Article featured on the American Planning Association's Planner Profiles.
For the past 12 years, Monique López, founder of Pueblo, has been a social justice planner and policy advocate working on a variety of issues such as transportation justice, environmental justice, and public space access throughout Southern California. Their experience and heart for social justice shapes Pueblo's model, values, and approach.
Tell us a bit about your current role and your experience as a planner. Include a bit about your path to the current role.
I grew up in a small rural community in Imperial County out by the Salton Sea. This community is plagued by numerous environmental injustices such as hazardous waste facilities, field burning, pesticide spraying, and toxins from the geothermal industry. Yet, time and time again I witnessed elected officials and others with political influence move forward plans and policies with negative health and economic impacts, without consulting the people that these decisions impact most.
But in my early 20s when they tried to build a sewage sludge incinerator in my community, I finally drew the line — I got involved in a grassroots campaign to stop it and we won!
It was there that I learned the importance of community members being able to develop their own creative solutions that meet their needs. This early experience in my hometown, at the beginning of the formation of my worldview as a professional, has deeply influenced my approach to planning, design, and policy development.
Working in the nonprofit sector for more than a decade, I have interfaced with many different public agencies and planning firms and found that many were employing traditional planning methods that did not always engage residents authentically and, therefore, did not adequately address the intersectional needs of the community.
It was also clear that some public agencies and planning firms wanted to engage residents in a more meaningful process, and attempted to do so by soliciting the aid of Community-Based Organizations (CBOs). Yet, these arrangements did not always respect the voices of community residents expressing concerns about project impacts, and sometimes did not adequately compensate the labor of the CBOs.
Additionally, the ideas expressed by community members were often selectively extracted and utilized just to further the aims of the public agency, elected officials, or planning firm, rather than the vision of the community members.
I also found that community members who were part of CBOs and grassroots organizations had priorities and ideas for their neighborhood that they wanted to explore more concretely but didn’t have the time or resources to develop plans and designs that could help translate these dreams into reality. They often didn’t have the staff capacity or funds to pay a firm to navigate the process with residents and help produce plans and designs that meet their needs.
Thus, Pueblo was established as a participatory planning and design firm with a clear social justice ethic, rooted in the principle that residents are the true neighborhood experts, and as such, they should dictate the future of their community.
Pueblo is dedicated to forming equal partnerships with CBOs that hold deep relationships with their communities, and providing a new model of planning, design, and public policy services to government agencies, affordable housing developers, and CBOs. Our participatory approach emphasizes the importance of involving the entire community in the planning, design, or policy-making process.
And, as a social enterprise, our work with public agencies and affordable housing developers subsidizes the services we provide to CBOs, so that we can provide low-cost technical support for community-driven plans, projects, and policy development.
There is a hunger and a need for a different type of planning and design. I see this in the way that state-level funding for planning and design projects is shifting to focus on a participatory approach and how some public leaders and agency staff members are grappling with equity when they talk about planning.
I see the need in the neighborhoods that have been destroyed by top-down planning and amongst residents that have not been invited to genuinely engage in a planning process.
I am part of the next generation of planners who have experienced first-hand how planning, design, and policy have historically embedded generations of structural racism in the built environment. I am also part of the next generation of planners that see great potential to provide opportunities for residents to use these planning and design tools to reshape their communities equitably, holistically, and sustainably.
With the rise of inequality, climate change, and negative impacts of decades of top-down planning, do we have any choice but to try something new?
Can you talk about skill sets that you have acquired along your career path and how the skills you learned as a planner come together?
Empathy, humilty, listening. I recently did a project with Street Vendors in MacArthur Park on behalf of my client the East LA Community Development Corporation. I was working with the Street Vendors to redesign the plaza and sidewalk space to best meet their needs as business owners and pedestrians navigating the space. I was working with Street Vendors who had been in that area for 5, 10, 20 years. One Street Vendor had been in the same location for 22 years!
No matter how much time I spend at the project site, it will never be anywhere near 22 years. The Vendors had a great wealth of knowledge, due to years of observation and navigating the space, that helped develop the design. They knew pedestrian behaviors and pathways, where the best areas to sell, and interpersonal issues and how it could be spatially mitigated.
I see my role as a person who humbly listens and tries to ask the right questions in language that is common to them (non-planner language) and also provide tools through art and storytelling so that they are best able to express their vision, needs, and desires, but also share their incredible knowledge. I gather that information and I try to find planning solutions that match what they said and put what they said into planning language so that those who are tasked with "decision making" are able to have clear actionable direction.
What role does APA play?
I am working closely with the diversity chair of APA's California Chapter developing a panel regarding transportation justice for the CA APA [chapter] conference next year.
SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION
I'm an AICP-certified planner and earned a master's degree in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Oregon and a master's in Political Science from California State University, Long Beach. I earned my bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science with a minor in Religion from Vanguard University.
Aurora Levins Morales, Mike Davis, David Harvey, Dr. Gerardo Sandoval, Henri Lefebvre, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez.
OUTSIDE OF WORK
What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful?
When I'm not working with community members, I love to work with my hands, ride my bike, and am an avid storyteller. My wife is incredibly supportive and helps keep me accountable to self-care and carving out time for our family.