Tag: 2020-08-nn-feature

Key characteristics of vibrant places

Key characteristics of vibrant places

By Noah Friedman, August 18, 2020

One of the most common questions clients, communities, and policy makers ask me — an urban designer and planner — is, “What makes a vibrant place?” And what exactly does “vibrant” mean?

Simply put, to be vibrant is to be full of energy, enthusiasm, activity, and life — in other words, healthy and alive. The presence and amount of vibrancy is a reasonable proxy for a city’s general health and well-being. Now, as ever, understanding what makes vibrant places — where we can come together — is essential to the future of our cities.

We’ve used Vibemap — which combines geolocated data, machine learning, and user input — to identify five key characteristics of vibrant places.

Vibemap is a city discovery app that launches September 7. It shows people where they want to be based on their vibe (a unique character or “spirit of place” that is intuitively felt) and their interests. It connects people to places, events, and experiences that match their vibe.

Understanding city vibrancy is central to Vibemap’s mission of bringing people together in new ways and experiencing the magic of showing up in real life. It’s no surprise that some of the most popular places in cities where people want to be are also the most vibrant.

Vibrant places come about as a result of hundreds, if not thousands of small and seemingly unrelated decisions over long periods of time. It’s the coming together of socio-economic factors, geographic setting, and physical characteristics that help determine the character of a place.

Below are five key characteristics that are present in most vibrant places.

  • 1. Flow: As with any organism that is “pulsing with life,” the robustness and health of the flow of people is paramount to establishing the vibrancy of a city. Connectivity — ease of and access for people — is the lifeline of urban activity. Thus major public transit stations with high frequency of service are at the heart of vibrant places. Major light rail or bus stops are smaller (but also important) nodes of neighborhood vibrancy.
The many scooters available at Oakland’s 19th Street BART Station attest to the sheer volume of people that use this station daily. Image: Noah Friedman
  • 2. Well-loved public places: People are drawn (and will come back) to places that make them feel safe and welcome. Well-loved public places are open, inclusive, and welcoming with a wide variety of vibes. Typically these places are special destinations within a larger network of connected paths and places, making them desired and valued by people in the surrounding areas. Neighborhood parks, plazas, and slow streets provide vital and convenient places for city life to unfold daily. Some of the most well-loved public places — public parks and waterfronts — can be regional and citywide destinations.
Lake Merritt is a public place well-loved by people of all vibes, and has been an essential space for rejuvenation and for people to come together during the pandemic while staying safe. Image: Noah Friedman
  • 3. Cultural amenities: Cultural centers are places that are open to everyone, where people go for cultural exchange. These places are very “vibey”: lots of people of many different backgrounds and interests and with different types of vibes come together in places like theaters, art museums, and urban plazas. Other, smaller scale cultural centers are sprinkled throughout cities and neighborhoods in the form of schools, libraries, and community centers.
People of all backgrounds make cultural centers “vibey” places. Shown here in April 2020, the Fox Theater was still messaging its audience even though its doors were closed: “Stay safe and healthy! Back soon!” Image: Noah Friedman
  • 4. Places and events: A critical defining characteristic of a vibrant place is the amount and density of unique businesses and events in that place. Vibrant places tend to have more “active” ground floor businesses and event venues in close proximity. Vibrancy is dynamic, however; it changes throughout the day and year. The level of activity in any place results from many factors, including its “online or social media” presence, which in turn can have a dramatic impact on how it is perceived, and thus, on its popularity.
Impact Hub Oakland is a non-profit co-working space located in The Hive. It is adjacent to a Red Bay Coffee, Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream, Drake’s Dealership, People’s Barber & Shop, and Calavera Mexican Restaurant. This cluster of ground floor businesses has created a hub of human activity. Image: Noah Friedman
  • 5. Vibe: Every place has a unique character or “spirit of place” that is intuitively felt. Whether it’s known as “genius loci” or a “tutelary” spirit, this concept — found in almost every culture around the world — refers to the overall sentiment of a place, i.e., a place’s vibe. In this digital age, we constantly leave our feelings about places on social media, on review sites, and on local blogs. By collecting this sentiment data, Vibemap can determine the sentiment, feeling, or vibe of a place. What is so exciting about this layer is that vibes cut across most identities and are oftentimes shared by people of wildly different backgrounds.
It is no coincidence that Frank Ogawa Plaza is the place where people go to express their concerns about social inequity and systemic racism. People are constantly leaving clues here to help us understand the true spirit of this place and the people of Oakland. Image: Noah Friedman

