By Laura Bliss, Bloomberg CityLab, September 18, 2020
This year’s wildfires in Oregon and its neighbors “have burned nearly 5 million acres, killed at least 27 people, and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate up and down the West Coast. The blazes ravaging several populated areas — a ‘once in a generation’ crisis for Oregon, according to Governor Kate Brown — have also magnified the region’s housing crisis. While California routinely makes national headlines for high housing costs and homelessness, fast-growing Oregon has an acute housing shortage too: Before the fires, the state fell short of housing need by an estimated 155,000 units.
“Rick Harris, a longtime real estate agent in the Rogue Valley, believes that ‘the vast majority’ of low-to-moderately priced housing was destroyed in Jackson County. Supply was already scant, with a rental vacancy rate hovering at a razor-thin 1 percent before the wildfires and an eviction moratorium due to Covid-19. …
“A population boom fueled by out-of-state migrants, especially from California, has dialed up prices in these economically mixed communities. What little housing has been produced has been mostly geared towards higher earners. Here as throughout the West Coast, the consequences were already visible in a growing homeless population, to which the fires may be adding. …
By Laura Bliss, Bloomberg CityLab, August 25, 2020
One resident “isn’t planning on coming back. Instead, she’s selling her property so it can be part of a wildfire buffer zone. The Paradise Recreation and Park District is in the early phases of acquiring swaths of land along the town’s perimeter, in the hopes of connecting them into a dual-purpose greenbelt fully encircling the 18-square-mile community. If the nascent plan is fully realized, a moat of green acreage could provide space for respite and play. It would also serve as a fuel break, an unofficial urban growth boundary, and an access point for crews to manage the area with landscaping, prescribed burning, and fire containment for when the next blaze comes.
“ ‘Whereas other places are looking only at defensible space for buildings, we’re looking at the scale of the entire community,’ said Dan Efseaff, the PRPD district manager.
“Property owners nationwide have proven to be willing to risk fire, flooding, and other threats to stay in their communities, and in some places few legal tools exist to prevent them; meanwhile, many residents lack the resources to relocate. ‘The real question is, what are the out-of-the box solutions that we can engineer to live in places where fire is inevitable?’ said Crystal Kolden, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Merced.
“The way the town carved itself out of the wilderness, with a number of narrow two-lane roads and dead-ending streets, proved fatal as residents fled. So did the dense growth that shrouded many sprawling properties. Improvements to parks and walking paths were included on a list of 40 projects in Paradise’s long-term recovery plan, which was crafted with public input in 2019. Also on the list was a stronger fuel management plan, and better transportation access for residents and firefighters.
“Like any fuel break, a greenbelt would simply reduce the speed and intensity of a fire by knocking it down from the forest canopy to the ground, where suppression crews could have a better chance at putting it out.”
“I work on a small team within a large city’s government. We are doing work around equity, and one of the first things is to hold speaker events to educate ourselves.
“Because it’s government, we don’t have a budget for this. Our budget is allocated well in advance and there’s nothing we can shuffle around. One of the members of the organizing sub-team said we should ask employees who attend these events to contribute personally to pay speakers. I’m deeply uncomfortable with asking people to pay for things associated with work. Am I wrong to object?”
“Kudos to your team for their willingness to do the work of expanding and improving their thinking and efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion. Public speaking is labor that deserves to be compensated, but it is absolutely unacceptable that your team members should be spending their own money on this. You are not at all wrong to object. It is ridiculous that the most feasible solution here is for your staff members to assume their employer’s financial obligations. I suppose that’s a reflection of how governments all over this country, including the federal government, are shirking their responsibilities and hoping — if they care at all — that right-minded individuals will take up the slack.
“I do not believe there is nothing in the budget that can be shuffled; I believe there is nothing your organization is willing to shuffle. When an organization truly wants to find money for something they prioritize, they find the money. If they aren’t going to treat work around equity as a priority, you and your fellow employees don’t need to pay the bill. There are other things you can do — reading groups, discussions and the like. But mostly, you need to hold your management accountable. This is their responsibility, not yours.”
A publication of the American Planning Association, California Chapter, Northern Section
Making great communities happen
Inflection point: What we do when significant change occurs
By Andrea Ouse, AICP, August 17, 2020. Planners are often the agents driving the changes voiced by our communities. We have a moral and ethical imperative to acknowledge and address systemic racism in the communities we serve.
By Noah Friedman, August 18, 2020. Vibrancy is a reasonable proxy for a city’s general health and well-being. Essential to our cities’ future is an understanding of what makes the places where we come together vibrant.
By Jonathan Schuppert, AICP, August 19, 2020. This has been a year for re-evaluating priorities, values, and future directions. We’re at a point where we can’t ignore our society’s injustices and our collective role in them.
Affordable housing in Silicon Valley puts focus on sustainability
From HUD User, PD&R Edge, August 3, 2020. Edwina Benner Plaza, Sunnyvale, provides 66 units of affordable housing, generates half of the project’s electricity needs, and makes up the remaining 50 percent from renewable sources.
We publish 10 times each year as a forum for the exchange of planning ideas and information. Entirely the effort of volunteers, Northern News is written and produced by and for urban planners in northern California.
