Tag: 2020-07-nn-feature

Socially-distant community engagement: What we know
Screenshot: Presenting a site plan online to a virtual audience. Credit: Urban Planning Partners

Socially-distant community engagement: What we know

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?

Were this 2018 community meeting presentation to be held online, the site plan would have be enlarged. Photo: Heidi Sokolowsky, Urban Field Studio

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).

Research methods

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.

So what?

When reflecting on what community engagement will look like for projects moving forward, consider the following:

  • Community engagement practices, 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.


Meet a local planner: Lina Velasco, AICP

Meet a local planner: Lina Velasco, AICP

By Catarina Kidd, AICP, July 2020

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.

Portrait of Catarina KiddInterviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is senior development manager at FivePoint and a guest writer for Northern News. Final editing by associate editor Richard Davis.

Patience, planners; patience

Patience, planners; patience

Lessons learned from two Specific Plans

By Henry Pontarelli, July 8, 2020

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.

Construction in progress

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.

The outcome

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.

Site plan rendering. More than 50 acres were preserved for working landscape and open space.

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 henry@lisawiseconsulting.com.

Equitably resolving public space in the time of Covid-19
Photo: Victoria Pickering

Equitably resolving public space in the time of Covid-19

By Georgia Sarkin, AICP, July 6, 2020

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.
  • Oakland’s “slow streets” initiative will set aside up to 10 percent of the city’s streets for recreation.
  • San Francisco has also launched a “slow streets” program.

Some cities are implementing new policies to guide future development.

15-Minute City Planning Framework. Source: Micaël, Paris en Commun
  • 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.
Economic Model that Serves as a Planning Framework for Amsterdam. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
  • 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.

But many city programs elsewhere are being implemented by discrete authorities or foundations, without coordination or a commitment to shared values. Spaces are being redesigned, roads are being closed, sidewalks widened, and civic spaces rethought. As cities move forward with reopening and beyond, we should seek to identify the fundamental values we share. Based on those, we can articulate shared goals and develop a clear, coordinated roadmap to realize them.


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.

Carbon footprint of SF Bay Area households by Census block group. Source: “Carbon Footprint planning: Quantifying local and state mitigation opportunities for 700 California cities,” by Christopher M. Jones, Stephen M. Wheeler, and Daniel M. Kammen, Fig. 2, page 7, Urban Planning, 2018, Volume 3, Issue 2

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.

Patients Testing Positive for Covid-19 by ZIP code in New York City. Source: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.


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.

Source: “Coronavirus has shown us a world without traffic. Can we sustain it?” by Adie Tomer and Lara Fishbane, May 1, 2020, Figure 1. The Brookings Institution

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 georgiasarkin@gmail.com.

Virtual vs. in-person community meetings

Virtual vs. in-person community meetings

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

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

Welcome Home, San Carlos 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of community engagement 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandemic call and response: Planners protecting and promoting health

Pandemic call and response: Planners protecting and promoting health

This article was published earlier in CalPlanner, Volume 20, Issue 1, June 2020

By Diana Benitez and Jessica Medina, June 2020

Pandemic call to action

CALIFORNIA WAS THE FIRST STATE to enact shelter in place orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic, calling for jurisdictions to immediately implement drastic public health policies and practices. Historically, California has other firsts in the public health and planning fields, one important example being the Planning for Healthy Communities Act (SB1000). As planners with a solid understanding of the social determinants of health and the role of planning in shaping these conditions, we see SB1000 as an important step forward.

Despite California’s history of progressive approaches to health, our state has been hit hard by the pandemic. Most troubling is that our numbers tell a well-known story of health outcome disparities for people of color, particularly for Blacks, Latinos, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, who are experiencing both a disproportionate rate of incidence and rate of mortality.

Descriptive statistics reported by the State of California regarding positive Covid-19 cases broken down by gender, age, and race/ethnicity.
Source: State of California Coronavirus Covid-19 Statewide Update 5/19/20 – Positive Cases (https://update.covid19.ca.gov – shows current statistics)

The Covid-19 experience will affect communities and planning for decades to come and this is why we are collaborating with Planners4Health California on Planning + Health in the Time of Covid-19, a webinar series and call to action.

