Tag: 2019-12-nn-feature

An American planner in Canada

An American planner in Canada

By Brian Soland, AICP

In September 2017, immediately after getting married, I convinced my new spouse to pack up and leave San Francisco for Vancouver, British Columbia. When searching for a public sector position where I could work on large important projects, I stumbled upon Vancouver as place that was motivated and committed to investing in transit, multimodal infrastructure, and transit-oriented communities.

I landed a job at TransLink, the regional transportation agency and transit provider, and currently serve as project manager for one of Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain rail extension projects. TransLink provides rail, bus, and paratransit service for the entire region and allocates funding for walking, cycling, and regional roads. In 2019 we were awarded the Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award by the American Public Transportation Association.

Here is my experience moving to Canada and working as a planner.

Getting a work visa to be a planner in Canada is a breeze

Logistically, crossing the border to the north and working as a planner couldn’t have been easier. The position of urban planner is one of 25 recognized under the NAFTA (and soon USMCA) trade agreements that allow an accelerated and simplified immigration process into Canada. All I needed was a job offer letter, copies of my résumé and planning degree, and a simple application form submitted at the border. In less than an hour, I had a three-year work visa (with the potential for unlimited renewals) and was on my way into Canada.

My spouse automatically received a work visa that allows her to work anywhere as long as my visa is valid.

Some unexpected differences

Getting into Canada was the easy part. Adjusting to living and working in a new country, even though it was so close to home, presented unexpected hurdles and several key differences regarding work.

  • Public support of government programs: The public tends to expect the government to get things done right and has more faith in planning and transportation decisions. Not to say it’s easy, but there is more public acceptance of what we planners do and why we do it.
  • Acceptability of density near transit: The focus on transit-oriented development has been robust and mostly successful. Issues surrounding affordability — both producing more and protecting existing — are top of mind for planners here.
  • Lack of ADA and equity programs: Granted, Canada’s history is much different from that of the U.S., but it’s still worth noting that there are very few programs that facilitate and support historically disadvantaged groups. Things like ADA and Title VI do not exist here.
  • Government structure: The role of city councils, mayors, and provincial governments seem very similar to California’s structure. However, provincial politics and government agencies are much more involved in local initiatives and decisions, and exercise more direct influence compared to their California state agency counterparts.

There are also some day-to-day lifestyle differences worth noting.

  • Taxes: This topic can range from simple to very complex. The United States is one of two countries in the world where taxes are tied to citizenship and not to residency (Eritrea is the other). So even if you live abroad and earn no money in the United States, you’re still required to file taxes with the IRS. However, the IRS offers foreign income exclusion if you live abroad, such that you likely won’t have to pay any U.S. taxes on your foreign income. I found that the Canadian government collects taxes equal to 20-30 percent of wages, a slightly higher percentage than in the U.S.
  • Exchange rates and savings: Things are a bit more expensive in Canada due to fluctuating exchange rates. And while many things do cost more in Canada, some things are less expensive, especially when comparing rents to the Bay Area. I’m finding that investing and saving for retirement are probably best to keep in the U.S., although IRA contributions are restricted if you do not have U.S. domestic income.
  • Bank accounts and credit: Moving to a new country, I had no credit and no bank account. While opening a bank account was easy, something as simple as getting a credit card was difficult when I first arrived.
  • Weather: While I knew Vancouver would be a colder, wetter place, I did not realize how much I value seeing the sun during the winter months. The key for me is getting into the local mountains for snow sports, and planning a vacation to a sunny locale during the winter months. It’s important to note that Vancouver more than makes up for it during the summer when it’s perfectly warm most days and the sun stays out until past 10 pm.

Canada is a welcoming and fun place to live and work

When I tell Canadians I moved here from California, they often ask, “Why leave sunny California?” To be honest, I miss California more than I expected. However, Canada has some key things going for it, including pristine public amenities, instant access to the outdoors (even better than the Bay Area), a friendly and helpful culture, and in Vancouver specifically — an amazingly livable city. Another key benefit of living in Canada is the access to good universal health care and a system that supports new families with up to 18 months of parental leave, which probably seems mind-boggling to most Americans.