By Laura Bliss, Bloomberg CityLab, August 25, 2020. “The fire was a monumental event and altered people’s way of thinking about things,” including whether the entire community should be surrounded by defensible space.
By Marc Abizeid, UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, August 11, 2020. From the first-ever analysis of the proportion of single-family zoning in every Bay Area jurisdiction comes five general policy approaches to help address racial residential segregation.
By Roxane Gay, Work Friend, The New York Times, August 9, 2020. It is absolutely unacceptable that your agency is asking you to spend your own money to improve the agency’s thinking and efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Bay City News Service, Mountain View Voice, August 8, 2020. The tax would generate the necessary funding to operate the imperiled system if ultimately approved by two-thirds of voters across three affected counties.
By Will Houston, Marin Independent Journal, August 7, 2020. A new Stanford study shows the North Bay may receive less flooding compared to other parts of the Bay Area, but the flooding occurs at critical connections where few alternative routes exist.
By Brentin Mock, Bloomberg CityLab, August 6, 2020. A letter with hundreds of signatories from across the planning field argues that planning decisions have historically contributed to police violence and harassment of Black people.
By Dorothy Walker, Streetsblog USA, August 3, 2020. Dorothy Walker, founding president of APA, says cities’ local land-use decisions are “ripe for transformation” to lower barriers to housing for the “disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and the community at large.”
A publication of the American Planning Association, California Chapter, Northern Section
Making great communities happen
Nine pathways to much-needed housing
By Leila Hakimizadeh, AICP, and John David Beutler, AICP, June 3, 2020. Desperately-needed new housing can be added if we upgrade zoning and design standards and adopt policies that promote smart density, protect existing residents, and preserve affordable homes.
(Photo: Tom Rumble, https://bit.ly/3esvlpo) By David Woltering, AICP, June 24, 2020. Despite its challenges, our profession is a noble one. This business of creating and maintaining safe, healthy, and livable communities for all can be immensely satisfying and extremely interesting.
Pandemic call and response: Planners protecting and promoting health
(Dolores Park photo by Christopher Michel https://bit.ly/3j1OlhJ) After nearly 200 interviews with local governments, planners, and communities, Diana Benitez and Jessica Medina report on actions being taken to protect community health, and implications for implementing SB1000, the Planning for Healthy Communities Act.
(Photo: William Cooley) By Sajuti Rahman Haque, June 29, 2020. Community meeting and engagement tactics are evolving to accommodate Covid-19 distancing orders, but key characteristics of in-person, physically present meetings remain invaluable.
Equitably resolving public space in the time of Covid-19
(BLM Plaza, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Pickering, https://bit.ly/3eZwi9A) By Georgia Sarkin, AICP, July 6, 2020. How can cities evolve for the better after Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter? Five factors affecting public space are crucial to consider — infrastructure, evolution, density, mobility, and equity.
(Zoning, San Luis Ranch Specific Plan, San Luis Obispo) By Henry Pontarelli, July 8, 2020. Don’t expect to see cities transformed before your eyes during your planning career. Consensus is hard fought and hard earned, funding is scarce, conviction comes in cycles; but incremental change will build to meet collective goals.
Lina Velasco, AICP, Community Development Director for the City of Richmond, holds a master of community and regional planning from Cornell University. She discusses her work, professional views, and issues in her city. Interview by Catarina Kidd, AICP, July 2020.
Socially-distant community engagement: What we know
By Alyssa Chung, Meredith Rupp, and Carla Violet, July 23, 2020. What can we learn from planners who have adjusted their outreach to conform to social distancing protocols? Photo: Screenshot of an online presentation of a site plan to a virtual audience.
“Planning for equity and inclusion,” by Jonathan Schuppert, AICP, July 22, 2020. Take the time to understand our biases. Encourage our employers to offer bias training. There’s no action too small to start on this journey.
(Photo: Brooke Cagle, cropped) In a four-minute video, Atisha Varshney, AICP, offers five tips for new graduates navigating the Covid-19 job market, and issues an invitation to join virtual roundtable discussions.
By Marisa Schulz, Next City, July 17, 2020. Listen to women; they are experts on the relationship between everyday life and the city. Unfortunately, women’s needs and viewpoints are underrepresented in cities.
By Luke Johnson, San Jose Spotlight, July 22, 2020. County lawmakers considered a proposed ballot measure for a one-eighth cent sales tax to prevent Caltrain from potentially shutting down, ultimately deferring a vote on the proposal to a special meeting on August 6.
By John King, San Francisco Chronicle, July 20, 2020. Only July 10, Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission released a draft of Plan Bay Area 2050 for public comment. It emphasizes 25 “bold strategies” for making the region “affordable, connected, diverse, healthy and vibrant for all.”
From The New York Times, July 16, 2020, comes another perceptive article on gentrification and race by Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui. High-end development has transformed some Black neighborhoods into high-end development decades after they were scarred by unrest.
By Patrick Sisson, CityLab, July 15, 2020. To improve quality of life for an urbanite and boost the possibilities for municipal and economic recovery, you need to reduce the access radius for six essential functions: Living-dwelling, working, supplying and buying, well-being and caring, learning, and leisure.
