Nat Kerman

Ask anyone to tell you about Laura Brown, and one of the first words you’ll hear is “collaborative.” She collaborates with her colleagues, respecting their institutional knowledge. She collaborates across academic disciplines. She collaborates with local stakeholders.

Now, Brown hopes to bring her collaborative spirit to a new job as executive director of New Haven’s City Plan Department. After being appointed in February, Brown’s first month has been a “whirlwind,” she said, and the work won’t be stopping anytime soon. New Haven faces a series of planning challenges: the implementation of a new inclusionary zoning ordinance, the oversight of controversial development projects in Long Wharf and the final phases of Downtown Crossing, a plan to reconnect neighborhoods separated by the Oak Street Connector. Brown’s former and current colleagues said they’re eager to see where the department goes under her leadership.

“It’s a big job, but it’s really exciting,” Brown told the News. “The work that I’ve done over the past 20 years in community development has been broad. … This was a real amazing opportunity to bring together all those skills I’ve gathered through the years into one job.”

Committing to Community 

Brown was raised in the small city of Taunton, Mass. Although the city has some notable differences from New Haven, Brown said that her upbringing taught her a lot about the “fabric” of New England.

She stayed in Massachusetts for college, studying psychology and communications at Clark University. It was during her work at the Main South Community Development Corporation during college that she “cut her teeth” on community- and place-based work, spending her time coordinating meetings, knocking on doors and writing information sheets. Promoting food security and community welfare taught her important grassroots organizing skills, which she continued to develop with nonprofits in Maine and Hartford. Still, she felt that something was missing.

“A lot of the work in the nonprofit sector was really addressing the symptoms of what I perceived to be larger systemic community problems,” Brown said. 

She settled on urban planning to confront these systemic problems. Brown was inspired by the interdisciplinary nature of the field, which falls “at the intersection of the soft skills,” like relationship building, “and the hard skills,” like data and policy analysis. And she had long been interested in design, believing that “how we experience the world is through the physical environment.” 

After pursuing a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Brown stayed in the state for eight years. She worked for the university’s extension system, assisting communities with planning and economic development. Brown came back to Connecticut in 2014 as an extension educator and certified economic developer for the University of Connecticut, where she worked until her appointment to City Plan Director.

Brown’s return to Connecticut was marked by personal loss. She was pregnant when she started her job at UConn, and her daughter was stillborn. 

“I was grieving for a lot of years after that, and it really made me question whether I had the energy to do community-based work again,” Brown said, tearing up. “I did not listen to music. I could not watch videos. I just couldn’t take in any media because I was grieving so deeply.” 

It took Brown years to recover. At the same time, she said, she and her husband discovered a strong support network in Connecticut. 

“It’s very easy to have a connection to your neighbors because people are engaged,” Brown said. “And that sort of created a soft landing for us when we came back.”

That connection also helped her recommit to community advocacy, a commitment that was only strengthened after seeing the inequities that the pandemic exacerbated. 

Brown said the last few years have been full of “introspective work.” 

“I came to the conclusion that to really be authentic in my work, I really want to be working in place, I need to be working in and with the community where I live,” Brown said. “My advocacy … can’t be something that I do after hours.” 

Local and Regional Approaches

Brown’s new job with the city government is a multifaceted one. Planner Esther Rose-Wilen said the department focuses on three main areas: enforcing regulation, leading development projects and overseeing broader planning processes. 

Because of the department’s broad scope, Brown said she sees her role as “both a dot-connector and an advocate,” leveraging the experience of her staff and linking residents to the resources they need. 

Kim Bradley, program coordinator of the Connecticut Trails Program, said she had no doubt that Brown would be able to manage such a role. Bradley worked with Brown on the Trails Program, which researches the usage and economic impact of non-motorized trails and helps residents connect with local trail systems.

“She is an incredible leader in that she really provides a team-based environment,” Bradley said. “She always is there to engage and to hear those around her. She really listens.” 

That includes listening to community members who are often left out of planning processes. Brown said she is especially cognizant of New Haven’s fraught history of exclusionary zoning and the broader under-representation of minority groups in urban planning. 

She said she uses an “asset-based” strategy that builds on the resources neighborhoods already have instead of trying to bring in outside industries. 

“Planning can be very top down, sort of a consulting-type approach,” Brown said. “But a more community-engaged approach means really working with the community and capacity building, so that the process of planning is part of the goal. Really building up the capacity of neighborhoods, of those local organizations, to empower them.”

Brown combines that focus on the local and individual with an emphasis on regional partnership. 

City planners already collaborate across departments, working with staff in economic development, transportation and engineering on a variety of municipal projects. Brown said she hopes to expand the department’s involvement in statewide groups and learn from the example of other planners. 

“No one functions within the realms of municipal boundaries,” she said. “We go to work beyond our municipal boundaries, we recreate in all sorts of ways outside those boundaries… I think the regional piece is really important because it speaks to our need to be collaborative with our neighbors.”

Aaron Budris, senior regional planner with the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, pointed to Connecticut’s councils of government as one such metropolitan planning entity that enables cooperation across towns. 

Budris worked with Brown on the Trails Program and said that he has witnessed her commitment to in-depth research and regional planning firsthand.

“I would imagine she would definitely be a lot more engaged than a lot of our cities are with [councils of government],” Budris said. “I think she excels in everything I’ve seen her do and I have no doubt that she’s going to excel in New Haven, too.”

Mayor Justin Elicker announced Brown’s appointment to the City Plan Department on Feb. 4. 

Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.