“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
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.
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 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.
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 Luke Johnson, San Jose Spotlight, July 22, 2020
“The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to defer the decision for a Caltrain ballot measure to a special meeting on August 6 — the last day to approve measures for the November ballot.
“County lawmakers considered a proposed ballot measure for a one-eighth cent sales tax to prevent Caltrain from potentially shutting down.
“In order to keep Caltrain running, sales tax measures need to be approved in the three counties it operates — San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara. Last week, San Francisco County supervisors decided not to support a sales tax measure — putting Caltrain’s future in limbo.
“The proposed tax measure was supported by a coalition of local leaders — such as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and San Francisco Mayor London Breed.” Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian argued that a ballot measure would likely be defeated by voters.
“Another challenge is determining which agency will manage Caltrain and potential new tax revenue sources. It’s currently run by SamTrans in San Mateo County and some officials say that agency has mismanaged funds and lacks accountability in its governance.
“A new plan unveiled Tuesday would direct revenue from the proposed tax measure into an escrow account controlled by the three-county Joint Powers Board that manages the Peninsula rail system, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“In a Medium post, Liccardo said Santa Clara and San Francisco counties provide the majority of annual funding to Caltrain, but SamTrans officials have no accountability to those taxpayers.”
By Emily Badger, The New York Times, July 20, 2020
One month into the coronavirus crisis this spring, Oakland, Calif., began to restrict car traffic on some streets — ultimately on 21 miles of them — to create outdoor space for residents who suddenly had nowhere else to go.
But the speed itself — and the changes that cities have prioritized — has also left residents that have long been sidelined in city planning feeling neglected again. Poorer residents weren’t going to restaurants much anyway. Many children didn’t feel safe from violence in public spaces before the pandemic. …
Questions about who has a say in shaping cities, and what that process should look like, are not new. But the shock of the coronavirus crisis, which cleared public spaces to be a kind of blank canvas, and the calls to treat those spaces with racial equity in mind could force cities to reconsider their answers.
Today, visions of urban life reinvented for the future are colliding with unaddressed inequalities from the past. And the urgency of a public health threat is pushing against demands for the long work of inclusion. …
This is the reality as cities consider what it would mean to have more community input: In city planning, participatory democracy has largely increased inequality, not lessened it.
“The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has awarded more than $279 million from the Infill Infrastructure Grant program to communities in large- and small-population counties throughout the state for infrastructure improvements that support the development of affordable and mixed-income housing.
“Although the program does not fund the development of the housing itself, the infrastructure it provides is necessary for housing development. Capital improvement projects funded by these awards will create curbs and gutters and allow for grading and site improvements, installation of new, larger water and sewer lines, and soil stabilization.
“As a result of this funding, the affordable homes produced will provide approximately 3,700 individuals and families with safe, affordable homes, which will remain affordable for 55 years or longer, serving multiple households over time, and allowing families to break the cycle of poverty.
“‘Cities identified lack of infrastructure as one of the challenges to building housing,’ said HCD Director Gustavo Velasquez. ‘Governor Newsom responded with funding for this program in his 2019-20 budget, and we’re pleased to get this funding to communities where they can take the next step and create more homes affordable to Californians in need, serving multiple families for generations to come.’”
Northern Section communities received over $121.8 million, or 44 percent of the total funds granted by HCD, as depicted in the figure below:
Northern Section grant recipients and their grant totals are listed alphabetically by county:
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.
Lina Velasco, AICP, is Community Development Director (CDD) for the City of Richmond. She holds a master of community and regional planning from Cornell University and a BA from UCLA in history and Chicana/o studies.
What experiences shaped your decision to become a city planner?
I started as a life science major at UCLA intending to become a doctor. I am a first-generation college student in my family. I took part in several university summer programs where I took electives in ethnic studies and met great people who challenged me. It was fascinating to learn the history of LA and how planning decisions impacted communities of color. That spoke to me. I wanted to make sure communities of color were engaged in planning processes that influence decision-making.