By Lauren Hepler, CalMatters, July 15, 2020. Old regimes of housing and job discrimination have given way to predatory loans, disinvestment, and flare-ups of racism or violence in areas that once promised a level playing field.
By Paavo Monkkonen, Ian Carlton, and Kate Macfarlane, UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, July 7, 2020. HCD guidelines emphasize realistic assessment of market and site capacity for new housing. Legislative efforts to promote fourplexes led UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies to analyze their feasibility on 6.8 million existing single-family home parcels.
By Brian D. Taylor and Yu Hong Hwang, June 30, 2020. The “85th percentile rule” has been used for decades to set speed limits in jurisdictions across the US. New research shows it originated earlier than most thought, and it was intended as a starting point in setting speed limits, not a firm guideline.
By Alyssa Chung, Meredith Rupp, and Carla Violet, July 23, 2020
Remember when we could host 100+ people in community centers, serve communal refreshments, and stand close to each other to debate different planning scenarios? How easy we had it! What do these community engagement events look like now? What can we learn from planners who have adjusted their community engagement strategies to conform to social distancing protocols?
Our consulting firm started a dialogue with our clients and colleagues around stakeholder and community engagement during a pandemic (and beyond). Through an online survey and two virtual focus groups, we started collecting data to define the community engagement challenges planners and applicants are facing and collectively brainstorm effective, equitable, and safe solutions.
Before diving in, let’s define our terms:
Community engagement: Activities and methods used deliberately to involve communities in the decisions that will affect them. Community engagement goes beyond noticing or informing the community, but the level of influence the community has varies depending on project goals and contexts (e.g., consulting the community for feedback on a few options versus designing the preferred option in partnership with the community).
Socially-distant engagement: Any engagement method that allows participants to remain at least 6 feet apart and in groups of not more than 10 individuals, whether through carefully designed in-person engagement events (small focus groups outdoors, tables at Farmer’s markets), digital engagement methods (social media, online surveys), or other remote methods (phone calls, meetings-in-a-box).
Urban Planning Partners asked approximately 100 of our clients and colleagues to complete an online survey in mid-May. We provided a week to respond and received almost 50 responses: 43 percent from City/County/Agency staff, 33 percent from for-profit developers, and 24 percent from non-profit developers. As we did not employ a random sample, we consider our findings as impressionistic data rather than statistical conclusions.
With the survey results in hand, we held two focus groups, one with approximately 20 public sector members (jurisdictions and regional agencies) and six with developers (both for-profit and non-profit, working on a range of project types and sizes).
Data and findings
Across all respondents, the most common difficulties with digital tools were (1) participants’ comfort level with technology, (2) maintaining participants’ focus, and (3) our receiving and moderating participants’ input. Fortunately, respondents were more excited about than afraid of remote engagement, including being eager to reach a wider audience and welcoming the convenience of digital and/or remote options.
We found some key difference between developer respondents and those in the public sector. Both groups felt most challenged by larger community-wide meetings. However, for-profit developers were just as challenged by design review, which was not identified as a challenge by any public sector staff respondents. The survey indicated developer respondents were also more concerned about community criticism than were public-sector staff.
Developers in our focus group expanded on this, saying they feared backlash from jurisdictions that may see digital-only engagement as inadequate. We discussed with them some alternatives and ways to build political support for projects, such as:
Identifying and engaging community influencers, leaders, and decision-makers in one-on-one virtual meetings or in videos to post online
Talking to and collecting signatures from passersby by staffing tables at the project site
Creating walk-by workshops for small groups
Attracting new audiences with meetings-in-a-box or scavenger hunts
Public sector staff were more likely than developer staff to be concerned about resolving technical issues. In our public sector focus group, we discussed best practices for remote engagement, such as:
Using the chat feature to give and receive feedback
Making the meetings more dynamic and organic by keeping meetings small
Using Zoom’s questions and answers feature with larger groups
Building relationships with attendees by opening remote meetings 15 minutes before the official time and/or keeping them open afterward
To ensure equitable participation and keep communities engaged, our focus group attendees were interested in low-tech and tech-free methods such as training community ambassadors, utilizing phone-based capacity-building for community organizations, and compensating community members. TikTok was identified as a good tool for reaching younger audiences and elevating community-created content.
When reflecting on what community engagement will look like for projects moving forward, consider the following:
Community engagementpractices,guidelines, or policies. Are your jurisdiction’s methods now obsolete or unachievable? Now’s the time to “translate” them to be more adaptable and fit our new reality. Focus on desired outcomes (e.g., input from a representative cross section of the community). Think performance standards. Be flexible — perhaps list approved engagement options for stakeholders in your jurisdiction.
Equitable participation. Consider (1) compensating participants in community engagement efforts or (2) working with community organizations and service providers to reach underrepresented communities and works towards.
Design review. How is that going in your jurisdiction? Our findings indicate a potential for better platforms, communication, or process improvements.
Participants struggling with technology. Consider posting brief “How-to” tutorials or establishing a technical assistance telephone hotline for community members. Make sure your online engagement tools of choice are Smartphone-compatible for those without computers.
