Vivian Guerra remembers the first community meetings she attended as a newly-minted neighborhood planning coordinator for Washington, DC.’s Ward 1. Fresh from completing a graduate degree in urban and community planning from the University of Maryland, Guerra had ambition, passion and plans. What she did not have, she soon found, was the trust of her constituents.
“It was a total awakening, and rightfully so,” she says. “Especially in some neighborhoods that had very little investment since the 1968 riots and that were lacking public and social services. So, back in 2003, prior to the growth and investment that you see today, I’d go into these community meetings and there was a lot of mistrust in the government; a lot of promises that hadn’t been fulfilled. How could we come in and talk about what the future would look like 20 years down the road when folks were just dealing with day-to-day struggles?”
It was an experience Guerra credits for filling in the practical gaps not afforded in a classroom and that, ultimately, propelled her into a successful track in public service, first for the DC Office of Planning (OP), later with the District’s Department on Disability Services and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and, most recently, as the newly appointed chief of staff for the OP of Planning. Her work, which puts her on the street level in every sense, reflects a lifelong interest in improving quality of life for her neighbors, particularly those historically underserved and underrepresented. The daughter Salvadoran immigrants who sought political asylum just before the country’s civil war, Guerra hoped to leverage her undergraduate degree in economics and international development to work on projects to improve lives abroad in Latin America and the Caribbean. But an early glimpse of public accessibility and inclusion issues during a work seminar opened her eyes to the role of planning in everyday life. It was during her master’s program at Maryland that her focus went from global to local. “There were so many issues locally,” she said. “I wanted to be in the midst of it all and collaborate and co-create with communities on projects that I could see from beginning to end.”
Each milepost on her career path has afforded Guerra the opportunity to see a different aspect of the residential lived experience and discover ways to contribute, from extensive work improving mobility, inclusion and access in the city for older adults and people with disabilities to co-creating vibrant place-based assets with an equity focus. Now, as chief of staff, she’s stretching herself in new ways, while grounding herself in a shared, people-focused mission. “Everyone is so motivated and invested in the work that they’re doing,” she says. “At the end of the day, the goal is to improve access to opportunities for neighborhoods. It’s great to be in that type of environment.” Below, Guerra discusses lessons learned, the challenges and opportunities of a pandemic and what’s on DC’s horizon:
You got your feet wet in government work as a neighborhood planning coordinator for Ward 1. What did you learn from that job? At OP, one of my first planning activities was a transit-oriented development project along a section of Georgia Avenue that spanned from Petworth to Howard University. At the time, there were a lot of vacant properties and it was blighted to some extent. I’d go into community meetings and there was a lot of mistrust in the government; promises that hadn’t been fulfilled and a lot of safety issues and crime. How could we come in and talk about what the future would look like 20 years down the road when folks were just dealing with day-to-day struggles? These are conversations that, at the time, we weren’t having in graduate school. It was also a moment in time to think through what the neighborhood would look like 20 years from now; when it might be more attractive and, in turn, could get more expensive. What will happen to those people already living there? Once you’re in it and you have people sharing those struggles, it becomes a responsibility to bridge planning with social equity, particularly around displacement. It was definitely a learning experience. There are certain things you can apply that are academic and then there are others that you learn on the job and grow from there.
DC has made concerted efforts over the past several years to create more mobility and accessibility in the city. Where do you continue to see challenges? I worked at DDOT in the Office of Civil Rights /Equity & Inclusion Division within the Office of the Director, so equity, accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities and older adults were topics I worked on day-in and day-out. The challenges that these overlooked populations face have huge impacts on things like gaining employment and accessing services and goods; if it’s a challenge to mobilize down a sidewalk that’s not in good condition, then that’s a challenge in your day-to-day. In that position and in interacting with the disability community I gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the physical environment and ensuring that there are options for mobility. Is public transportation equitable, efficient and timely? How is transportation accessibility to key employment centers and services, to grocery stores and hospitals? Prior to DDOT, I worked for the District’s Department of Disability Services, which made me aware of the daily struggles for older adults, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable populations in obtaining health equity and accessing human services, like long-term services and supports. I was able to bring that experience to DDOT and OP and then ensure that our projects and our programs are equitable and accessible across different populations.
A piece of advice I always give students is to try and stretch yourself and explore areas that you might not think of going into, just to get that exposure and experience; it will develop a wealth of knowledge and make you a better planner.
