Author: James A. Castañeda

Director’s note

By James A. Castañeda, AICP

Its the end of summer, or “How I spent my summer vacation”

As we approach Labor Day, many of us are winding down our summer (and realizing perhaps how quickly it went by). By the time you read this, I’ll have just finished my annual cross-country train trip with a group of railfan friends (organized for the past nine years by my friend Matt Johnson, who lovingly calls us #NerdTrain).

Aside from taking in sights and embracing the slower pace of rail travel, it’s a time of year I look forward to as an opportunity to catch up with friends. We have great conversations. As some of us in the group are also planners, we often trade stories from “the front lines.” At one of our chats, it dawned on me that one of the more challenging elements of my time as a planner was and is public counter work.

A nod to planners at the counter, once my least favorite task

I wasn’t sure what to expect at my first planning job, fresh out of college. While I knew a job with a public agency would involve community engagement, staffing the front counter would not have been the first task to come to mind for becoming a professional planner. I felt as though my counter work got in the way of “real” planning. What I would soon realize was how important that responsibility is to our profession, and how it speaks to what we do as planners.

I’m part of a public agency that takes an “all hands-on deck” approach when it comes to taking a shift to help members of the public who come by for assistance and guidance. Regardless of our titles or years of experience at the agency, we all share. For a long time, I dreaded those days at the counter with their nonstop cold-call inquiries. I was left so drained I couldn’t take on much else that day.

In retrospect, staffing the counter has been one of the more important and rewarding parts of being a planner. It’s where I learned two indispensable traits for planners — how to listen to, and how to empathize with, residents, business owners, and tradespeople. And working the counter tangibly validates us. As planners, our work results are seldom realized quickly; they may take years to come to fruition. But over a few hours at the counter, I may take on several challenges I can resolve, while providing specific direction or offering advice for those I can’t resolve. These are small victories that add up and help you appreciate what you do and for whom.

Planning isn’t always what we expect

We planners wear many hats, and our specialties vary. In my experience (and experiences shared by others), the roles that we didn’t know would be ours — or for which we didn’t “sign up” — are often the most interesting, engaging, and rewarding tasks, and are worth our attention and nurturing. They round out our training and education and help make us better planners.

Director’s note – July 2019

By James A. Castañeda, AICP, July 12, 2019

Welcome to summer

After a whirlwind spring for those of us in the Northern Section, what with APA’s NPC19 in San Francisco and our annual Awards Gala in Oakland, summer has arrived. For many of us, it’s an opportunity to bask in the longer days, take family vacations, or take a little R&R. But it’s not a slow period for your Northern Section board! We’ve been working on what’s coming up in the second half of the year in keeping with our “Clarity and Focus” theme for 2019.

Awards wrap-up

On June 7th, we hosted the annual Northern Section Awards Gala. A packed house at the Starline Social Club enjoyed a fantastic evening, caught up with colleagues, and honored 26 award recipients. Please join me in acknowledging and thanking this year’s awards jury: Rebecca Kohlstrand, AICP; Hanson Hom, AICP; Aaron Welch, and Martin Alkire. Please also thank the firms who sponsored the event: ARUP, Dyett and Bhatia, AECOM, and RRM Design Group. And a very special thank you goes to our amazing Awards Co-chairs Carmela Campbell, AICP, and Florentina Craciun, AICP, without whom this signature annual event would not be possible.

Many at the gala donated generously to the California Planning Foundation’s Diversity Scholarship. We collected $542 to help get the CPF Diversity Scholarship program closer to its $20,000 endowment goal. You can learn more about the Diversity Scholarship — and contribute — here.

The Young Planners Group is now the Emerging Planners Group

At our July 10th Northern Section Board meeting, we took action to rebrand our very successful and engaged Young Planners Group as the Emerging Planners Group. Under the stellar leadership of Veronica Flores and Danae Hall, the group has continued to be one of APA’s leading ambassadors for the planning profession among those in the early years of their careers. The rebranding recognizes the group’s tradition to engage, involve, and evolve, and signals that the EPG will continue to reach out to all planners who are starting their careers — regardless of age — with programming and networking opportunities to help them succeed. We should all be excited about EPG’s potential for engaging and helping the growing field of planners.