If you’re thinking of moving “abroad” to Canada, feel free to reach out with questions. TransLink is always looking for talented and motivated planners to join our team. Check out the job opportunities at translink.ca/Careers.

Brian Soland, AICP, is Project Manager, Arbutus to UBC SkyTrain, with TransLink, Vancouver, Canada. Before leaving for Canada in 2017, he was a senior planner with CDM Smith, San Francisco, for seven years. He holds a master’s in city and regional planning from Cal Poly SLO and a bachelor’s degree in geography from Cal State Sacramento.

Meet a local planner – Danielle DeRuiter-Williams

Meet a local planner – Danielle DeRuiter-Williams

Catarina Kidd, AICP, interviewer

Danielle DeRuiter-Williams is Co-Founder and Head of Growth and Expansion at The Justice Collective in Oakland, a women-of-color-led social impact consultancy. She recently spoke at the two-session Chapter President’s panel, “Cultural and Implicit Bias Training for Planners,” at the APA California 2019 conference in Santa Barbara. Among her several degrees are a master of urban and regional planning and master in Afro-American studies from UCLA and an MBA from Mills College.

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Tell us about your path to the work that you are doing now.

My path into planning was not a direct one. I initially went to grad school in the African American Studies program at UCLA and spent the first year exploring many of the historic contexts in which people of color find themselves. At the time, the language wasn’t around equity, but prosperity and equality. It was theory and history. I also took a planning course called “community economic development” that was game-changing for me. It lifted up tools to address those barriers I was learning about. I fell in love with planning as a multi-subject discipline with its critical concepts, frameworks, and skills that would become important to planning and would create impact.

Where did you go from there?

My first professional roles were working for food justice, public advocacy, and social impact through the nonprofit sector. Although I never envisioned working in city government, I moved into a job with the City of San Francisco Planning Department, joining a brand new community development team. But this wasn’t a typical planner position. It was relationship oriented and allowed for a level of entrepreneurial spirit. There was an initiative to transform long-term relationships with the community. The deliverable was connectivity with communities of color and tackling displacement issues.

When did you initiate The Justice Collective?

I co-founded TJC within a couple of weeks of starting with SF Planning. TJC was initially intended as a learning community for people of color working in nonprofits experiencing the inability to move up in organizations and how that affects experience and retention of staff of color. My team sought to create an alternative to that, to change the experiences we were all having of feeling stuck.

How did you grow TJC and shape what it would become?

This formation of a consulting practice grew from a need we saw to address organizational culture more broadly. In my two years in SF initiating racial equity work inside and outside the planning department, the priority was building capacity inside planning for more equitable practices.

It was challenging to be a black woman inside an institution. Being new and young posed a lot of risk no matter which path I chose. The calling to what I started at TJC became louder and would continue. So I finished the MBA program I started, took the leap into TJC full time, and landed a big contract.

Who do you really admire — whose example or advice has helped you develop professionally?

I’m an older millennial, and it can be challenging to find mentorship. There can be a generational difference in how we approach our professions and careers. I find many of us are less willing to accept the golden handcuffs or a limited view for our professional trajectory. As an example, I could have stayed in SF Planning for the perceived stability but I would not have been fulfilled.

So, I found peer mentors. We support each other to move through challenges. With a network, you have folks who believe in your ability to carry out your vision. They are your mentors.

A key skill all planners must develop regardless of age and point in career?

Adopting an abundance mindset — seeing the possibilities rather than the limits — is the key to professional growth.

Tell us about a favorite project.

The racial and social equity initiative I started in the SF planning department. Even though I left before it was adopted, it had a domino effect in other city agencies. I hear from my colleagues in planning that when they reach milestones, it was my leadership that made it possible. Had I not pushed, we wouldn’t be where we are now. I truly appreciate what I was able to do there in a short time. Planners should consider their impact wherever they are.

