By Dhawal Kataria, AICP, RSP
Jason Su is an urban designer focused on the intersection of public life, economic development, nature, and civic engagement in city building. He currently serves as the Executive Director of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that provides community leadership for the development and active use of the Guadalupe River in downtown San Jose, California. Jason is also a faculty instructor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at San Jose State University.
Tell us about your childhood and what influenced your work.
My parents emigrated from Taiwan to the United States, moving from Texas to New Jersey before settling in Los Angeles. They started selling furniture in flea markets in Southern California, which eventually became a business. I noticed early on that each move was from one Asian American community to another, and this influenced how I see communities and social capital. I believe places that encourage people to establish roots — and to personally thrive — also strengthen those communities, and I carry that lens to observe the ways cities develop.
What got you started in community development?
I was not aware of the field of urban planning until after I completed my bachelor’s at UC Irvine. After graduation, I started working at a dementia-related public health nonprofit. One day, I was running late to a public meeting and got lost in a master-planned retirement community. Trying to navigate with printed directions and environmental cues was made more difficult by hard-to-read street signs and an indistinct urban form. I began to wonder why a place this difficult to navigate for an able-bodied person was deemed appropriate for a demographic susceptible to dementia, memory loss, or mobility challenges. That led me to the field of urban design, which became the focus of my urban planning graduate studies at San Jose State University.
Why urban design?
For me, urban design is the intersection of two interests: the way design guides individual behaviors and how planning manages societal shifts. I believe it is important to marry systemic societal change that policy and planning can effect with how we navigate and experience our daily lives through the built form.
What do you see as hurdles to designing for people?
People are different, and the way we experience space is unique. Urban designers can benefit from having developed empathy, perception, and relationship-building skills that can help in designing for needs not identified by one’s own lived experiences. This allows professionals and decision-makers to look at an issue from multiple perspectives. For example, a historic building may be a symbol of civic pride to a mayor, whereas an urban designer might see it as a contributor to neighborhood character or a necessary element in wayfinding.
What does Guadalupe River Park Conservancy do?
We are the city’s nonprofit partner promoting the active use and development of the Guadalupe River Park through education, advocacy, and stewardship. Our vision is to connect people to nature and each other through the River Park and to leverage this unique natural resource — a wild and ecologically significant river through a rapidly developing urban core in Central San Jose — for community uplift.
How does your current role build on your prior experiences?
Each of my prior roles has provided insights into the complexity and interconnectivity of community building. My urban design graduate school studies informed my role in supporting streetscape project management in San Francisco. That experience cultivated a creative approach to placemaking and introduced me to the concept of business districts. My time spent working for a San Jose business improvement district grew my social entrepreneurship and relationship building skills, while exposing me to broader city building issues. I find myself pulling from all these experiences when managing and uplifting Guadalupe River Park — a linear park cradling a riparian corridor, under an airport flight path, running through San Jose’s urban core. [Image right: “Humble Beginnings” artwork creates visual interest along the Guadalupe River Art Walk. (Photo Credit: Lan Nguyen, 2021)]
What do you enjoy doing when not working?
I’m an introvert. I spend a lot of time decompressing, especially if my week includes a lot of external-facing work. I do my best to prioritize fitness, particularly through CrossFit. I’m an avid Bullet Journalist. Occasionally, I travel into a desert landscape, which so far has included Death Valley, Tibet, the Grand Canyon, and Burning Man. [Image right: GRPC Volunteers keep the Heritage Rose Garden healthy and beautiful. (Photo Credit: Lan Nguyen, 2021)]
Interviewer Dhawal Kataria, AICP, RSP, is a transportation planner at Kittelson & Associates and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.