Northern Section partners with SPUR

The Northern Section is again partnering with our colleagues at SPUR to offer AICP CM credits and co-present several significant events and forums this summer in all three SPUR locations: Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose. Several of the events are free to APA members. If you haven’t done so recently, make sure to check our calendar for upcoming events.

New board members

Please welcome James Hinkamp, AICP, whom we appointed to the Board as Northern Section’s East Bay Co-RAC (Regional Activity Coordinator) and Megan Porter, AICP, who has been appointed to the Board as San Francisco RAC (Regional Activity Co-coordinator). You can see their photos and read more about them in this issue’s “Who’s where” column.

Halfway through the year

It’s hard to believe that we’re halfway through 2019, but I suppose that’s what happens when you start the year with a national conference! For me it’s been an exhilarating start, and we still have a lot more programming coming in the months ahead. I hope you are enjoying the summer, and I look forward to seeing you at one of our many upcoming events!

Director’s note — May 2019

By James A. Castañeda, AICP

A very successful NPC19

After four stimulating days in the halls of Moscone West, I’m still processing everything from the hugely successful National Planning Conference held in San Francisco. NPC19 went off without a hitch and with a record-breaking attendance (6,400+) for an APA national planning conference. Our Local Host Committee leadership heard directly that the mobile workshops were amazing and the sessions insightful. I couldn’t be more pleased for our Northern Section to be praised for the achievements of NPC19, and I am honored to be your Section Director during this exciting time.

Special thanks to Immediate Past Section Director Sharon Grewal, AICP, who coordinated the incredible and well attended APA California Chapter reception.

A shout-out to our NPC19 Welcome Table volunteers

In the center of the Moscone West entrance hall and practically under the down-escalators, coordinators Juan Borrelli, AICP, Hing Wong, AICP, and I worked alongside the following volunteers to greet every passing planner, answer their questions about Northern Section, or engage them in conversation: Aireen Batungbakal, Michael Casas, Jeanine Cavalli, Melissa Chan, Nikki Chan, Jill Feyk-Miney, Jennifer Fierman, AICP, Kristine Gaspar, Naphtali Knox, FAICP, Eli Krispi, Andrea Mardesich, Melanie Medina, Keiko Murayama, AICP, Kayla Nelson, Shagufa Qureshi, Mike Rivera, Vicente Romero, Hannah Sada, Lois Scott, AICP, Maggie Smith, Syd Sotoodeh, Steven Spickard, AICP, Reanna Tong, AICP Candidate, Kimberly Wever, and Mary Woods. Thank you all, and a big thanks to lead coordinator Juan Borrelli, AICP, for supervising Saturday and Sunday, and to Vicente Romero for supervising Monday and Tuesday. (Apologies to those who staffed the table but whose names we may have missed — or vice versa.)

I’m also delighted to announce that we raised more than $500 for the California Planning Foundation scholarship program at the welcome table and the Chapter reception. (Students, CPF is currently accepting applications for its 2019 scholarship program, but be aware that the deadline for this year’s awards is April 30.)

Beyond NPC19

I suspect that most of us who attended the conference will for weeks continue to reflect on and share what inspired them. I will too.

Joel Albizo. Photo: James Castañeda, AICP.

Before the opening keynote, we were introduced to APA’s new CEO, Joel Albizo, who observed that great communities are diverse, inclusive, and equitable, and noted that planners — as change agents in our communities — are “leaning in,” committing to support these characteristics. His remarks set the tone, not only for the conference, but also for the future of our profession.

The vast undertaking of the conference is behind us, but I hope our section can continue the themes, energy, and momentum locally. Specifically, I want to share some of what we saw and learned with those of you who weren’t able to make it to NPC19 or to any of the excellent mobile workshops that highlighted the planning we do here. So I’ll be working with your local Regional Activities Coordinators (RACs) to see if we can replicate some workshops elsewhere in our region. I also want to keep in mind the themes from NPC19 that resonated with many and ensure we’re mindful of them in our program.