Vibemap combines these five attributes of vibrant places into a database and mapping platform. It gives a real-time analysis of what is happening in a city — identifying how a city’s vibrancy constantly changes hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and according to what people are looking for from their city. Using machine learning, Vibemap is identifying affinities between the vibrancy of a place and people’s interests in order to connect people to the small businesses, happenings, and special places that match their unique understanding of what a vibrant city means to them. It offers up a more inclusive way of understanding city vibrancy, one that changes based on the qualities you value in your city.

As individuals, we can ask Vibemap to take us where our interests lie. For us as planners and urban designers, Vibemap’s data is useful to redefine a traditionally static version of vibrancy and to help create a more inclusive understanding of what makes our special places — and our cities — great.

Return to the September issue here.

NOAH FRIED­MAN has worked for near­ly 20 years in archi­tecture, urban de­sign, plan­ning, and develop­ment at Perkins+Will, SOM, and Pyatok Architects. He currently is using his skills to help strengthen human connection and increase social consciousness at Vibemap.com. Friedman holds a master’s degree in urban design from UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s in architecture from the University of Oregon. He will be speaking on Visualizing Density at the California APA conference, September 15, 4 pm. You can reach him at noah@vibemap.com.


Inflection point: What we do when significant change occurs 

Inflection point: What we do when significant change occurs 

By Andrea Ouse, AICP, August 17, 2020 

“The real property above described, or any portion thereof, shall never be occupied, used, or resided on by any person not of the white Caucasian race, except in the capacity of a servant or domestic employed thereon as such by a white Caucasian owner, tenant, or occupant.” —Declaration of Restrictions, recorded February 17, 1954. 

I remember, while researching a project file as an entry-level planner for a Bay Area community, finding the above provision in the Codes, Covenants, and Restrictions (CC&Rs) recorded on the subdivision. Despite discovering this 20 years ago, I still recall the feeling of disgust in the pit of my stomach. The developer of this subdivision was celebrated in the community as an American success story, resulting in the City naming a community center and a major boulevard in his honor. This was an inflection point for me — I’ve carried a copy of those CC&Rs around since that day. Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 rendered this racist provision unenforceable, the stench of it remains in that community to this day.

With a national discussion occurring throughout the country, I decided to focus on racial equity and how planners can approach, normalize, and prioritize allyship in our work.

For context and to help me frame a very complex, multi-dimensional issue, I sought out my friend and California Planning Roundtable colleague, Jeanette Dinwiddie-Moore, FAICP, and the owner of Dinwiddie & Associates. She is a highly respected contributor to our profession and has been a strong voice for BIPOC planners for many years.

As planners, our work is both expansive and granular. We are also often the agents driving the changes voiced by the community. Meanwhile, our recent, continuing, and collective national conversation on racial bias has generated incredibly pertinent and valuable content.

The American Planning Association has been at the forefront of a coordinated commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion in all forms, and for many years. For example, APA California continues to lead in efforts to train members in implicit bias and cultural competency, and the chapter annually sponsors successful Diversity Summits at its conferences.

Are we doing enough? No. We have a renewed moral and ethical imperative to learn about, acknowledge, and address systemic racism in the communities we serve.

As I’ve learned, and as confirmed by Jeanette, many land-use policies, regulations, and processes have intensified racial segregation, poverty, environmental injustice, poor health outcomes, and gentrification. Recognizing and accepting the role our profession has played in developing and perpetuating the toolbox used to build and maintain those inequalities over the past century is an important first step. But only our daily actions will be able to truly propel the societal reckoning.