What are the “things no one wants to say”?

Among other institutional causes, housing — and planning, as a profession — have decimated communities of color. The practice of planning is deeply rooted in white supremacy culture and messages.

Give an example of this statement.

It can be in the basic concepts we take for granted — building setbacks, for example. In many communities, the front yard setback is not much, but the required backyard setback is much more generous. Convening at the porch is common in some black communities, while white culture often values the backyard as a symbol of ownership and status. The setback may seem like an innocuous design guideline, but it is rooted in culture that is so pervasive, yet did not originate from the members of the community who are subjected to it. It’s the water we’re swimming in and we don’t think about it.

How do you start that conversation?

Think about the conventions of our profession. Where do they come from, and do they represent the communities that live there? Change is grounded in the way our policies are structured, by the people creating them. The entry point is meeting people who understand their experience with the built environment and the resulting implications.

What does it mean when whole communities have been structured without access to basic amenities? What is the implication of never growing up around those different from you? Make the connection between your personal outlook and the work you do, because we express the personal in our work. Create opportunities for people to examine those policies and not just accept those policies as the natural state of things.

How can those who missed your APA conference sessions on implicit bias catch up?

We’ve been invited to repeat the session at APA National Conference in April 2020 in Houston, and the session will be recorded.

Interviewer’s note: Additional materials from the APA state conference in Santa Barbara may also be circulated by APA California Northern’s Planning Diversity Directors in the near future.

Do you have any “must reads” for developing literacy with the equity conversation?

White Fragility, by Robin De Angelo.

Must watch?

“Thirteen” on Netflix.

Anything I did not ask that you want to share?

I want to impress on folks that the stakes are higher now. We face more social challenges than ever before. The responsibility is on everyone to proactively dismantle oppression and make that central to our work. The question for planners is not what is possible. Rather, ask what is necessary to go beyond what the current state of affairs is requiring of us. When you ask that question, you will start doing what is necessary: You will provide the attention, people, and resources that you uniquely bring to the table. Don’t constrain what is necessary for demystifying the current condition.

Interviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is senior development manager at FivePoint and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.

A community engagement project: Toward a Vision for the Alum Rock Community of San Jose

A community engagement project: Toward a Vision for the Alum Rock Community of San Jose

By the Capstone Studio Class of San Jose State University, Fall 2019

SJSU Capstone Studio Class, Fall 2019: Front row, l-r: Ralph Robinson, Zak Mendez, Lydon George | Middle row, l-r: Iliana Nicholas, Andrea Mardesich, Natalie Fakhreddine, Roshni Saxena, Yeneli Constantino, Melina Iglesias, Jueun Kook, Malaika Best | Back row, l-r: Instructor Rick Kos, Aishwarya Naniwadekar, Gavin Lohry, Nick Towstopiat, Nick Frey, Manny Uche, Ryan Forster, Michael Shwe, Josh McCluskey, Roomin Parikh, Instructor Jason Su. Not shown: Jacob Garcia

The Alum Rock Avenue corridor — our study area — is located two miles east of San Jose’s downtown core. During the fall semester of 2019, our class of graduate students in San José State University’s Master of Urban Planning Program partnered with CommUniverCity and the City of San José to conduct a community planning project in the study area. Over a 15-week period, our class of 20 led by professors Rick Kos, AICP, and Jason Su, analyzed conditions in the Alum Rock corridor.

The goal of this capstone project was to assist the community in creating a vision for future development in the area, focusing on and incorporating community engagement. Using an asset-based community development approach, we aimed to identify existing positive elements in the neighborhood.

To that end, we interviewed area residents, businesses, and community leaders to help understand the assets and issues they prioritized. Our engagement with local residents included two phases: community assessment (data collection and analysis) and a collaborative community engagement event.

During Phase One, we assessed the area via walking tours, numerous site visits, and demographic mapping using Esri’s Community Analyst (a web-based tool that provides mapping software and demographic data in a simple and easy-to-use framework). We also made physical montages and InDesign summary boards to help us synthesize findings tied to land use, transportation, connectivity, public art, people, the history of activism in East San Jose, and community assets.