What’s a project you have worked on for DC that you are really proud of? Fifteen years ago, I worked on the Columbia Heights Public Realm Plan. That was one of the first planning projects that really focused on public space, and one of the first instances of that kind of neighborhood investment for the public realm. At the time, Columbia Heights had a lot of vacancies and the community really yearned for a focal point that would define the neighborhood and create a sense of place. Through a community-led and co-created planning process the idea came together to create the plaza that’s there today. We worked to include elements that would be forward looking—environmentally friendly aspects like solar panel lighting and stormwater drainage—and design elements, like mosaic patterns that identified with the community culture. We pushed for wide sidewalks to enliven that pedestrian environment and increased accessibility to ensure we were connecting the surrounding neighborhoods. It continues to evolve—now there are bike lanes and plans for a priority bus lane down 14th Street. And now, through economic recovery work [from the pandemic], we’re focusing a lot on the public space for the people and not so much for cars – the focus is planning for people and places. I can think back to how that one project exposed me to the importance of public space and how it impacts people on a day-to-day basis. It’s a really positive asset that’s long-lasting.
When the pandemic hit last year—and then, later, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd—how did things change in your office? Did it cause you to rethink your priorities or did it uncover new challenges or opportunities? At that time, I was leading a transportation equity work group as part of updating moveDC, the District’s long-range transportation plan; we wanted to build in an equity focus, which had been lacking in previous updates. Once COVID hit, it gave us an additional lens, especially as the disparities associated with the pandemic—and especially in black and brown communities—became more amplified. It laid bare who was having difficulty accessing services and goods safely and the role that transportation and safe public spaces played in that. The bright spot is that it pushed us all to approach equity, particularly racial equity more meaningfully and thoughtfully as well as putting actions down on paper. But obviously, it was just devastating to see and witness the impact on communities.
It was such a fraught time for so many people and yet there was this bright spot with the mayor making the decision to create Black Lives Matter Plaza. I’m sure there are some complex politics to pulling something like that off when DC must navigate space with the federal government. Yeah, something like that really takes leadership from the mayor and she was very bold and had that vision. I was not on the front lines, but different city departments came together to support that, to make sure that her vision came to fruition and to create a space that symbolized something that mattered to everyone and embodied the District’s values. It’s a beautiful, empowering and symbolic space for the public.
You are just a few months into your new position as chief of staff. What’s getting you excited these days? I think being in a leadership position where I can add value in so many ways. As chief of staff, I enjoy working behind the scenes to solve problems and act as a sounding board for ideas. While I feel a huge sense of responsibility to oversee a staff of 75 and that the agency’s operations are running smoothly, I get excited to make sure the director’s agenda and mayor’s priorities advance and that our planning projects move forward. It’s also important to me that we’re fostering a positive work environment and working in ways where we’re challenging each other as colleagues. If you have happy employees, that translates to the quality of work. I appreciate the opportunity to add value and impact like that.
I’m also really excited for the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with OP’s Director Trueblood. He is a visionary leader who is a planner and was formerly a Chief of Staff himself at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and learning from him has been a great experience.
The mayor recently presented the city’s budget to the DC council for approval. Can you give us a sneak peek for what might be on the horizon for your department? We have quite a few investments proposed, including some area planning analyses in high opportunity areas for housing production and affordable housing, as well as public space enhancements. Housing is a big priority for the city—particularly affordable housing—as is economic recovery work, and OP has been very involved in that. We also hope to conduct some land use analysis for areas such as New York Avenue—which has so much opportunity as a gateway to the city—to, again, look to see what sort of housing, opportunities for land use, transportation and equity to support anticipated growth in resident and worker populations. We are also looking into ways to activate public space in the District through temporary activations supported by recurring monthly street closures.
What’s your favorite part of your job? I get a lot of gratification when I’m doing something that’s supporting our planners and their work. Providing feedback on planning activities based on my experience, particularly with young planners, is really rewarding. It’s nice to be able to share some of my knowledge and experiences as a planner with a new generation as they start these small area plans in different neighborhoods and offer perspective on what worked and what didn’t; and it’s nice to have them be so receptive.
What’s a tool or piece of tech that has made life significantly easier—or better—this past year? My Vitamix. Especially when I don’t have time to eat, I can have a smoothie ready to go the night before. It’s been a lifesaver that gets me through the day.
What was your favorite pandemic binge? I think I was one of the only people that did not seen “Game of Thrones” when it first came out and was curious to what all the fuss was about. So, my husband and I watched it from beginning to end during the pandemic. I’m not sure if I should be proud of that!