Boston’s planning agency is rolling out a new set of rules to ensure residents who don’t speak English well or at all can participate in public meetings about proposed developments.

Under the new policy, slated to go into effect early this year, the Boston Planning and Development Agency will require that those meetings and relevant materials be interpreted in the popular languages of the city’s various neighborhoods.

The BPDA has previously provided language translators on a case-by-case basis when specifically requested or deemed necessary.

Brian Golden, the agency’s director, said the policy is a response to demographic shifts.

“We’ve got a city that is increasingly diverse. The city is a radically different place today, demographically, than it was when I was growing up here,” he said, pointing to past decades when Boston was mostly white.

On top of the more diverse population, Golden said the city is experiencing a building boom that has created more than 60 million square feet of new development in the past seven years. As that trend spreads out from downtown into neighborhoods, residents need to know what’s happening, he said.

“It is absolutely key that people understand the pros and cons of development,” Golden told GBH News. “If we are not being understood, either because we’re not explaining things well enough … or [because] we’re not explaining things in a language that, literally, people can understand, that’s a real problem.”

Boston has more than 111,000 adult residents who don’t speak English well, according to recent BPDA data. Another 130,000 speak English “very well” as well as speaking another language at home.

Jose Vaz, who moved to Dorchester from Cape Verde in 2003, is one city residents with limited English proficiency.

Vaz told GBH News through an interpreter that when he’s not with bilingual friends or family, he mostly avoids people. It’s discouraging, Vaz said, since he values being part of a community.

Under the BPDA’s new policy, Dorchester, Boston’s largest and most diverse neighborhood, will require meetings be translated into four languages: Spanish, Vietnamese, Haitian creole and Cape Verdean creole.

Through a translator, Vaz, 56, said the new policy and the regular availability of interpreters could be a sign that the city is seeking to hear and include all voices.

Fostering equity in the public square through language access services has become a policy priority as Boston’s immigrant population has grown. In the 1950s, foreign-born Bostonians made up about 15% of the city’s population. Today that figure is closer to 30%.

The city of Boston has stepped up its outreach to non-English speakers in recent years, forming an Office of Language and Communications Access that provides accessibility training to other city departments and helps finance activities like braille transcription, video captions and audio transcripts.

Dealing with this linguistic diversity has its costs.

The BPDA told GBH News that for the current fiscal year, which began in July, it has spent $100,000 on language access services — and that amount will likely double.

The Boston Public Schools, which were required to set up a language access policy in 2012 as part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, has budgeted $3 million for such services this year.

Those in the language services industry said the city has come a long way since the days when non-English speakers were relegated to the rear corners of meeting rooms, where a non-certified interpreter might have offered loose translations of the proceedings.

“It feels like we started in the stone age,” Linda Barros, a local freelance translator, said with a chuckle. Barros, who moved to Dorchester in the 1980s, said meeting spaces frequently felt “chaotic,” with people straining to hear while two or three languages were spoken simultaneously.

“Now [non-English speaking] people will come in, and if they see headsets, they already know it’s for them,” she said, describing the modern audio systems that connect interpreters with their audiences.

Barros added that English speakers have also learned to tone down their nativism.

“You would have some rude people who would say, ‘They need to learn how to speak English,’” she said. “Back in the day they were not so soft and so politically correct.”
Diana Pagano, an operations executive with Interpreters and Translators Inc., said if governments don’t continue to prioritize language access, they’ll have dead communities. The company works with various agencies in the New England area.

“This is a diverse world, and the fact that you have immigrants in our country not understanding the language, I think we’re missing out,” Pagano said. “We’re going to miss out on a big, big community that can be contributors…It’s just about empowering them.”

Golden recognizes the BPDA’s policy change could invite more public comments and more controversy around development projects, but he said it is ultimately in everyone’s best interest.

“Significant changes to the built environment are not without controversy, and we can only gain people's trust and support if they understand what we're doing,” he said.