Phase Two focused on gathering input from community members to help convey their desires for the future direction of the Alum Rock corridor. One notable aspect of our work was the creation of a team dedicated to consistent and clear messaging about our work in the community as well as shared objectives. We developed relationships with community-based organizations, local residents, business owners, and community leaders who can influence the community in a positive manner. We gathered community feedback via Cafe y Comunidad focus group events, informal discussions, and community outreach events.

In several Cafe y Comunidad discussions, students engaged residents living near the Mayfair Community Center. The residents highlighted community strengths including art, parks, and local businesses, but also voiced concerns about problems such as litter, dangerous vehicular traffic, gang activity, and underinvestment in assets such as MACSA (the Mexican American Community Services Agency), which once served as a significant resource to the area’s Latino immigrant community but has since closed.

All of this data-gathering culminated in a “Vision for Alum Rock Corridor” open house event where we had the opportunity to vet our findings with the locals.

Setting up an exhibit table

 

Community discussion

The event — held on November 16, 2019, at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, a valued community space — featured a number of theme-based discussion stations:

“The Big Map”

The focal point of the open house was a huge, aerial photo of the Alum Rock corridor study area. The photo measured eight by eight feet, and was laid across tables in the center of the room. Participants gathered around the photo and placed stickers on it with their comments on transportation issues, particularly regarding safety, problematic bus rapid transit lanes, and car congestion. They also noted valued community assets such as parks and community centers and recommended neighborhood improvements, such as the reopening of a closed community center and the repurposing of a golf course into affordable housing. The size of the map attracted attendees to the center of the room and was instrumental in initiating conversations about the neighborhood.

Aerial photo: The Big Map
Aerial photo: The Big Map

Community Resources Board and Individualized Street Maps

Participants identified their favorite places, along with spaces they felt were missing in the community. They were asked to sketch on a map the geographic area that defines their neighborhood. The feedback indicated a desire for grocery stores, more street trees, outdoor gyms, and murals, and continued support for the Mexican Heritage Plaza — the site of the open house and clearly a favorite place.

We were curious as to what residents call their neighborhood and learned that “Alum Rock” and “East Side” have been used, though the latter tends to divide residents: Some view “East Side” with pride, while others associate it with gangs and a negative connotation. This station was popular for its ability to let residents make more general comments, and many returned to offer additional observations throughout the open house.

Community resources board

Urban Form and Transportation Lego Activity

The Alum Rock area continues to be highly attractive to developers. This interactive station featured Legos with which participants could construct and imagine potential developments in the Alum Rock Avenue corridor. On a supplemental questionnaire on design and urban form, participants indicated preferences for certain architectural styles as well as building heights and densities that they would be comfortable with. This station was designed to be especially accessible, allowing attendees of all ages to participate.

Business Parcel Activity

Local businesses are essential to neighborhood economic vitality, making this a topic of high interest for residents of this community, which has experienced greater disinvestment compared to other parts of San Jose. Participant feedback using sticky notes revealed a strong desire for more retail businesses, particularly related to food, beverage, and groceries, and the aesthetic improvement of existing storefronts. Many comments noted the high number of liquor stores and smoke shops in the area.

Open house in action

Parks

This station highlighted existing neighborhoods, allowing comments on current conditions of parks, and design concepts for future park improvements. Plata Arroyo Park and Mayfair Park were listed as popular parks, noting that they feature skate parks and overall strong design. These parks also received the most negative comments, with people listing concerns about safety, poor maintenance, perceived crime, and lack of shade. Participants chose open air theaters, outdoor gyms, and park libraries as the most desirable potential elements to add to existing parks in the neighborhood.

Activity for Children: Draw Your Neighborhood

Children who accompanied their parents to the open house event were provided a dedicated space with art supplies and a canvas on which to draw their neighborhood or city, emphasizing urban design elements. No data was collected from this station, but we hoped to inspire kids to notice design elements in their community and to take an interest in planning-related issues.

