Urban planning student Daniela León builds equitable development from the ground up

Daniela Leon with community members in India on a recent field work visit.

Daniela Leon (center) meets with community stakeholders on a 2019 field visit to Odisha, India, for her research with the Food Lab. She says the image captures one of the fundamental responsibilities of planners: to understand the lived experience and perspective of the community members we hope to serve. 

by Rachel Teaman

Published October 6, 2020

Daniela León, a second-year student in the Master of Urban Planning program at UB, is an ardent advocate for building equitable and inclusive economies for urban communities.

Says León: "In particular, I am interested in leveraging opportunities for low-resource entrepreneurs in the U.S. such as immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Not only do these communities face disproportionate challenges with starting formal small businesses, they also face policy hurdles when engaging in informal entrepreneurship such as street vending."

"My goal is to amplify the economic contributions of these individuals through policies that enable sustainable livelihoods and more opportunities for upward mobility."

While the subject matter of her work directly relates to building justice in communities, Leon points to the planning process as the most powerful lever for equity. "My experience in food systems research has taught me that co-created and community informed processes are what shape equitable policies and decisions."

"We are responsible for brokering relationships between communities and policy makers. However, before we think about those relationships, we need to understand the lived experience and perspective of the community members we hope to serve," she adds.

Leon has pursued a number of research and professional development opportunities during her time with UB. As an undergraduate student in the environmental design program and in her first year of MUP studies Leon served as a research assistant with UB's Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab. Here she explored opportunities to integrate informal food markets, particularly the street vending food sector, to urban planning frameworks.  

In 2019, Leon traveled to Odisha, India, with a Food Lab research team to assess opportunities to build resiliency in the local food system. Focusing on the region's network of small farms and urban markets, Leon conducted intensive field work including interviews with farmers, elected officials, and local community members.

Currently she serves as an intern with the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), an NGO  think tank for practitioners in economic development. Leon assists the IEDC with articles and economic research featured on Restore Your Economy (RYE), a U.S. Economic Development Administration-funded project which provides resources and best practices for post-disaster recovery of local economies.

Leon is a recipient of the 2020 Western New York Prosperity Fellowship in recognition of her commitment to building Buffalo’s economy and neighborhood resiliency. Specifically, the award notes her efforts to integrate immigrants and new Americans into the local business environment through workforce development and increased access to start-up resources.