To the APA national staff, our Local Host Committee leaders and volunteers, the mobile workshop coordinators and guides, our welcome table volunteers, and to every Northern Section member who attended the conference and served as an ambassador to the Bay Area, thank you sincerely, and congratulations on a superb NPC19! I look forward to working with you over the next two years to making our planning professionals the very best agents of desirable change within our communities.

Director’s note – April 2019

By James A. Castañeda, AICP.


I remember walking into Union Station in Washington, DC, in the spring of 2004 and marveling at the opening reception. As a student about to graduate with a city and regional planning degree, it was a thrill to be around people in a profession I would join in just a few months. With eagerness and curiosity, I took in everything — sessions on planning topics I had studied, meet-ups with other students, and the vast exhibitor’s hall. I bought a polo shirt to commemorate the trip and the event.

Me in DC in 2004

In many ways, my first National Planning Conference set the tone for what has been a rewarding career as a planner since my first job later in 2004. After that first conference, I was easily lured to San Francisco the following year for the 2005 National Planning Conference. It was there I really felt like I was something larger just by being in our profession, and that led me to practice planning in the Bay Area. I credit much of what has shaped my career to those two conferences.

Proof I attended the 2005 National Planning Conference in San Francisco

I also acknowledge that much of what has continued to inspire me over the years is the annual gathering of my fellow planners. I’m excited that, after 14 years, the National Planning Conference has returned to the Bay Area. In a way, I too have come full circle as a planner in our Northern Section.

Planning Camp

Without fail, whenever I’m away from the grind for a few days, I return to the office full of ideas and eager to continue to be an agent of change and innovation. Like so many things in life, sometimes our best ideas just need a little space and the right environment to bloom into clarity. That’s what I expect will happen to me after I spend four days around other planners at a National Planning Conference, or as I heard someone at NPC17 in New York call it, Planning Camp.

Planning Camp has always been a place for me to be inspired and to reinvigorate my passion for the profession. It’s a place where our best ideas are nurtured, as most everyone comes with an open mind and ready to share their experiences and skills. That eagerness is what sparks insightful dialogues that trigger creativity. Everyone, from the inspirational keynote speakers sharing the big picture, to students anxiously ready to talk about their posters, contributes to what soon becomes an invaluable experience and validation of what it means to be a planner.


It’s a great honor that, on behalf of the Northern Section, I get to welcome planners from across the country to the Bay Area for NPC19. For those like me who experienced the 2005 National Planning Conference, it’s exciting to take stock of where we were 14 years ago and focus on how we have evolved since then within our profession. We can do that internally, or in the NPC sessions, or on any of the 60 mobile workshops we have on the NPC program.

NPC19 would not be possible without the coordination and help of those who volunteered to serve on the Local Host Committee. We owe much to Hing Wong, AICP, the Local Host Chair; Sharon Grewal, AICP, the Activities Coordinator; Jonathan Schuppert, AICP, our Mobile Workshops Coordinator; Bob Zimmerer, AICP, Orientation Tours Coordinator; and Alessandra Lundin of Raimi + Associates, Community Planning Workshop Coordinator. It was my pleasure to contribute to coordinating the creation and curation of the City Guide that is featured in the NPC19 mobile app. After countless volunteer hours from those on the Local Host Committee, I’m confident this will be another successful National Planning Conference, one that all in our Northern Section can be proud of.

I hope I will get to see many of you there. Join me in letting this year’s Planning Camp strengthen your passion for learning. Be sure to stop by our Northern Section welcome table in the main lobby to say hello. You may see me and other familiar faces. I might not be wearing my 2004 APA conference polo or sporting the frosted tips hairstyle from college days, but I’ll be at SF Planning Camp with all of the same eagerness and curiosity!

Director’s note – March 2019

James A. Castañeda, AICP

“Clarity and Focus”

That was the theme of our section board’s retreat in January, or as I call it, “The KonMari” retreat. I wanted to impress on the board the importance of making many of our policies and procedures — those that help us work on your behalf — as effective and efficient as possible. Since the board is 100 percent volunteers, it’s important to ensure that being on the board is time worth spending on giving back to the profession — and that we are passionate about doing it. I truly believe that what the section board does affects all of our 1,900 members and sparks joy in our profession.