Children’s table
Open House debriefing

Conclusion

Through this comprehensive assessment, our graduate student team aimed to be a resource and advocate for positive change in the Alum Rock Avenue corridor. After the Phase One and Phase Two activities and the community outreach events, we were able to assess and document current conditions along Alum Rock Avenue. We utilized GIS software, conducted site visits, and interacted with locals to complete a community assessment of the area. We learned that residents of the area value the assets that currently exist in the community. They want to see more investment in those assets, with improvements to infrastructure, schools, and currently underutilized resources. They also want to see improvements in public transportation and safety in the area.

Our community assessment and engagement efforts will be packaged into a professional-grade report that we hope residents can use to advocate for their needs during discussions with developers and city officials. Our graduate student successors in spring 2020 will carry the work forward by opening more avenues for community input and discussion.

Authored by the following Master of Urban Planning students at San Jose State University:

Michael Shwe, a Bay Area native, received his bachelor’s degree in political science with a construction management curriculum from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He is interested in issues surrounding housing and community development.

Lydon George was born and raised in the Bay Area. He earned a B.A. in economics, with a minor in sociology from UC Santa Cruz, and is currently focusing on issues of social justice and equity in planning. He also made the music playlist for the open house event.

Emmanuel Uche is an aspiring community designer and geographic information systems analyst. He received his bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in justice studies from San Jose State University.

Malaika Best is the current president of the student-run Urban Planning Coalition at San Jose State University. She received her bachelor’s degree in organizational communications with a minor in marketing from San Francisco State University.

Nick Frey is a North Carolinian by birth, a Californian by choice, an urbanist by calling, and a student of cities and the built form. He is interested in land use and transportation and has a deep environmental streak.

New state law helps kids and communities thrive, while relieving zoning headaches

New state law helps kids and communities thrive, while relieving zoning headaches

By Julia Frudden and Andrew Mogensen

A new law, SB 234 (Skinner), signed by Governor Newsom on September 5, 2019, makes every licensed large-family child care home a permitted use by right, just like small-family child care homes. SB 234, the Keeping Kids Close to Home Act, will apply to every local agency in California when it takes effect on January 1, 2020.

Evaluating residential child care zoning applications — especially when neighbors actively oppose them — can be a huge regulatory headache for planners. This is especially frustrating for both planners and applicants when they understand the ongoing chronic statewide shortage of child care facilities and how important family child care is to the community. While this new legislation takes away local control, it relieves planners from having to process a permit that was already very narrowly limited in scope. Under the new legislation, the Community Care Licensing Division and local fire departments will take the lead reviewing and approving family child care homes.

The American Planning Association (APA) has long supported policies to promote child care in planning and treat large family child care homes as a residential use of property. Unlike other recent State legislative trends that take local control away from controversial land uses, the APA adopted a formal policy to make home child care a permitted use back in 1997. The APA’s California Chapter reiterated this in their support of SB 234, stating “this bill will ensure that the many local successful models for these homes will apply statewide to increase the number of these homes available to serve working parents.”

A number of California cities and counties had already designated large family child care homes as a permitted use before SB 234 passed because they wanted to encourage providers to care for more children and address the child care needs of the community. These “local successful models” include Palo Alto, Grass Valley, City of Sacramento, City of San Mateo, San Francisco, Salinas, Fresno County, Mariposa County, Encinitas, City of San Diego, Orange County, and Santa Maria — to name only a few.

Currently, California only has enough licensed child care available for 23 percent of children with working parents, and the numbers keep getting worse. While families scramble to find affordable and reliable child care, especially for their babies and toddlers, one-third of family child care providers have been forced to close their doors since the recession.

This is a missed opportunity for quality care and early learning in California. It has also been a huge impediment to working families, employers, and local economies.

“Quality, licensed child care provided by a nearby neighbor is something every working parent deserves,” Skinner added. “SB 234 helps ensure that more child care homes are available to the working families who need it.”

