Author: Northern Section

Virtual vs. in-person community meetings

Virtual vs. in-person community meetings

By Sajuti Rahman Haque, associate editor, June 29, 2020 

VIRTUAL MEETINGS HAVE THEIR BENEFITS. They are open and welcoming to people who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t attend public meetings and hearings. But certain things accomplished in large, in-person, physically present public meetings can’t be done virtually. 

Welcome Home, San Carlos 

On February 1, 2020, the City of San Carlos hosted Welcome Home, San Carlos, one of the city’s last, large, in-person community engagement meetings before the Covid-19 pandemic disallowed them. Welcome Home, San Carloswith the purpose of helping our community talk more constructively about the shared challenge of housing, was a joint effort between the City and Home for All, a collaborative funded by San Mateo County. Our objective was to understand the housing and transportation priorities, concerns, and values of those who lived and worked in San Carlos.  

The initiative, launched in Fall 2019, comprised on-the-street interviews, popup events, and two community conversations. On November 7, 2019, about 100 community members, City Council members, and staff gathered at the Hiller Aviation Museum for the first meeting, which yielded constructive discussions about short and long term housing goals.  

The second and last of the large engagement meetings took place on Saturday, February 1, at the San Carlos Adult Community Center. Fifty-five attended.  

Community Development Director Al Savay, AICP, wraps up November’s large meeting. Photo: William Cooley

The significance of an in-person format at a large meeting 

Home for All conducted similar community engagement meetings in other participating cities in San Mateo County, including Burlingame, Half Moon Bay, Portola Valley, Redwood City, Brisbane, Pacifica, and San Mateo. The community engagement meeting design works best with physical attendance because  

It draws out different views and ensures they won’t be stifled. People who walk into the meeting with a partner or family members are asked to sit at different tables to ensure that individuals won’t hold back during the moderated table conversations among residents. That would be hard to ask for or accomplish in a virtual format.  

It shows the diversity of those attending. The head facilitatobreaks the ice through interactive exercises that require raising hands or standing to illustrate the diversity of those attending. For instance, one activity required participants to raise their hands if they lived in San Carlos for less than 5 years, 10 years or more, 20 years, 30 years, or more than 50 years 

It focuses on communitylevel concerns and perspectives. City staff and elected officials were present only as active listeners. They walked around the room and listened to the conversationwithout interrupting.  

It ensures representation from diverse groups and from all parts of the community. To ensure all parts of the community could participate, our outreach events in the run-up to the large community meetings, included pop-ups  at which we gave prizes for filling out questionnaires  and micro-meetings with groups of no more than 10 stakeholdersFrom the Farmers Market to canvassing downtown, we were able to reach a wide array of community members.  

City pop-up booth at Farmers Market. Photo: William Cooley

This type of extensive community engagement model with multiple stakeholders simply works better with in-person meetingsand we were fortunate to complete the process before the Covid-19 restrictions. The major concerns and issues raised in the meetings revolved around  

  • increasing affordable housing;  
  • desire for more efficient public transit;  
  • prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle pathways; 
  • preserving our small town feel while accommodating more housing;  
  • and understanding how state housing laws impact the city.  

We hoped that the in-person conversation series and outreach events would increase community participation, ensure that all voices were heard, and inform all participants about their various hopes for the community’s future. Thphysically present approach was crucial to creating an inclusive environment where people could talk and listen to each other as they identified key priorities to guide future policies for and actions on housing.  

Sajuti Rahman, City’s management analyst, listens to a table conversation at the February meeting. Photo: William Cooley.

The future of community engagement 

As cities begin to reopen in line with the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, municipalities are being forced to consider how best to continue providing basic services and govern efficiently while keeping their staff and public safe. Petra Hurtado, PhD, writing for the American Planning Association (APA) on April 8, identified some important questions: how can planners conduct public meetings during times of recommended distancing, and to what extent can an online meeting replace the in-person experience and fulfill legal, procedural, and ethical requirements? 