Different engagement tools. Has anyone in your organization checked out what’s available? Our survey respondents were mostly familiar with Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams, yet reported challenges with workshops and interactive engagement exercises. Many GIS/Engagement platforms (such as MetroQuest, Poll Everywhere, and Bang the Table) are available with interactive capabilities.
We can help
Our firm, Urban Planning Partners, offers a Problem-Solving Series and updates. Sign up with achung@up-partners to receive best practices and research in your inbox.
About the authors
Alyssa Chung is an assistant planner at Urban Planning Partners, where she helps support projects from CEQA to entitlements to policy. Born and raised in the Bay Area, she is passionate about serving her community through great planning. She holds a BS in city and regional planning from CalPoly, San Luis Obispo.
Meredith Rupp is a senior planner at Urban Planning Partners, where she manages many of the firm’s housing policy and community engagement projects. Meredith has an MA in international policy and development from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) and a BS in linguistics from Truman State University.
Carla Violet, planning manager and senior planner at Urban Planning Partners, manages land use policy and CEQA projects. Her passion for urban planning grew from a desire to revitalize her hometown Oakland while protecting its diversity, arts scene, and activist roots. She earned her MS in community and regional planning from the University of Texas at Austin.
It was a typical public workshop for the Downtown Hayward Specific Plan, well attended despite the rainy November night. After a year of workshops, advisory committee meetings, interviews with community members, written surveys, and a five-day charette, the community made it clear that their vision for the downtown was to mend a disconnected street network and to slow traffic.
We were walking the group through a PowerPoint presentation of preferred alternatives, when a hand shot up. “How are we going to dismantle this highway running right through the middle of our downtown when it took decades and millions of dollars to plan and build it?”
Great question! We explained that the implementation was divided into short, medium, and long-term phases, all aimed at a more connected, human-centric downtown. Turning the highway into a two-way street with lower traffic speeds, on-street parking, and landscaped medians would be a long-term effort that could take 25 to 30 years.
One should not expect to see cities transformed before their very eyes during their planning career. Consensus is hard fought and hard earned, funding is scarce, conviction comes in cycles, and incremental change will build toward collective goals. Planning takes patience.
Crafting the San Luis Ranch Specific Plan
Our firm has occasionally had the opportunity to work on projects where the fates aligned to shorten timelines. San Luis Ranch MI, a local developer, hired our firm to prepare the San Luis Ranch Specific Plan for the iconic 131-acre Dalidio Ranch on Highway 101 at the southern end of San Luis Obispo. We submitted the Specific Plan to the City in June 2015. It was adopted in July 2017 and amended in August 2018. The project broke ground in July 2019. By March 2020, grading, street and bike path improvements, utilities, storm drains, and sewer infrastructure installations had begun. Housing construction is slated to begin in this third quarter of 2020. Once completed, San Luis Ranch will provide 580 housing units — including 34 deed-restricted affordable housing units — two and a half miles from Downtown San Luis Obispo and four miles from the Cal Poly campus.
The path from planning to developing this project traces back to the City’s 2011 General Plan. The GP vision for the property prioritized a mix of uses, a transition to the nearby commercial center, preservation of agricultural heritage, diversity in housing types and affordability, integration into the existing circulation system, and an assurance of habitat and open space protections.
The first step for San Luis Ranch was a set of guidelines and regulations to implement the vision. Land uses were defined and allocated, a multimodal circulation system was delineated, and development standards were set. The Specific Plan also assessed infrastructure capacity and needs, and provided alternative financing strategies.
At the root of the project’s success and relative speed was a consistent, interdisciplinary, and collaborative process. The Project Team included local consultants, City staff, attorneys, engineers, developers, and urban designers. The Team worked intently to understand the Planning Commission’s and City Council’s guidance. In response, we made changes to the draft Specific Plan and released public iterations that clearly illustrated the City’s and the community’s priorities. Evidence of the community’s input in revisions to the Plan enabled San Luis Ranch to sustain momentum throughout its adoption and implementation.
San Luis Ranch’s 580 housing units, coupled with the project’s focus on multimodal transportation and connectivity to downtown and the Cal Poly campus, will benefit the San Luis Obispo community for generations. The project also showed that working closely with the community can allow development of a site while preserving more than 50 of its 131 acres for working agricultural use and passive open space and recreation.
Ultimately, what made the difference for San Luis Ranch was a commonly held understanding — by all who had been involved along the way — that planning, financing, and implementation were interconnected and inextricable from the goal of building housing in San Luis Obispo in the shortest possible time.
Henry Pontarelli is vice president and co-founder of Lisa Wise Consulting, Inc., where he focuses on marketing, communications, HR, risk management, and telling jokes at staff meetings. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CITIES ARE THE CENTERS of creativity, capital, and connection. They are also at the front line of our current crises. The Covid-19 pandemic shut them down. Activity ceased with astonishing speed. Cities grew quiet. Mass protests over structural racism then swept through our streets and public spaces. Together, these twin crises have radically transformed our urban reality.