For parents, knowing your baby is with a warm, nurturing caregiver is everything. Family child care homes are the primary source of care for babies and toddlers, offering warm, enriching care close to where families live.

Although the new law will go into effect on January 1, 2020, some local planning departments are already getting a head start to support their communities. Andy Mogensen, AICP, planning manager, City of San Leandro, says it just doesn’t make sense to wait for the new law to take effect.

“An administrative use permit for a large family home day care often takes a couple of months to process,” said Mogensen. “By the time they get an approval, the law will already be in effect. We felt that it just wasn’t fair for either staff or applicants to have to go through that. We’re already working on a zoning code update to make family home child care facilities a permitted use citywide.”

The APA states as its policy, “child care is a critical component of livable communities […] and local planning policies can play an important role in ensuring adequate child care.” By making both large and small family child care homes a residential use of property, California now joins the forward-thinking and family-friendly states of New York and Minnesota.

The new law also clarifies that licensed family child care homes (both large and small) must be allowed in any residentially zoned neighborhood, including apartment buildings, condominiums, gated communities, and other multifamily dwellings. SB 234 builds on existing legislation with new language to make that clear to everyone and to ensure that the law is applied consistently throughout the state. All families, wherever they live, need child care close to home.

“We are all working hard to provide the best for our children,” said Kim Kruckel, executive director of the Child Care Law Center, a cosponsor of SB 234. “We need child care we can rely on from providers we trust. This new law makes it clear that California values and supports quality child care close to home, in all our communities.”

Man, woman, and baby at child careTo help planners and other groups impacted by this new legislation understand this new law, the Child Care Law Center and Public Counsel have published Frequently Asked Questions about SB 234. The FAQ is available in English, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish.

If you have any questions about SB 234, you can:

  • Call the Child Care Law Center at (415) 558-8005 or Public Counsel at (213) 385-2977, extension 300.
  • Fill out the Child Care Law Center’s online form with your question.

Julia Frudden is Director of Community Advocacy at the Child Care Law Center. She is also on the board of BANANAS, Inc., a nonprofit child care resource and referral agency serving the diverse families in Northern Alameda County. Frudden’s background includes four years as a first grade teacher. She holds a B.A. in political science from Pepperdine University.

Andy Mogensen, AICP, in his San Leandro office

Andrew Mogensen, AICP, is Planning Manager for the City of San Leandro. He previously was principal planner for the city of Concord. He holds an M.A. in geography (planning program) from Western Illinois University and a B.A. in geography from Valparaiso University.

Getting downtowns moving with convenient and sustainable access

Getting downtowns moving with convenient and sustainable access

Ozzy Arce reports on an APA Transportation Planning Division Grant Event/Panel

On November 6, 2019, the Emerging Planners Group (EPG) of APA California, Northern Section, partnered with TransForm, a local non-profit transportation advocacy group, and Friends of Caltrain to host a panel as part of an annual series called Connecting Communities. At the event in Menlo Park, all 90 minutes of which you can see here, an array of Bay Area experts focused on transportation demand management (TDM) and transit-proximate housing.

Getting Downtowns Moving Panel
The panel comprised, left to right, Steve Raney, Palo Alto Transportation Management Association; Chris Hammack, City of Redwood City; Karen Camacho, Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo; APA member Ozzy Arce, City of Walnut Creek; and Adina Levin, Friends of Caltrain. Photo: Veronica Flores

More than 30 local residents, stakeholders, and policymakers attended and participated in a spirited discussion around the opportunities for — and constraints around — accessing busy downtowns through more sustainable modes, the role parking management plays in increasing access and mitigating congestion, and the idea that building affordable housing near job centers is a TDM measure.

Thanks to a generous grant from APA National’s Transportation Planning Division, the 90-minute event was live streamed on Facebook and recorded. To view the video, click here.

Getting Downtowns Moving Ozzy
Ozzy Arce speaks to the group. Photo: Evan Kenward