Most cities are now conducting virtual city council and planning commission meetings via video conferences or telecommunications. Sarah Holder writing for Bloomberg CityLab on May 5, quipped that the new era of local governance via webcam “marries the tedium of a regular city council meeting with technical glitches and occasional on-screen drama.” Yet, despite the technical difficulties we have all experienced, public agencies have climbed aboard the virtual meeting train.  

One of the still unfolding benefits of virtual meetings is an increase in public participation in the business of government, especially among those who have found it difficult to attend meetings in person. People now have the comfort of listening to or calling in from where ever they are, without having to set aside an entire evening to travel to and sit in a public hall to participate in local government.  

Although virtual meetings and hearings are proving adequate for city councils and planning commissions, we believe focused community engagement meetings, such as Welcome Home, San Carlos, work better in person. In-person meetings can set an informal tone where participants can feel comfortable and spontaneous without worrying about being “on camera.” Conversely, virtual meetings limit interactive activities. 

That said, the Home for All team has been exploring alternative approaches to community engagement through virtual sessions and hybrid models that use Zoom in both large and small sessions. Although these virtual models have gone well, there is as yet no satisfactory replacement for certain kinds of in-person, physically present communication. Our community engagement strategies, platforms, and venues must be flexible over the coming months and years if we hope to encourage broad community participation in governmental planning and decision-making 

I would like to give a shout out to the City of San Carlos’ Community Development Department, City Manager’s Office, Home for All, Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, and Common Knowledge for making Welcome Home, San Carlos a successful community engagement initiative.  

Sajuti Rahman Haque, an associate editor at Northern News, is a management analyst with the City of San Carlos Community Development Department. She holds a master of urban planning from San Jose State University and a BA in urban studies from UC San Diego. You can reach her at 

Who’s Where

Who’s Where

Deland Chan, AICP, was appointed by the Board of Supervisors on May 19 to the San Francisco Planning Commission for a term ending July 1, 2022. She is the Director of Community Engaged Learning in Urban Studies at Stanford University, where she teaches courses on urban planning and sustainability and directs the Human Cities Initiative. Chan was formerly a senior planner for land use and transportation planning projects at the Chinatown Community Development Center, 2009-2012. She holds an MA in sociology from Stanford, an MCP from UC Berkeley, and is working toward a PhD in sustainable urban development from the University of Oxford.  

Beth Altshuler Munoz is now an independent consultant working at the intersection of planning, public health, and environmental and racial justice, assisting public agencies, nonprofits, and foundations with policy, facilitation/engagement, data analysis/mapping, and training. She had been with Raimi + Associates since 2010 — most recently as a senior associate leading the healthy community planning practice — and now serves as a strategic advisor. Prior to Raimi, she was at MIG and the SF Public Works Department. Altshuler Munoz was Northern Section’s Planners4Health committee chair (2018-2019) and is currently co-organizing APA California’s COVID webinar series. She holds master’s degrees in both city planning and public health epidemiology from UC Berkeley and a BA in sociology from Cornell University. 

Afshan Hamid, AICP, is now Planning Director for the Town of Moraga. Previously she was planning manager for the City of Vallejo, where she led the zoning code update and improved development processing. Earlier she was a senior planner for the City of Concord, and had worked in urban design and planning for the City of Walnut Creek. Before coming to the Bay Area in 2014, Hamid was principal planner for the Village of Arlington Heights, Illinois, and an architect with Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Chicago. She holds an M.Arch from MIT and a BFA in industrial design from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hamid, her husband, and their two daughters live in Danville.  

William (Billy) Riggs, PhD, AICP, LEED AP, has been promoted to Associate Professor at the University of San Francisco, where he has taught since 2017. He is a global expert and thought leader in the areas of autonomy and smart transportation, housing, economics, and urban development, and has authored more than 100 publications in these areas. Riggs holds a PhD in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley, a master of urban planning (economics and spatial analysis) from the University of Louisville, and a BA in history from Ball State University. He lives in Palo Alto, where he is on the city’s planning and transportation commission.  

Kyle Rose joined G2 Integrated Solutions in July as a Permit Facilitator. Previously a GIS freelancer since 2016, Rose also worked for the City of Monterey as a planning assistant. Before that, he worked at Apple and at Maricopa County (Phoenix) as a GIS analyst. He holds a master of urban planning from San Jose State University and a BA in geography from the University of Miami.  