I recognize planners are limited in what we can do to dismantle racism and discrimination. Our country was built, in part, on the principles of economic growth and continental expansion through the occupation of Native American land and the use of slave labor — that is, by exploiting the powerless. Though antiracist movements and legislation of the 1950s and 1960s compelled policymakers to outlaw most forms of explicit discrimination, racism continued to underserve specific populations both covertly and overtly.

Among the key takeaways from my conversation with Jeanette was that our profession has little impact on certain economic factors, such as the wage inequality that leads to lower rates of homeownership among minorities. We can commit, however, to listening to the historically marginalized communities and learning about the unconscious bias and larger structural forces that have influenced discriminatory land-use decisions of the past. Oral histories and personal narratives can be important, especially those specific to the outcome of social, economic, and environmental injustice that have negatively impacted Black and Brown neighborhoods and communities.

Jeannette’s wealth of experience piqued my intellectual curiosity about the most effective means to influence a community’s equitable future. More than just calling for action, or recognizing racial disparities throughout society, planners can be mediators, acknowledging failings of the past with a vision of racial and economic equity. We can strive to continually communicate equity as a standard for our communities.

That means that the norms we professional planners have adopted and propagated over decades should be examined through a new, more inclusive lens. We have an ethical obligation to recognize and learn from the impacts of our profession’s past. We must actively listen to and engage with underserved communities that may be distrustful because past actions of our profession marginalized them. By acknowledging past offenses or neglect, we can promote inclusivity at all levels.

I chose this professional path to work for the greater good, and with diverse peoples and needs in mind. Maybe you did too. This moment of inflection gives us permission to combine that overarching view with self-reflection and meaningful engagement. Rather than saying we are only technicians, we should hold ourselves, and the communities we serve, accountable for the impacts of the decision-makers’ decisions.

There’s never been a better time for us to completely reimagine our entire system of planning and building. In the process, we will unify our purpose and advance our profession. A new and more empathetic approach to community engagement and policy development will hear the voices that have historically been disregarded.

So let us hone our active listening and seek out the areas in which we can build trust with all of those marginalized groups who have been shut out of establishing the community’s vision. Driving such a societal shift will require of us great stamina, fortitude, and a dedication to seeing through the long struggle toward more equitable short, medium, and long-term outcomes.

Jeannette reminded me that the AICP Code of Ethics cites principles that include seeking social justice by planning for the needs of the disadvantaged, while promoting racial and economic integration. The time is now to put those words into action. Let’s begin this task.

Return to the September issue here.

ANDREA OUSE, AICP, is Director of Com­munity and Economic develop­ment, City of Con­cord, California, a position she has held for three years after an equivalent position with the City of Vallejo. Ouse was Sec­tion Director in 2015 and 2016 for APA California–Northern Section. Her degrees include a master in public administration from California State University–East Bay and a bachelor of science in city and regional planning from Cal Poly–San Luis Obispo. 

Planning profession trends under Covid-19

Planning profession trends under Covid-19

By Mark Rhoades, AICP, August 19, 2020 

The end of summer vacation and the beginning of the school year bring stark reminders that Covid-19 is forcing much change on our communities 

It brings us to an important moment in the planning profession — an “inflection moment,” as Andrea Ouse, AICP, writes in this issue. The changes show everywhere, from public processes and online data management to housing legislation and implementation, and the need for change is emphasized by our acknowledgement of institutionalized racism as raised by Black Lives Matter. We have all seen and participated in heroic efforts to get our communities’ processes online to create a new public participation process.  

Covid-19 and public process  

The shelter in place emergency of Covid-19 gave a steroid boost to online participation and data management that has fundamentally and irreversibly shifted the workplace and local government processes. 