The global lockdown may be the single largest collective act that humanity has ever undertaken. A staggering 81 percent of the global workforce is affected. More than 47 million Americans filed for unemployment in 14 weeks. The people hardest hit were the most vulnerable: essential frontline workers, immigrants, the elderly, and communities of color. As a result, acute, underlying, longtime problems in cities have been brought into sharp focus. At the same time, we are being offered a glimpse of a future where the city could look quite different.
In thinking about how cities can evolve for the better after these crises, five factors affecting public space are crucial to consider — infrastructure, evolution, density, mobility, and equity.
Public Space is essential infrastructure
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs for New York’s Central Park, Chicago’s Jackson Park, and Boston’s Emerald Necklace testify to the powerful relationship among health, well-being, and accessible public open space.
The value of public space is being brought to light during this pandemic. In addition to its public health and environmental benefits, public space can reduce socioeconomic segregation, build trust, and reduce social isolation. The economic crisis brought upon by the pandemic is raising discussions about publicly funded infrastructure projects. It’s time that infrastructure be redefined and expanded to include public space.
Cities evolve after crises
Without the devastating outbreak of cholera in the 19th century, a new modern sewer system may not have been developed. The tuberculosis epidemic in New York in the early 20th century led to improved public transit systems and new housing regulations. The Great Fire of London in 1666 inspired the city’s first planning controls, including wider streets and thicker common walls between buildings to slow the spread of fire. If we want cities and our public spaces to emerge stronger from this crisis, city leaders, architects, and urban planners will need to think differently; indeed, many have started.
In London, the Mayor’s Streetspace Plan will fast track the transformation of streets to enable millions more people to walk and bike safely.
Bogota added 72 miles of bike lanes to its robust biking network.
San Francisco has also launched a “slow streets” program.
Some cities are implementing new policies to guide future development.
Paris is aiming for a “15-minute city” with most daily needs a short walk, bike ride, or public transit stop away: The resulting self-sufficient communities would fulfill six social functions — “living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying.”
Amsterdam has embraced a “doughnut” economic framework. The outer ring represents an ecological ceiling to avoid damaging our planet. The inner (“social foundation”) ring represents basic human needs. Anyone not reaching the minimum standards is living in the hole of the doughnut. This approach encourages policymakers and planners to look to the horizon.
Singapore is paying attention to food security, as more than 90 percent of its food is imported. That country has been promoting urban farming with a goal to produce 30 percent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030.
Many writers, city leaders, residents, and government agencies are questioning urban density and linking a city’s vulnerability to the spread of pandemics. Perceptions that low-density areas are safer could draw people away from cities. This was the reaction after past pandemics. The modernist movement, for example, following closely after the Spanish Flu of 1918, raised similar concerns about density and its link to disease. As a result, utopian cities designed by modernist architects — such as Le Corbusier’s “City for Three Million People” — focused on providing space, light, and air. The drawings for these new cities — which influenced many aspects of modern urban planning — often depict huge expanses of open space devoid of people.
The view of many planners, architects, and urban dwellers in more recent times — influenced by Jane Jacobs, among others — is that dense compact neighborhoods and lively public spaces foster social cohesion and vibrant urban life.
Denser cities are also more energy-efficient. On the map of the San Francisco Bay Area, the city centers (blue areas) have a much lower carbon footprint than outlying areas. Suburban sprawl cancels the carbon-footprint savings of dense urban cores. If lower density environments become more popular post-pandemic, they could have a significant, negative effect on climate change.
The correlation between density and vulnerability to the spread of disease also ignores the experiences of cities like New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, and cities in China. New York and Singapore have a similar density, upwards of 20,000 people per square mile. Yet Singapore’s well-managed initial outbreak was minimal in comparison to New York City’s. The geographic breakdown of the virus shows that Covid-19 hit hardest not in dense Manhattan but in the lower-density outer boroughs, like the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island with their lower-income populations, immigrants, frontline workers, and people of color.
Inequality is the problem we need to solve, not density.
Traffic reduction is one of the few positive changes related to the tragedy of Covid-19. Empty roads have led to cleaner air, better views, and more space for outdoor recreation. National driving habits changed in less than two months. Never before, not even during the recession of 2008, have we seen a precipitous drop in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) like the one seen between January and April 2020.
The drops in traffic are not restricted to dense coastal hubs. Most large metro areas saw traffic levels drop by at least 75 percent from March 1 to April 24, 2020. (Ibid, Map 1.)
It will be a big step back if cars become safe pods in which each of us isolates just to travel safely. Public transit could be redesigned with a focus on making buses, trains, and stations less crowded and safer. Demand for public transit will depend on reopening dates and people’s willingness to try.
Encouraging work from home, retrofitting roadways for biking, and expanding sidewalks for pedestrians should help transit systems experiment. In the short-term, transit hours and routing can be tried and tested. Berlin, for example, has shifted transit hours to align with workplace shifts, and has capped capacity at 50 percent. In the medium term, behavior patterns will change, necessitating new demand management strategies. In the longer term, city policies could incentivize decentralizing job centers, increasing mixed uses, encouraging flexible work schedules, working from home, and expanding and retrofitting transit systems.
Biking and walking increased in popularity during the lockdown. The pandemic has also exposed how streets are over-designed for private cars. This holds promise for redesigning streets to better suit pedestrians, cyclists, and public open space.
