The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the orange play button above to hear the audio.

Ayres-Brown: You served more than a decade on Newport’s Planning Board, including the past several years as chair of the Planning Board. Over this time, how do you think Newport and its planning needs have changed?

Salerno: The truth is, it's changed a lot. It's really not the city it was ten years ago. And these changes really do require new planning strategies. For example, short-term rentals didn't exist as we know it ten years ago, and that's had a huge impact on our community. COVID has made smaller cities like Newport more desirable for telecommuting, and this has put a little bit of additional pressure on our housing. 

And then there is the instability of the seasonal economy. That is more pronounced now, and it has many costs. It's a little dull here in the winter. And things that people don't think about — such as the goods in the grocery store — change in the winter. Many businesses now close for a month or two at a time, between January and March. So I think planners and city leadership should consider how this impacts the year-round residents, and what it means for the future.

Ayres-Brown: In your resignation letter, you point to some of these same kind of quality-of-life issues that you just noted in Newport. And how quality of life is diminishing quickly, including housing costs that, as you put it in your resignation letter, “exclude all but the very, very rich.” Do you think enough is being done on this front at the city level? Or what are the main contributing factors that you think can or should be addressed?

Salerno: So I think if we want a vibrant and diverse community, more needs to be done. I mean, Newport housing is a very limited resource. And so any pressure is pronounced here, because, you know, we're on the tip of an island.

In the past, we've asked for displacement to be monitored, and that really has yet to materialize. So we don't actually know what is happening with displacement. We don't know how many people are being displaced and where they're being displaced from. So that's a really important thing. And we've asked for it again and again. And really it's time for the city to take that issue seriously.

Ayres-Brown: Newport is in the process of implementing this plan, the North End [Urban] Plan, to redevelop much of the city's North End — an area that's been physically and economically cut off from the rest of the city for decades. The process has been met with both excitement and skepticism from parts of the local community. I'm wondering, as you reflect on your time on the Planning Board, are there any lessons or insights from this process that you think city officials should take with them moving forward?

Salerno: Well, the planning process in the North End, and then in previous contexts, has taught us that we must engage with the neighboring community, no matter what we do. And I think that the North End process really brought that issue to the fore. And we had a really good plan in place and then COVID stymied that. But you know, we're coming out of the pandemic and getting back to normal now. And I think it's important to regularly engage.

Ayres-Brown: Are there ways or aspects in which the quality of life has improved in Newport in recent years, or initiatives underway that show the most promise, in your view?

Salerno: Yes. The issues that I think have positively impacted quality of life are not limited to Newport. So for example, the community is truly beginning to reflect on diversity in a meaningful way. And that's obviously happening nationally. It's happening here. And that's good for all of us. 

Also, environmental and resiliency efforts — again you know, ten years ago, these weren't concerns. But now with people having to live with the ill effects of sea level rise, environmental and resiliency efforts are increasingly supported by the residents of Newport. I think city leadership is slow to recognize what the residents already understand — and that is that these are big issues that need big solutions.

Ayres-Brown: Kim Salerno, departing chair of the Newport Planning Board and an architectural designer, thanks so much for speaking with me.

Salerno: Thanks for having me.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at