It forced local agencies to develop new ways of engaging the public in land-use processes. Many local agencies pivoted to online decisionmaking to keep the housing and discretionary process moving. Zoom and GoToMeeting became the primary public process platforms for decisionmaking, proving that the public’s business doesn’t need to be conducted in person 

As a result, the planning profession is participating in a worldwide beta test of efficient and inclusive processes conducted via cell phones and home computers. Smartphones, Zoom, and GoToMeeting have not only made it much easier for more people to participate, they also have reduced the potential for rancorous debate while invalidating any previous requirementthat someone show up in person to be acknowledged at a hearingLocal governments that weren’t already fully online for applications are finding that in-person visits to planning agencies are less and less necessary. 

At the same time, governments and other employers realized that people can effectively work from home. This could steer development away from “offices” and provide more land for housing.  

Black Lives Matter, land use, and institutionalized racism 

The parallel surge of the BLM movement during the pandemic — on the heels of books like Natalie Moore’s “The South Side,” Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” and Randy Shaw’s “Generation Priced Out” — was a wakeup call to planners. It laid bare how we as a profession helped racism through exclusionary land use and zoning policies, growth caps, a prevalence of, and emphasis on, single-family zoning, discretionary project review, landmarks preservation, and other structures we thought were well meaning 

These structures, led and nurtured by federal, state, and local planning decisions, massively suppressed the housing supply in communities that most needed it. Now California suffers from a statewide dearth of affordable housing. While housing supply, or the lack thereof, has been a political decisionhousing affordability is an economic outcome based on numerous market-based factors. 

Planners should not confuse the two. Rent control programs are band-aids because they don’t address the problem of supply — as demonstrated in Berkeley and Santa Monica, where housing is unaffordable because supply lagged despite decades of rent control. For exampleBerkeley approved fewer than 200 new dwelling units between 1970 and 1995. 

The focus on institutionalized racism follows recent state legislative efforts to remove local agencies from making a host of decisions on new housing. The State Density Bonus Law and the Housing Accountability Act have significantly reduced the allowance for public input on many kinds of housing development projects. This does not excite cities used to lengthier and more discretionary processes. Planners are stuck in the middle trying to be responsive to local political decisionmakers and community participants, while also trying to comply with more, and more aggressive, state laws. More by-right zoning, implementation tied to policy development, and limitations on housing discretion will be implemented much more broadly statewide in the coming months and years.  

Bills like SB 330, SB 35, and AB 2162 are examples. Local control and the politicization and focalization of land use are primary reasons for the 50-year lack of housing production. The State and Councils of Government will be pushing for much larger increments of new housing. CEQA is being pushed aside, as housing opponents are unable to use it to challenge qualifying housing projects in urbanized areas.  

The widely recognized inequities of single-family and very lowdensity zoning are also being targeted by the stateWe see this in the advent of compulsory requirements for ADUs and Junior ADUs, which are essentially eliminating single-family zoning across the state. The trend to more intensively using urbanized land byright, particularly in urbanized and transit-oriented areas, will continue to grow.  

Where do we go from here? 

As many locales begin the difficult process of reexamining their land use policies with BLM in mind, everything about our profession is up for re-examinationAnd as the legislature and local agencies work toward greater housing equity and supply, they will also be looking for ways to make digital access the norm in planning operations. Planners should take this time to listen and to advise their decision-makers on the best paths forward. Your energy and courage will be required in all of this. 

Return to the September issue here.

MARK RHOADES, AICP, has been a prac­tic­ing urban plan­ner in Cali­fornia for more than 30 years, in­clud­ing 10 years as City Plan­ning Manager for the City of Berkeley. He is a member of the California Plan­ning Round­table, which just released “Planning to House California – Beyond 2020.” Rhoades studied urban planning at Cal Poly Pomona and UC Berkeley, and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and urban studies from UC Riverside. He was editor of Northern News from 1994-1996 and Section Director of APA California–Northern from 1999–2000. He now focuses on housing policy and implementation, primarily through the Rhoades Planning Group. This is the fifth in a series of articles from our past Section Directors.