to be about the bottom line, and yet often they are or, you know, they just have limited funding. Right? And a lot of that is because there’s not as much state and federal funding for these kinds of projects, so I understand why they need to kind of do this. But I’m also begrudgingly allow—you know, quantifying that link was totally a means to an end, because it’s not why I do what I do, but it is what it is.

Cohen: One thing that I think is super important though is that I think one thing that is missing—and we’ve got to wrap up here shortly, but the thing that I kind of was thinking about as you were talking was I’m a fairly—I mean, I don’t have a Ph.D. in urban planning like you do, but I’m fairly well-read as it relates to planning and so forth. When I try to read our city’s planning documents or even community engagement stuff, it is nonsensical. And I’m fairly well-read on this stuff. And, you know, so that’s not—you know, one of the things I think is so powerful here is that if you can use this data and you can present it in ways to help people kind of confirm and share and build a movement around some of the changes that might need to happen in order to benefit their community, I think that’s a really powerful, like, from a grassroots perspective.

And, again, you might have to still go through the city in order to make that happen, but from a grassroots perspective that, I think, could be really, really compelling, because right now it’s like whenever I look at any of this city-led stuff it’s often mumbo-jumbo. It’s written by a planning person for a planning person, not for the general public.

Alfonzo: Absolutely. And that’s another way of building exclusionary processes. Right?

Cohen: Oh, sure.

Alfonzo: It’s a top-down approach.

Cohen: Yeah. Where can folks learn more about either you or State of Place?

Alfonzo: Well, you can certainly go the State of Place website, which is, and then we also have our Twitter account which is just @StateOfPlace. And then my own Twitter account which is way more active—[LAUGHS] You’ll get information about not just State of Place but food and politics, so just a fair warning there. But my handle is @CityFoodLover.

Cohen: Awesome. That’s a very evocative handle there. You know, it’s like—

Alfonzo: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Like, “Give me the city; give me the food. I want it.”

Alfonzo: [LAUGHS] Yeah, well, food is my other passion. I’ve actually—the thing that I’ve been doing even before I started in urban design, I learned to cook when I was seven, so—[LAUGHS]

Cohen: Wow. What’s your favorite thing to cook?

Alfonzo: What I’m most notorious for are my Cuban black beans.

Cohen: So, L’erin, we’ve got to go visit so we can get some of these Cuban black beans.

Jensen: Oh, man. I love Cuban food, so yeah; so down for that.

Cohen: Well, Mariela, thank you so much for taking the time to introduce us to State of Place and kind of your academic background and the journey you’ve been on to really help address some of the inequities in our cities and to help make cities more livable. Thank you so much.

Alfonzo: Oh, my pleasure.

Jensen: Thank you, Mariela.

Alfonzo Thanks, guys.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.