We have a unique opportunity to rethink transportation and mobility. Lockdown has enabled the country to undergo a transportation experiment at an almost unimaginable scale, and the lessons learned can be leveraged. If leaders take the right steps, we can emerge from the pandemic with a stronger and safer approach to mobility and improved open-space systems.
Metropolitan and state leaders should use the VMT data to target the communities that may be most willing to test new, post-coronavirus interventions and develop innovative and creative incentives for alternative forms of mobility. Reallocating space previously used by cars — especially in neighborhoods without walkable access to parks and essential services — would go a long way toward improving the public realm.
Our cities and public spaces provide platforms for civil liberties, freedom of speech, movement, and expression. They thrive on plurality and inclusiveness. Recent and continuing protests have highlighted the importance of inclusive public space for collective action.
The link between racism and public health has also become more evident. Black Americans face more health challenges than white Americans, including heart disease, infant mortality, and diabetes — underlying conditions that have exacerbated the impact of Covid-19 upon them. We need to focus on our underserved and put equity upfront in decision-making.
People in low-income neighborhoods often rely more heavily on accessible public spaces. Studies have shown that the percentage of green space in people’s living environment positively affects their general health. The public realm can, through open space and greenery, offer a path to social cohesion, healthy communities, and health equity. But neighborhoods also need easy access to good schools, healthcare, nutrition, transportation, and affordable housing.
As our cities slowly open after lockdown, contact tracing will help keep the virus in check; but we must be sure that anti-democratic, discriminatory surveillance practices will not also evolve. We have already seen sophisticated video surveillance in public spaces around the world. Spot, the “dog” is on patrol in Singapore parks, while a police robot in public spaces in Shenzhen warns people to wear masks and checks body temperature and identities. We may not have time to institute robust privacy laws if surveillance measures increase rapidly. The danger is that what we agree to do during an emergency may be normalized once the crisis has passed.
As we work towards a more equitable future, the participatory process is more important than ever. For public space to be relevant, we need to understand the relationship among people’s ways of life and their history, memory, and the built environment. We will need to focus on the public health benefits of space, give voice to marginalized communities, and spur our cities to repair past spatial injustices.
Seeing our cities through the lens of public health and equity has magnified the tremendous value of public space. It has also provided global momentum to make cities stronger, healthier, and more equitable for everyone.
Georgia Sarkin, AICP, RIBA, is an architect, urban designer, urban planner, and Principal with SmithGroup in San Francisco. This article (an earlier version of which was published on LinkedIn) stems from her presentation on the same subject to AIA San Francisco on May 14, 2020. Sarkin holds a master of architecture in urban design from Harvard University, a bachelor of architectural studies from University of Cape Town, and a bachelor of architecture from University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban). You can reach her at email@example.com.
DESPITE THE OCCASIONAL CHALLENGES we planners experience, our profession is a noble one, and it can be immensely satisfying. Over the past 35 years, the planning profession has given me the opportunity to help communities articulate and meet their goals for growth and preservation. I’m tremendously grateful to work in such an extremely interesting field, involving many disciplines, with the objective of creating and maintaining safe, healthy, and livable communities for all people.
The path taken
In 1977, I graduated with a BA in political science from UC Santa Barbara and was hired by a Menlo Park transportation consulting firm to assist with a San Francisco Bay Area Paratransit study. There I met staff members with backgrounds in geography and city and regional planning. Inspired by these co-workers, I went back to school and completed coursework in city and regional planning and geography at San Francisco State University. Years later, in 2009, I earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of San Francisco.
I’ve worked in community development/city and regional planning since 1984. I joined the American Planning Association in 1985, and became a certified planner in 1990. My work has mostly been for small northern California communities with populations less than 25,000 — Los Altos Hills and San Carlos (Contract Planner, 1984-87), Rocklin (Principal Planner, 1988-93), Windsor (Planning Director, 1993-99), Cotati (Director of Planning, 2001-2008), Clayton (Community Development Director, 2008-2013), and San Bruno (Community Development Director, 2013-2018). Each presented unique challenges and had set important goals to meet.
A trying night
In the late 1980s, I invited my brother, a journalist from New Orleans, to attend a public hearing in Rocklin where I would be presenting a citywide transportation improvement plan for the city. Rocklin’s population was just under 20,000 (it’s now about 70,000), and planning for future growth of the huge Stanford Ranch area and the broader community was underway. Many residents had mixed views about the current and projected growth in that area and the transportation improvements needed to accommodate that growth.
The standing-room-only meeting lasted for hours. As a key staff presenter, I was grilled by councilmembers and endured a number of harsh comments from the public. I maintained my composure and stayed professional while my consultant and I responded to questions. Despite the difficult meeting, the city council unanimously approved the citywide transportation improvement plan.
Afterwards, my brother shook his head and energetically asked, “Why in hell did you ever choose this profession? I was about to throttle some of those people for what they were saying to you, but somehow you remained calm. How do you do that?” I responded that change makes some people uncomfortable. My job is to stay calm, communicate information as clearly and accurately as possible, acknowledge and understand the various concerns, and help find solutions to meet the community’s needs. That is the art of what we planners do. That also was the first and last of my public hearings my brother attended.