Protecting community health today

Conversations with approximately 200 participants show us that local governments, planners, and communities are responding swiftly and with great imagination to promote physical distancing and protect community health. Compelling approaches and actions identified include:

  1. Cities being flexible with zoning policies to support essential businesses by easing noise restrictions and creating curbside pick-up protocols;
  2. Planners continuing community outreach and stakeholder engagement by going virtual, through video calls or text messaging, or back to their roots, with phone calls and mailers;
  3. Cities prioritizing shelter through tenant protections, opening up hotel rooms for unhoused residents, and moving forward with affordable housing development;
  4. Planners prioritizing streets for active transportation, recreation, and public transit for all by closing them off to vehicles, automated pedestrian crosswalk signals, eliminated fares, and continued on-demand services; and
  5. Cities cautiously reopening parks and beaches to enhance mental and physical health while maintaining social distance guidelines with shortened hours, active uses, and closed parking lots.

These approaches and actions protect residents from the spread of the virus, yet complicate our analysis of health equity. For example, planners are opening streets for recreation by closing them off to vehicles. The designation of these Slow Streets is done without a full consideration of whether neighborhoods want and need this response. An equity analysis would involve community input and gathering data on existing conditions and sentiments and perhaps find that some communities want to prioritize medical emergency response access, rely on vehicles for access to jobs in essential sectors, or do not feel safe in public spaces due to the over-policing and violence on Black and Brown bodies.

Promoting health equity beyond the crisis

Covid-19 has created a crisis mentality that can be paralyzing, but long-range planning is an essential service that must continue to move forward. As planners, we are concurrently responding to the crisis at hand, while keeping an eye on emerging trends and considering the future implications on cities and communities. Our thoughts at this point span across a spectrum of crisis management, trauma intervention, social resilience, land use, and application of new methodologies to build on our understanding and implementation of SB 1000:

  1. Making space and creating time for community members to process, grieve, and adjust to the crisis, before resuming planning activities and advocating for continued use of flexible engagement tools and practices after the pandemic;
  2. Learning from grassroots mutual aid efforts models that outreach to neighbors to identify physical, social, and economic needs and develop rapid response networks to address those needs;
  3. Upholding the health-promoting values of our public spaces and goods from sidewalks and streets to parks and beaches to air and water quality and beyond; and
  4. Taking advantage of the health planning tools and resources available to develop comprehensive equitable policies to mitigate future health crises.

The call to action will remain after this pandemic and we will continue to have the opportunity to rewrite the often-told story of health inequities. If we respond with intention, we can build a healthier and more equitable California.

Diana Benitez
 (left) and Jessica Medina are Intermediate Planners/Designers at Raimi + Associates, working on general plans, sustainability, health, and SB 1000 implementation. Both are sheltering in place in Los Angeles and engaging others in imagining healthy futures — for example, Diana’s leadership in Planners4Health California. You can reach Diana at diana@raimiassociates.com


A rewarding profession

A rewarding profession

By David Woltering, AICP, June 24, 2020

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.”

Gaining knowledge

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.

David Woltering, AICP, lives in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at dwoltering@aol.com.

Nine pathways to much-needed housing

Nine pathways to much-needed housing

By Leila Hakimizadeh, AICP, and John David Beutler, AICP, June 3, 2020

This article presents our professional opinions, not those of our employers.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SAFE, AFFORDABLE HOMES has become even more apparent these last three months. Those without homes cannot safely shelter in place; and overcrowded housing, not dense housing, promotes the spread of disease. Our housing crisis has exacerbated the covid-19 crisis.

We believe desperately-needed new housing can be added if we upgrade zoning and design standards and adopt policies that promote smart density. As planners we should focus on and find ways to protect existing residents, preserve affordable homes, and produce more housing (the three Ps of Assembly Bill 1487). We must rethink regulations and policies that impede the construction of new housing and that contribute to the housing crisis. These nine strategies remove obstacles to new housing by upgrading zoning and design standards and putting policies in place to promote smart density:

1. Allow for a wider range of housing options, and in more locations.

A monoculture of single-family detached housing reduces an area’s potential number and diversity of housing units without increasing neighborhood livability. We must update land use policies to enable a wide range of housing types in addition to single-family and midrise multifamily, (e.g., duplex, triplex, fourplex, live/work units, townhouses, and accessory dwelling units). Often called “missing middle housing,” these types allow the market to increase housing density and diversity with buildings that maintain a similar scale to single family housing. Density doesn’t mean taller, larger, and out of place.

Allow for a wide range of missing middle housing. This fourplex sits comfortably next to single-family homes and is neither taller nor wider.

2. Reduce arbitrary setback requirements.

Setbacks are one of the least-considered and yet most-pervasive development controls. The spaces resulting from setbacks, particularly side yard setbacks, are frequently unusable and do nothing for the urban environment. Over one third of a parcel’s developable land can easily be lost to setbacks, forcing sprawl and reducing walkability. We should know what we are trying to achieve with a setback and how much space is required. For instance, since backyard fences are often six to seven feet high, a one-story building at the parcel line does not diminish its neighbor’s light and air more than the neighbor’s own fence.