Matthew Taecker, AICP, is Manager of Station Area Planning for California’s High Speed Rail Authority at WSP USA. He previously led his own urban planning and design firm (2013-2020) where he co-authored with Bruce Appleyard and othersLivable Transit Corridors: Methods, Metrics, and Strategies” (TCRP Report 187, 2016). Taecker was a principal with Dyett and Bhatia; principal planner with the City of Berkeley (developing its award-winning Downtown Area Plan from 2005-2011); and a principal with Calthorpe Associates (1990-2001). At UC Davis Extension, Taecker teaches principles for sustainable development. He holds an MCP and M.Arch. from UC Berkeley and a BA in economics from the University of Chicago. He lives in Downtown Berkeley.  

Libby Tyler, PhD, FAICP, is now Planning Manager at the City of San Pablo. Previously a senior project manager at MIG, Tyler was also a consulting planner in the Bay Area and adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois. Before that, she was the community development director for Urbana, Illinois, 2000-2017. She holds a PhD in regional planning from the University of Illinois, a master of landscape architecture in environmental planning from UC Berkeley, and a BA in environmental conservation from the University of Colorado Boulder. A resident of Albany, CA, Tyler has been Northern Section Ethics Director since 2018 and Vice Chair of the American Planning Association’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee since January 2020.  

Graduating into a pandemic-afflicted world

Graduating into a pandemic-afflicted world

By Atisha Varshney, AICP, July 17, 2020

ARE YOU A RECENT GRADUATE with a degree in urban planning or a related field?  Are you feeling lost in the fallout from Covid-19 and wondering how to navigate the next few years or even the next few months?

With an F1 visa and a huge student loan, I graduated in 2010 with a master’s degree in landscape architecture. Job opportunities were scarce, and I had to work extremely hard to stand out. It wasn’t just about being proficient in technical skills or having a strong knowledge of the subject, but more about candor, persistence, and the ability to create opportunities.

I have been in this industry for 10 years, living in New York, San Diego, and now the San Francisco Bay Area. I have come across many industry partners, clients, and peers who are immigrants like me and who are actively contributing to the architecture and planning industry. When I look around in the Bay Area, I see the tech industry celebrating immigrants and leveraging their endeavors and innovation.

But in the planning industry, this level of support and mentoring is absent, especially for new graduates, regardless of whether they immigrated or grew up here. I often see young graduates who find themselves lost when navigating their careers. I was fortunate to have been mentored as a mid-career professional at a firm built on social equity.

In response to the needs I observed, I created a four-minute video sharing these five tips to help young professionals achieve their short- and long-term career goals.

  • Find a mentor

  • Complete your professional certifications

  • Increase your knowledge

  • Leverage your institution

  • Be action-oriented

After first sharing the video on my LinkedIn profile, I hosted mentoring sessions for a small cohort of recent graduates and junior professionals. I worked specifically with immigrants and international students since their situations are complicated by the need for a visa sponsor for employment, plus many do not have local families to support them. The collaborative format of the mentoring sessions allowed the cohort to learn from each other and share resources while forming long-lasting professional relationships. The idea is not to find them a job, but to help them build their credentials and become better-informed professionals.

I’m inviting my peers and those interested to share their personal experiences through a virtual roundtable that I’ll be hosting with immigration lawyers, public agency designers, advocacy groups, and design consultants. Please sign up here if you are interested in being added to the group email list.

Atisha Varshney, AICP, is an urban design and planning associate with WRT. She holds a master’s in landscape architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design and a bachelor’s in architecture and design from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. You can reach her at

Housing, the environment, the virus, and public transportation

By Sajuti Rahman, associate editor, May 15, 2020 

Monterey water board waylays affordable housing, by Dennis L. Taylor, Monterey Herald, May 13, 2020

A decision by Monterey Peninsula water officials” to deny use of water from what “the district holds in reserve … leveled a severe blow to the city’s ability to construct new housing units. In effect, one state agency is demanding Monterey provide more housing while another agency is prohibiting the city from building more units because of water. … The general manager of the water district told [Water Demand] Committee members that the State Water Resources Control Board sent an email ‘expressing its concerns’ with Monterey’s request. In total, six shovel-ready projects around the city would generate 303 units with an average of 77 percent affordable housing, but without additional water, only 92 could be built.”