After completing my education, I wanted to return to the Bay Area (where I grew up) and started at Vacaville as an assistant planner. Prior to that, I had interned with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. I have been with the City of Richmond since 2005, and CDD since January.
Working with the public can be difficult. How do you stay inspired?
Sometimes there is a perspective that things don’t need to change. People are happy with how their neighborhoods are today, but there are bigger global issues — such as climate change and health inequities — that need to be addressed. In Richmond, we are working toward these larger goals through sustainable neighborhoods.
As planners, we might try things that don’t work out the way we anticipated. We have to be flexible in responding to ideas generated by our communities in addressing these bigger issues.
Having residents involved with the process keeps me inspired. Richmond has neighborhood councils that meet regularly to work on issues that need to be addressed. The amount of time they dedicate to improving their community is really inspiring. That motivates us to create the change we all envisioned in the General Plan.
How have you approached major issues in your community?
We were dealing with a high homicide rate in Richmond when I started, confronted with how we could all contribute to reducing that. This was not just a police issue to address. It involved planning, community groups, nonprofits, and many other stakeholders coming together, all while governments were shrinking. Everyone needed to collaborate, get creative, and adopt a broad perspective. We engaged the community through schools and other venues, not just at City Hall.
Another major issue is the census — we currently have a promotion underway because we want to have everyone counted. So much of our work is informed by the census. It’s important for us to know who lives in our community to inform our planning and city services.
How was your transition from senior planner to management?
We are a small organization, so it is not realistic to separate the technical planning work from management. I currently manage both projects and people. There are many challenges on the horizon, including how to manage gaps in the City budget. The Covid-19 pandemic forced us to increase our ability to work remotely and provide services online, and that is how we are managing all the essential tasks and services.
Are you particularly proud of a recent project or program?
A housing project had neighbors concerned about traffic safety. Of course, we were designing elements within the project to address that concern. In the end, neighbors shared that they felt they were fairly treated. When you work really hard to address concerns and provide public benefits — even when people don’t get exactly what they want — it is helpful to get that acknowledgement.
What advice do you have for planners interested in developing their leadership skills?
Sometimes you have to volunteer yourself. Raise your hand and say yes to different things. You learn so much about a process by doing it hands-on. Go to conferences to hear different perspectives. Consider serving as a speaker or on a panel or workgroup, and start locally. This is an opportunity to connect with people and see what work they are doing. Try new things and stay involved, whether locally or statewide.
We do that a lot here in Richmond. Other cities are dealing with similar projects and problems. Cities are happy to share their lessons learned. We have limited resources and can learn from each other.
Any specific thoughts about the planning profession?
Note the national discussion around re-envisioning policing. The planning profession is also reimagining its role. We must make sure planning is inclusive and equitable, and that we consider health outcomes in our decision making. We need to continue these conversations if we are to see our role and work evolve. How are we engaging residents and communities? Make sure we keep that in the forefront of our efforts.
Interviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is senior development manager at FivePoint and a guest writer for Northern News. Final editing by associate editor Richard Davis.
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.
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 Carlos, with the purpose ofhelping 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.
The significance of an in-person format at a largemeeting
Home for Allconducted 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 viewsandensures 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.
Itshows the diversity of those attending.The head facilitator “breaks the ice” through interactive exercises that require raising hands or standing to illustratethe diversity of thoseattending. 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 community–level concerns and perspectives.City staff and elected officials were present only as active listeners. They walked around the room and listened to the conversations without interrupting.
Itensuresrepresentation from diverse groups and from all parts of the community. To ensure all parts of the community could participate, our outreachevents in the run-up to the large community meetings, included pop-ups—at which we gave prizes for filling out questionnaires —and micro-meetingswith groups of no more than10 stakeholders. From the Farmers Market to canvassing downtown, we were able to reach a wide array of community members.
This type of extensive community engagement model with multiple stakeholders simply works better with in-person meetings, andwe 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;
a desire for more efficient public transit;
prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle pathways;
preservingoursmall 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. The “physically 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.
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 beenexploring alternative approaches to community engagement through virtual sessions andhybrid 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 venuesmust 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.