I have had two mantras during my 35 years in the planning profession: “finding a way through” and “the art of what we do.”
As an entry-level planner, I enjoyed being assigned to smaller communities because I worked directly with city managers and various department directors including police, fire, public works, planning, and building. I learned about the organization’s operations and interactions among city council members, planning commissioners, and citizens. I saw the direct connection between staff actions and their results in the communities. I became knowledgeable about entire communities, their properties, people, and traditions. Compare that to working in a larger community where I might have gained similar knowledge, but of only a district or segment of the city.
My entry-level efforts for the communities of Los Altos Hills and San Carlos gave me experience in current planning, development review, advanced planning, general plans, specific plans, and zoning codes. It was satisfying work to create livable, well designed, efficient, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing communities.
Each community I have worked for has had its challenges: Windsor was drafting its first general plan; Clayton was deciding the Town Center land use and distribution; San Bruno was determining the mix of commercial and housing (and parking standards) for a Transit Corridors Specific Plan. I watched, listened, and advised as the elected officials made their decisions. We work in political environments, but in our role as professional planners we can encourage broad-based participation and ethical processes in the decision-making.
A significant transition
A milestone in my career came in October 2018 when I retired as San Bruno CDD. Since retiring, I have assisted Clayton and Healdsburg as Interim CDD, where I’m addressing challenges ranging from staffing issues to “finding a way through” on complex development projects.
Over the years, I have assisted in preparing general plans, specific plans, and land use (zoning) codes; and have dealt with controversial private development projects, difficult code enforcement cases, and challenging circumstances involving staff and decision-makers. I learned from others, shared my knowledge, contributed to making a difference, and developed a network of friends and colleagues who, like me, are passionate about public service.
Grateful for lessons learned
In our line of work, we are stewards of the urban environment. We address the challenges our communities face and help them achieve their core objectives — creating and maintaining livable communities. Our work extends from visioning to adoption to implementation of the plans that will guide our communities. As planning professionals, we use our learned principles to help guide constructive, knowledge-based, and inclusive decision-making. We offer ethical, professional, and well-researched recommendations. And we offer fair-minded solutions to real problems.
Although challenging at times, I am incredibly pleased and grateful to be in this profession. I highly recommend it to others who seek an interesting career, working to make communities safer, healthier, and livable for all, with real opportunity to make a meaningful difference.
This article, a version of which was originally published inNext City, is republished with permission
By Marisa Schulz, July 17, 2020
As a planner, writer, and researcher, I’ve spent much of my career listening to people. And I’ve focused a lot of my listening on women’s perspectives — voices that are often absent or underrepresented in the planning process. I’ve spoken to women in South America still battling the impacts of a dictator’s regime; families in Detroit nervous for their neighborhoods to change and what this means for their future there; and young mothers across the U.S. who want to stay in the city but face increasing housing costs and educational barriers for their children.
Each of these conversations is unique, but one common theme emerged from them all. While men and women have many of the same needs and preferences on a variety of civic issues — from the need for access to transportation and the desire for walkable neighborhoods and active public places — women also experience spaces differently than men. They travel differently; have a greater need for safety when traveling to, from, and within public spaces; and are highly impacted by segregated land uses.
Understanding how women experience spaces so we can design and plan for their unique needs is incredibly important to ensure our cities, communities, and spaces are designed for all.
Here, there, everywhere
Women travel very differently than their male counterparts. Men are more likely to travel by car, in and out of a city center. But many women have far more complicated travel patterns, often referred to as “trip-chaining”— dropping kids off at school before work, running errands, and fitting in appointments, all before returning home. Due to lack of access to cars and the shorter nature of some women’s work trips, women are also much more likely to use public transportation or travel on foot. Yet in many urban and nonurban environments, public transportation options are limited or not conducive to tackling multiple errands in a short period of time, because of a lack of frequency during non-peak times and routes being designed for in-and-out travel. In addition, walking or biking are often not safe choices due to lack of consistent sidewalks, lighting, bike infrastructure, and pedestrian crossings. Couple these safety issues with the financial implications of trip chaining (in cities that don’t have integrated transit services, people must pay a fare for each leg of the trip, inflating their transport costs), and simply moving through the city becomes a major problem for many women.
This is both an American issue and an international one. For example, in Santiago, Chile, researchers focused on the transportation experience of women who live in the urban periphery. Women there spent considerably more time accessing work and healthcare — frequently with young children in tow — and had heightened perceptions of insecurity while using public transit. They spent so much of their day trying to get to work or appointments that they were regularly commuting and running errands in the dark.
Women, as we know, experience higher rates of assault, violence, and sexual assaults than their male counterparts. In the study in Chile, all focus group and personal interview participants had personally experienced, or knew someone who had experienced, some sort of violence while using public transit. Lack of lighting, restrooms, and location of transit stops around high-frequented, public areas were all major issues.
Here in the U.S., women experience the same issues of actual and perceived safety risks while using public transportation. And they are spending more money to avoid these risks. A 2018 study of New Yorkers found women were harassed on the subway far more frequently than men were, and as a result paid more money to avoid transit in favor of taxis and ride-hail. As Wired reported at the time, “women in New York City spend an average $26 to $50 extra on transportation per month for safety reasons, and up to $100 each month if they are their family’s main caregiver — as much as $1,200 more than men each year.”