The pandemic demonstrates how vulnerable US transit systems are, by Angela Pachon, UPenn Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, May 6, 2020 

“Transit agencies will need to operate with a reduced ridership while continuing to offer an affordable service. Despite the financial pressure to cut expenditures, ongoing efforts to update routes and better integrate different travel modes to attract riders should continue. Decision-makers must also consider that transit in the US will be the only travel mode for the poorest among us, a population that cannot afford to live near their workplaces to cycle or walk.  

Pandemic underscores transit accessibility difficulties, by Abigail Cochran, StreetsBlog Cal, April 21, 2020 

“People with disabilities, like everybody else, need to access essential goods, like food and medicine, and services like medical care. The $2.2 trillion relief bill signed into law on March 27th appropriates $25 billion to transit agencies to cover expenses related to the coronavirus response. Go here to read how on-demand transportation providers (like ride-hail services and taxis), transportation agencies, and public health authorities are rethinking strategies to properly serve people with disabilities during the pandemic and beyond.  

Mexico City smog defies coronavirus lockdown, by Raul Cortes Fernandez, Reuters, April 27, 2020  

“While city dwellers around the world take some consolation in improved air quality thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, festering garbage dumps, dirty diesel-fueled generators, and frequent forest fires have ensured Mexico City’s air remains smog-filled. Carlos Alvarez, head of an environmental group, said the area had some 400 open-air dumps and 50,000 industrial generators in hotels, offices, and businesses, many of which were still operating despite the quarantine. Now, experts worry that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, could prove more lethal in Mexico City than elsewhere.” Read more here. 

Options to phase-out fossil fuel production in California, by Ethan Elkind, April 29, 2020 

“California is the seventh-largest oil producing state in the country. Yet continued oil and gas production contrasts with the state’s aggressive climate mitigation policies. Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment (CLEE) just released the 66-page report (PDF), ‘Legal Grounds: Law and Policy Options to Facilitate a Phase-Out of Fossil Fuel Production in California.’ The report analyzes steps California leaders could pursue on state- and privately-owned lands. Read more about the options discussed among state leaders related to fossil fuel phase-out with less harm to jobs and local economies.” 

Caltrain faces ‘existential crisis’

By Isabella Jibilian, San Francisco Examiner, May 8, 2020 

Empty platforms. Empty trains. Empty coffers. 

Caltrain is facing a $71 million deficit over the next financial year, as ridership has plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Although the railroad received nearly $50 million in relief through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — funding that so far has stopped the bleeding — Caltrain should prepare for a looming existential financial crisis staff said at a board meeting May 7.

A southbound Caltrain arriving at San Carlos station

Transit systems across the nation are facing decreased demand amid COVID-19, but Caltrains existence is more tenuous than most. Unlike BART and Muni, Caltrain is not funded by sales or property taxes. It depends on fares and parking fees to say afloat. 

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders, ticket sales have been down more than 95 percent, according to Derek Hansel, Caltrains chief financial officer.  

Once shelter-in-place orders are lifted, revenues wont necessarily bounce back. Some riders will choose to commute to work via car as a means of maintaining social distance. Some workplaces will not open; [some will] encourage their employees to continue to telecommute. [And] maintaining social distance on public transit will be difficult and expensive. 

In the short term, Caltrains hopes are pinned on receiving more aid. The CARES Act will distribute a second round of funding, though Caltrains share has yet to be decided. 

In the longer term, board members and staff are considering turning to tax revenue to supplement the farebox, by placing a $108 million measure on the November ballot. 

Read the full article here.

Second SB 35 ruling lets Vallco project proceed

By Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News, May 7, 2020 

“Plans to turn the old Vallco Shopping Mall into a housing, office, and retail complex can proceed after the developer won a decisive victory in court May 6. 

“Concluding a lengthy battle over the project — which would bring 2,402 apartments, 400,000 square feet of retail, and 1.8 million square feet of office space to Cupertino —Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Helen Williams ruled city officials did not err when they approved the development and gave it fast-track status. 