I was excited to hear what board members at the retreat wanted to accomplish in their respective areas in the coming year, and I want to share a couple of the bigger takeaways here.

Northern News

The board took some time to discuss the future of our flagship Northern News and its value to our members. All who spoke on this matter at the retreat said the newsmagazine is iconic, and universally valued for its informative content, for its quality, and for bringing us locally based and locally authored articles and stories. We are moving toward a fully digital product this year (no more PDF), but the monthly publication schedule will remain — we agreed that was the right frequency for presenting curated articles and ICYMI planning news. So I’m lobbing you the same challenge I gave to your board members: embrace ownership in our publication by contributing to it. The Northern News has always been of, for, and by Northern Section planners, and we can continue that only if you contribute to the content.

Online Distance Education Opportunities

A topic that came up often at the retreat was offering webinar or video streaming services of some of the Northern Section events. Given the tremendous effort that goes into coordinating and hosting the many workshops, lectures, and training sessions we offer, we want to ensure that you can easily access them. That’s the main reason we created a Distance Education Coordinator position on the board last fall and appointed Shannon Hake, AICP. With the help of our immediate past director Sharon Grewal, AICP (who also serves on the Chapter board as Vice President–Professional Development), we’ll be looking to make some of our programming available online beginning in the second half of 2019.

New Board Members

Your board has appointed four new members: Danae Hall will serve as YPG Co-director alongside Veronica Flores. Della Acosta takes over as University Liaison and is already coordinating with our student representatives from UC Berkeley and San Jose State. After a phenomenal reboot of our Mentorship Program, Liz Probst, AICP, has stepped down as Mentorship Director, and Ellen Yau has been appointed to pick up where Liz left off. Mark Young is stepping into the role of South Bay Regional Activity Coordinator. (Cherise Orange moved to Planning Diversity Co-director with Cindy Ma, AICP.) All of these folks bring enthusiasm and great ideas to their respective roles and to the board. Also new to the board is first year graduate student Marta Polovin, Student Representative from UC Berkeley. We’re excited to have all of them on board.

Onward We Serve

All of us on the board are excited about what we are planning for the section in the coming months. The retreat set the tone for a great year, so keep an eye on our event calendar for future events. And if you are (as I hope) motivated to join the board, we are large enough that we almost always have positions available. Right now, we are looking for a new San Francisco Regional Activity Coordinator and a Treasurer to serve out the remaining 2019 term of Jonathan Schuppert, AICP, who is now our Section Director-elect. Make sure to check online for our latest open positions.

Director’s note — February 2019

James A. Castañeda, AICP

What made you fall in love with planning?

That was the icebreaker question at APA California’s Chapter Board retreat, which I had my first opportunity to attend a few weeks ago, representing you in my new role as Northern Section Director. At first I felt intimidated, but that question and the many familiar faces assured me I was in the right place.

I had to think for a moment, but then shared the story, only half joking, of how I came to planning as a disengaged engineering student whose grades suffered from spending study time playing SimCity 4. It was around the same time that I discovered the city-planning program in college and learned that it was a profession that seemed to have what I was looking for. Beyond visions of building cities from scratch, I was curious about what made communities what they are, and what challenges they faced in getting there. I also had a strong desire to be a problem solver. All of those together made me fall in love with planning.

That exercise at the retreat also got me thinking about why I volunteer my time with APA: It’s that same love for planning that landed me here in service to the Northern Section. It’s also a desire to validate others who love this profession and further empower them by providing the resources they need to be successful. I feel it’s part of our Northern Section duty to support and nurture that love for planning that drives us to serve our communities. That’s why I’m proud to serve as your Section Director, and I am honored to work alongside all of you in this fantastic body of professionals who share a similar vision.

So what’s new for Northern Section this year?

We’ll be continuing with some of our proven programs even as we take on new challenges in 2019. To name just a few, we’ll continue our successful and recently streamlined awards programs (currently accepting nominations through Feb. 19) and our expanded mentorship program (275 participants this past winter). And we’ll continue to partner with other professional organizations including AARP, AEP, SPUR, ULI, and the Silicon Valley Economic Development Alliance, while reaching out to other related professional organizations to expand your opportunities for learning, networking, and advancement. Finally, with the National Planning Conference coming to San Francisco April 13–16, we in the Northern Section will be preparing assiduously to welcome planners from across the country.