This garage at the property line serves well as part of the neighbor’s fence. A required setback would waste land.

3. Remove parking minimums.

Eliminating parking minimums will maximize residential development capacity and reduce housing costs. In expensive cities, the $25,000 to $50,000 cost for each off-street parking space makes housing more expensive and the space required for parking reduces space for housing. In many of our denser urban areas, ride-hail apps, car-share, and bikeshare, combined with walking and public transit, have made personal car storage less important. Furthermore, when self-driving cars become a reality, car ownership will precipitously decline. Cities like San Francisco and San Diego are already eliminating parking minimums and the sky is not falling.

Parking degrades the sidewalk and takes space away from housing. Structured parking is particularly expensive.

4. Relax stepbacks, the so-called daylight requirements.

To mitigate the effects of taller development near existing low-density housing, standards sometimes require stepbacks for the taller building. But a 45-degree daylight requirement can greatly reduce housing capacity, particularly for small parcels in areas with many existing single-family dwellings. This reduction makes affordable housing less feasible and diminishes our ability to accommodate families in need.

5. Loosen open space requirements for projects close to parks and community amenities.

One of the great advantages of cities is shared amenities. Not every cluster of homes has to provide its own school, fire station, or grocery store. And like these and other amenities, open space can be shared and need not be provided on every lot or for every unit. A house across the street from a park should not have to provide the same on-site open space as a house a mile from the nearest park.

There is little need for on-site open space near parks. Shared amenities like parks are among the strengths of urban life.

6. Define what we mean by neighborhood “character.”

Some policies require that developments be compatible with established neighborhoods, leading those opposed to development to label a proposed building as “out of character.” “Character” in this context has a fraught history. It has been used loosely and unjustly to exclude minorities and those lower on the socio-economic ladder from certain areas. Cities can set maintaining community character as a goal, but they need to define what that “character” is and, thus, what is an acceptable issue to discuss in relation to new development. A model for this is the study of the existing conditions that define neighborhood character in preparation for the adoption of form-based codes (FBCs).

Neighborhood character comes in all sizes. This apartment building fits as well in its neighborhood as would a single-family home.

7. Embrace small lots.

Many land use policies encourage lot assembly, yet large-lot development tends to be over-scaled and inwardly focused. Combining lots is even worse for historic districts or neighborhoods with fine-grained building and lot patterns, and affordable housing developers might not have the means to assemble parcels. Walkable cities are dense but built at a human scale, like many older parts of Bay Area cities.

This new development on a 100-foot-wide lot shows there is no need to consolidate lots for overscaled buildings.

8. Incentivize small units.

Patrick Condon, in his new book, “5 Rules for Tomorrow Cities” (2020), discusses the “collapse of birth-rate” worldwide. As of 2018, the average number of births per woman in the US was 1.73 and declining. Family housing is important, but cities should also provide smaller, less expensive units to match trends in family size and allow more people to enter the housing market. Regulations or policies that cap the number of units (but not the building area) encourage fewer, larger units and discourage smaller, more affordable units.

9. Influence the conversion of outdated malls and big box stores to housing.

Changes in the retail market and potential state-level action (as proposed in SB 1385) will be stimulating the conversion of big box stores, empty parking lots, and outdated shopping malls to housing. Rather than be caught off guard, municipalities can be proactive in creating design standards for this conversion and by enabling horizontal mixed-use development.

Let’s get to work

Even though we are beset by covid-19 and other crises, we must not lose sight of our longest running crisis, a woefully inadequate supply of all kinds of housing. Rather than succumb to the illusion that a particular building style should dominate, we need to provide housing of all types in our urban and suburban areas. We offered nine policy recommendations to help you craft the regulations that will create the better and more inclusive cities we all want.


Leila Hakimizadeh, AICP, is a Planner IV-Supervising Planner with extensive experience in land use and transportation planning, urban design and housing. She is a socially-conscious, passionate, determined change-maker and city builder. Leila utilizes equity, diversity, inclusiveness, sustainability and public health measures to facilitate greater community engagement and create lasting impacts for a diverse population. She uses her consensus-building and analytical skills to address urban planning challenges with creative solutions. You can reach her at leila.hakimizadeh@gmail.com.

John David Beutler, AICP, has worked as an urban designer at the intersection of urbanism, land use, and transportation for the last 20 years, first at Calthorpe Associates and then Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). John’s work has focused on the importance of human scale and human-centric design in addressing issues of sustainability and equity. He works at scales from the building to the street, neighborhood, city and region. You can reach him at johnbeutler@hotmail.com