Approved Vallco proposal. Source: City of Cupertino,

 “ ‘This is a gigantic win for housing advocates specifically and a huge win for proponents of development in general,’ said J.R. Fruen, co-founder of the housing advocacy group Cupertino 4 All, which was not a party in the litigation. 

“Cupertino approved the Vallco project in 2018 under Senate Bill 35, which requires cities to approve and expedite certain residential and mixed-use developments. Friends of Better Cupertino sued the city, claiming officials had failed to do their duty by approving a project that didn’t meet the standards of SB35. 

“But in a 62-page ruling, Judge Williams made clear the project qualified for the special status and that the claims of Friends of Better Cupertino — which she said multiple times misinterpreted the law and made convoluted arguments — didn’t have merit. The group claimed the project was disqualified because it is located on a hazardous waste site, exceeds the city’s height limits, does not have sufficient space designated to residential development, and lacks a park. 

“Williams also rejected their argument that a city has a duty to deny a faulty SB35 project application. That means community groups like Friends of Better Cupertino have no grounds to block SB35 projects in court, Fruen said. Although Williams’ trial court decision does not set legally binding precedent, it likely will influence other judges, he said. 

“The Vallco ruling comes a week after Williams ruled in favor of another SB35 project in Los Altos, finding the city had no grounds to reject that development,” Kendall writes. 

In that April 28 ruling against Los Altos, the Court held “that Developer’s project was deemed to comply with applicable standards under SB 35 and that the City must rescind its decision to deny and instead approve and permit the project at the requested density.” In addition, the parties agreed “to rescind the existing [city] decision and permit the project within 60 days as compared to remanding the matter for further consideration.”

Bill Fulton, writing in CP&DR, notes that “Both cases revolve around the question of how cities must apply objective design standards in an SB 35 case — and the rulings suggest that cities apply objective design and planning standards in a very clear way in order to stay out of legal trouble.”

This is a developing story. “It is unknown at this point whether either of Judge Williams’s rulings will be appealed,” wrote Fulton on May 10. “The Los Altos City Council was scheduled to meet in closed session Monday night [May 12] to consider an appeal. As for the Vallco project in Cupertino, the neighbors’ case is just one of several fronts on which the battle is being fought. Subsequent to the events discussed in Judge Williams’ ruling, Cupertino changed its general plan to eliminate the 2 million square feet of office space contained in the project, and the developer subsequently filed both a lawsuit and a claim against the city.

You can read Marisa Kendall’s Vallco article here. 

Will telecommuting yield the best long-term environmental benefit of COVID-19?

By Ethan Elkind, May 4, 2020 

“There’s one potential bright spot for the climate that may outlive this current era: working from home. Prior to the pandemic, only 4 percent of U.S. employees worked from home, according to Global Workplace Analytics. But now more than half of the 135 million people in the U.S. workforce are in a home office. 

“The firm estimates that at this rate, by the end of next year, 25 to 30 percent of the total U.S. workforce will be telecommuting, the carbon equivalent of ‘taking all of New York’s workforce permanently off the road,’ said Kate Lister, president of the firm. 

“From a greenhouse gas perspective, it means many fewer driving miles from commuting. Otherwise, approximately 86 percent of Americans drive to work, according to the National Household Travel Survey. If just 25 percent of Americans began teleworking even one day per week after the pandemic, total vehicle miles traveled would fall by 1 percent, which is actually a significant amount of the more than 3.2 trillion miles driven in the U.S. in 2018. The numbers could go much higher if more people telecommuted multiple days per week. 

“And why might these work-from-home habits stick, as opposed to other environmental friendly measures taken during the pandemic? Simple: working from home is more convenient and more productive for most people. But prior to the pandemic, many managers weren’t comfortable allowing the practice, believing (falsely) that it would hurt bottom lines. 

“But now that everyone who can work from home is forced into this arrangement without calamity, my guess is that this manager resistance will fade.  

Read the full article here

Mobility: Who is moving and why?

By Riordan Frost, Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, May 4, 2020 

“For the past five years, just over 40 million Americans moved each year, according to American Community Survey data.  