Transport for London has adopted a whole host of forward-thinking policies that aim to reduce inequalities in the transportation experience and ensure women feel safer when traveling at any time of day or night. These include enhanced lighting and signage; increased enforcement at public stops, and expansion of “Project Guardian,” an initiative that tackles sexual offense on London’s transit network; and continued conversations with women about what improvements need to be included. Los Angeles Metro is following suit by surveying and understanding the unique mobility needs of women in LA County to inform future policy and design.
In the space
While ensuring safety from moving between places is important, planning and designing for women also needs to consider their needs while in these places. During daylight hours, public spaces are more likely to be used by women. And yet, those spaces are mainly designed for men’s needs. Amenities that encourage safety — lighting; preserving sight lines — are a must, and the more people the better. But other features are also important when designing places for women.
Designers and planners need to think about how public spaces provide opportunities for women, children, and the aging population all in one space. Research here has shown women devote more time than men on average to childcare and serving as informal caregivers to aging family members, although this gender gap has narrowed over time. As this role spills over from the private to the public realm, it’s important to recognize and understand the need to design multi-generational spaces, even when that risks gender-stereotyping.
In the late 1990s, Vienna led in tackling inequalities in site planning and design by employing gender mainstreaming practices and policies, and the results are incredible. The city has since designed about 60 gender-sensitive pilot projects and considered another 1,000. These include an apartment complex built by women for women, called “Women-Work-City.” The development includes stroller storage on every floor, wide stairwells to encourage talking with neighbors, flexible layouts, and accessible public spaces for kids and adults. Vienna has also redesigned parks based on their findings about how men and women use public spaces differently. The results pointed to a need for increased security, accessibility for everyone of all ages, and facilities favored by girls, like badminton courts and places to sit and talk.
How can we do better?
Women are often decision makers for their families and the social glue that connects people to places in their communities. Yet, as half of our population, their unique needs have historically been overlooked in planning and design, in part because their viewpoints are underrepresented in positions of power within cities. As of 2019, fewer than one-fourth of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000 had women mayors. As of 2016, 30 percent of council members in the largest cities are women, down from 33 percent in 2010.
And while more women are entering planning, architecture, and engineering, this lack of historic female leadership has impacted our cities and neighborhoods in a big way. What can we as planners and designers do to ensure women play a greater role at all levels of the planning process today and in the future?
Ensure women have a voice: Design inclusive planning processes that intentionally involve women. Identify key female stakeholders and engage with them from the beginning to help identify goals, shape the process, and help with connecting to the community. Involve them throughout the process to provide feedback on engagement, visioning, design, and the final plan. And use metrics to understand who is responding so that you can adjust outreach tactics if you are not getting enough female participants.
Listen: Women of all ages have so many stories to share. Emphasize that their unique perspectives are not only helpful in creating policy and design solutions, but that they are experts because of their unique experiences. The publication Women Working perfectly captures this sentiment: “It’s important to recognize women as experts when they talk about the relationship between everyday life and the city. They continue to be principally responsible for domestic work, caring for the home, and their families, which makes them specialists in the territory — and of the changing needs of people in different stages of life (childhood, youth, senior).”
Listening doesn’t necessarily need to be in a one-on-one interview. Walk the city or place with female stakeholders to truly understand their perspective, their experiences within the community and space, and how they envision improvements.
Employ different engagement techniques: Planners and designers should always use different engagement techniques — both online and face-to-face — and this is especially true for involving women throughout the planning process. Of course, there are the proven methods of surveys, websites, interactive apps, and face-to-face meetings. However, inclusion does not only mean promoting women’s participation in formal settings and structured forums, but also recognizing where they have impact through their tremendous ability to network. Women can have a very strong influence on their families, friends, neighbors, and religious communities. Many instances of gender inclusivity have come through these more informal structures. Tapping into these networks in an authentic way is an important and powerful tool to access more female participation in a planning and design process.
Make planning accessible for mothers, families, and working women: Think about the timing of engagement meetings or events. Often these are at night to accommodate working participants, but for mothers and families without childcare, this timing can make it difficult to attend. Scheduling these events during the day or on weekends, in addition to evenings, opens up more opportunities for families to participate. Offering childcare or kids’ activities during the event — where parents can drop off their kids, or participate in planning and design with them — has been a hugely successful tool in engagement. And scheduling pop-up workshops alongside larger community events, such as festivals or parades, is another fantastic way to engage mothers and families.
Think about gender — but also think beyond gender: As Linda Gustafsson, gender equality officer for the Swedish city of Umea put it, “We have to always think about gender in the city, but we cannot only think about gender in the city.” Each community and stakeholder is different, so while ensuring women are active participants in your process provides an important perspective, recognizing and honoring their differences and other unique perspectives — whether racially, culturally, or economically — is equally as important.
Marisa Schulz is the Principal of All Together, a Chicago-based design studio focused on community branding, engagement and placemaking. She holds an MCRP from the University of Texas at Austin and a BA from the University of Michigan.