Q&A: Nate Baker discusses urban planning experience, priorities for Durham City Council

Photo courtesy of Nate Baker for Durham City Council on Facebook.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

By Lucy Marques

The Durham VOICE’s Lucy Marques spoke with Durham City Council member Nate Baker about his priorities for the council, career experience and favorite things about Durham. Baker was elected to the council in 2023. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham Voice: Tell me about your childhood and your education. How does that inform who you are today?

I was born and raised right here in Durham, born at Durham Regional Hospital, now Duke Regional. I went through the Durham public school system, K-12. I went to college at Cornell University in upstate New York and got my Bachelor of Science degree in Urban Regional Studies.

Growing up in Durham definitely made me feel like this is my home and definitely made me care a lot about this place. And, also, just sort of seeing the city evolve, what it used to be, the challenges that it faced and some of the same challenges and where they come from, as well as seeing what things have changed. 

Why did you decide to go into urban planning?

I think it was growing up in Durham, really, that made me interested. It wasn’t even so much urban planning, it was just the interest and fascination of cities and what makes cities what they are. The interplay between human beings and then a built-in natural world that they exist in every single day, that was always just interesting to me.

There’s a lot of politics and ideology that’s wrapped into that profession. I’m pretty open about what mine is, which is that I believe in people over profit and empowering people from the bottom-up. But there’s definitely a large chunk of people in my profession that believes in and follows the will of capital. There’s sort of this belief that keeping a hands-off approach and somehow allowing the free market to dictate itself will achieve good outcomes.

Why did you decide to run for council, what spurred that decision?

Through my work, I kind of jump into a place and then jump out of a place and help them develop a plan and hope that they implement it. It does give me the opportunity to see what’s out there and see the good, the bad and the ugly of what city governments are doing, especially as it relates to planning and development. 

And then, in 2018, I joined the Durham Planning Commission, and so I sort of started getting a deep dive into at least a portion of what city and county governments are doing. It is a realm that we have a lot of regulatory power over because of zoning. 

And so I got to see what we were doing parallel to this job of bouncing around the state and around the country, seeing what other places were doing. And then, also, through the planning commission, getting more opportunities to connect with communities in their struggles against gentrification and the various challenges that our communities are facing. All of those experiences combined, I started seeing gaps in what people wanted, what we can do and what was being done. 

What priorities and perspectives do you bring to council?

I am pushing for Durham to implement a small area planning program, so just, sort of, conducting community planning, which is a pretty basic function. Durham is the largest city in the state of North Carolina that doesn’t do it. 

Also, we are going through the comprehensive rewrite of the unified development ordinance. In other words, the zoning regulations are being completely rewritten. It’s a once in a couple of decades opportunity, and I want to make sure that we get it right. Part of that is fixing our street design standards, which are currently built entirely for automobiles; fixing our private development standards, which are completely designed for automobiles and ending sprawl, as we know it. 

You think it would be easy to change, and yet, it is extremely challenging politically and otherwise to change our practices around that and make sure that we’re protecting open space and designing a city that people want to live in, that’s sustainable and walkable and exciting. 

What is your favorite thing about Durham?

My favorite thing about Durham is the people. We’ve got a lot of challenges. But the people here are very special and very unique. We have a diversity of viewpoints, but there’s a baseline understanding and philosophy that we have about the world, and I think it’s that we care about each other and that we’re in this together. You see the mutual aid groups get created and expand and people just coming out and caring for one another, like people who show up and volunteer. Just everything that people do for their neighbors, or those that they’ve never even met before, I just think that’s something that’s pretty special. 

Edited by Ava Dobson

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