“Most moves are local, either within the same county or within the same state.  

“People move for a variety of reasons, but the most common motivator is housing.  

“Mobility rates are about half what they were in the 1940s — when one in five Americans moved each year — and have been steadily declining since the mid-1980s. Local moves have been declining the most, especially among young adults, but all age groups have been moving less than in the past.  

“There is little consensus as to why Americans are moving less, but three factors seem to be playing a role  demographic change, housing affordability, and changes in labor dynamics.  

  • “People move less often as they age, and as millennials (America’s second-largest generation) age out of their most mobile years, some decline in mobility should be expected.  
  • “The housing affordability crisis (discussed in detail in our recent report) could also be depressing mobility, with high costs discouraging moves into unaffordable areas.  
  • “The rise in dual-earner households, as well as increases in rates of working from home (especially during and possibly after the COVID-19 pandemic) could be having a downward effect on mobility, as both dual-earner households and remote workers have lower mobility rates than single-earner households and commuters. 

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic is still unfolding, it is difficult to assess its possible impacts on mobility. It could be that mobility is going to spike after the quarantines end and people move to cheaper housing (if available) after losing income from a job loss. Mobility could also spike as a result of evictions or foreclosures if substantial payment assistance is not provided before the temporary bans on evictions and foreclosures end.  

“It could also be that mobility will decline further as people become less likely to buy or sell homes, especially during the quarantines but also afterwards due to higher economic uncertainty. Working from home is likely at record high levels right now, and if even a small portion of this shift proves to be permanent, it could mean fewer people moving for job-related reasons as well. 

Read more here. 

California shrinks; still most populous state

By Associated Press, May 2, 2020 

“The nation’s most populous state shrank a bit in the second half of last year, according to official figures released May 1. It still tops second-place Texas, which has about 30 million people. 

“California had a population of 39.78 million as of January, the state Department of Finance said, down from its previous report of 39.96 million residents in July. 

“But Doug Kuczynski of the department’s Demographic Research Unit said the two numbers aren’t directly comparable because of various adjustments and because each figure represents a point in time.  

“By the department’s reckoning, California added about 87,500 residents during the last full calendar year, comparing January-to-January figures. But even that comparison shows population growth of just 0.2 percent, which continues slow growth trends since the Great Recession.  

“The figures predate the current recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Growth slowed to near zero or declined in most coastal counties, grew slightly in the San Francisco Bay Area, and remained robust in the Central Valley and counties east of Los Angeles. 

“Los Angeles County lost residents for the second straight year, but it remains the nation’s most populous with more than 10 million residents. 

“More people left California between July 2018 and July 2019 for the first time since the 2010 census, leading to the state’s slowest recorded growth rate since 1900. 

Read full article here.

Milan mayor: ‘People are ready’ for green change

By Laurie Goering, Thomson Reuters Foundation, May 4, 2020 

“Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala has pushed in recent years to make his northern Italian city more climate-smart, including setting an ambitious aim to electrify all public transport by 2030. 

“He estimated that 70 percent of Milan residents now back virus-accelerated plans to switch 35 km (22 miles) of street space to priority use for bicycles and pedestrians in the city of 1.4 million. 

“Temporary new bike lanes on May 4 were helping ease pressure on the city’s public transport system, as construction and factory workers headed back to work and drivers limited passenger numbers to try to maintain spacing. 

“Milan, among the European cities hit earliest and hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, is one of dozens of cities around the world aiming to use a post-lockdown economic restart to bootstrap environmental measures. 

“Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, chair of the C40 network of cities pushing swift climate action, said that when the time came to reopen and rebuild, ‘our efforts will define our cities for decades to come.’ 

“Milan’s leaders also are asking companies to allow more working from home and to stagger hours for employees who do come in, to avoid crowding on transport and in other public places. 

“So far, climate-friendly efforts associated with lifting the lockdown  such as expanding bike lanes and sidewalk space for pedestrians  have been relatively inexpensive, the mayor said. 

“Still, finding resources  and the will  to get green shifts underway now is crucial to reduce risks from the next big threat of climate change, he said. 

Read more here.