Last year, Northern Section introduced two new tracks that the Board hopes will be valuable to and popular with our members. Our Distance Education Coordinator, Shannon Hake, AICP, will create new events and expand on many of our existing ones (most of which will offer CM credits) to make them available online. At the same time, our Mid-Career Planning Group Coordinator, Miroo Desai, AICP, will focus on finding resources and creating new events and workshops specifically for those of us in the middle of our planning careers.

A good start

By the time you read this, your Section board will have held its annual retreat to reflect on last year’s successes and challenges as a way to guide us in what we want to do in 2019. I’ll share in our March issue what we’ve come up with, as well as what we’re doing to implement some of the great ideas we rolled out last year.

Again, I am honored to work on your behalf to bring you additional programming, events, and resources, while validating what made you fall in love with planning. Together, let’s make 2019 a very special year for planning in northern California.

Director’s note: What’s your Superpower?

By James A. Castañeda, AICP

James CasteñedaThe ice break­er at the APA Cali­for­nia Chap­ter re­treat last week was pre­sent­ed as two ques­tions: “What makes you ex­cited about 2020,” and “What’s your super­power?” Your Director-Elect Jonathan Schuppert, AICP, and I scratched our heads. Jonathan answered “visions and clarity” made him excited for 2020, whereas I was excited about “new opportunities and challenges.” As to “superpower,” Jonathan claimed “superb organization skills” (I can attest to those). Mine was “the power to keep running” in the face of immense challenges.

I see those skills and strengths in the collective leadership of the Northern Section. Last year, the Board set out to bring clarity and focus to our organization’s structure and operations to make us a more effective and resilient board to the benefit of our membership. With our combined “superpowers,” we managed to move the needle quite a bit, and it was with great pride that I reported that outcome during the chapter retreat.

Much is yet to come in 2020

No doubt 2019 was an engrossing year for planners in the Northern Section as we continued to navigate challenges in housing, equality, and resiliency in the communities we serve. Now more than ever, the planning profession is front and center in these issues, and 2020 will most certainly require planners, as agents of change, to exercise their problem-solving superpowers. Isn’t this an exciting time to be a planner? We should all be looking forward to the challenges we’ll face in laying the foundations for equitable and resilient change, growth, and evolution.

My own Big Change

This year also brings significant change for me. After 14 years with San Mateo County and living in the Bay Area, I’m moving on. I’ve accepted a land use planner position with Sheppard Mullin, starting in their Los Angeles office mid-month. This exciting opportunity is bittersweet because I am leaving behind my friends, my work colleagues, and my APA family. Since 2011, I’ve proudly served Northern Section as a board member, starting as Peninsula RAC and concluding as Section Director.

When I arrived in in the Bay Area in 2006, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had moved here from my first job in Arizona, just a year-and-a-half out of college. But I could never have anticipated all that I would experience here, where in a sense, I “grew up” in my planning profession. Without a doubt, this is where I became a planner.

Continued leadership in the Section

My departure to LA means I will be resigning the Directorship, but I leave the board in the competent hands of your Director-Elect Jonathan Schuppert, AICP. Not only has he been a dedicated Board member since 2013; he’s also my close friend and confidant. I expect his superpowers will help lead the board and the section as you face 2020’s unknowns and beyond.

Acknowledgements and thanks

As my chapter with Northern Section comes to a close, I’d like to acknowledge several people who have been instrumental during my time on the board. Immediate Past Director Sharon Grewal, AICP, whom I served alongside during her Directorship, has been an inspiration. She had confidence in my leadership abilities and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone. Northern News Editor Naphtali Knox, FAICP, has been a constant in my time on the board. He made my monthly Director’s notes shine, and encouraged me to keep putting my words out in the world. And thanks to Hing Wong, AICP, who nine years ago encouraged me to be part of the Northern Section leadership.

I wish everyone success and joy in 2020 and beyond. Thank you for allowing me to serve you. It’s been an honor.  —James