The first six months of 2020 have redefined the role parks play in our communities.
We know (and may take for granted) that parks offer opportunities for recreation, attract development interest, connect people to nature, and promote walking and biking. This precious social infrastructure has also adapted to include new uses: immunity-boosting and mental health healing, supporting essential services (particularly food cultivation and services distribution), providing opportunities for economic recovery, and allowing protestors a safe outdoor place to gather.
The growth in demand and expansion of park uses compels us to redefine the role of parks, and our role as the community that supports them.
This year brought with it unprecedented challenges to communities, cities, and civics. The Covid-19 health crisis exposed vulnerabilities in our public health and safety network. The pandemic and the ensuing shelter-in-place practices led to a precipitous economic downturn and historically high unemployment. The protests following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others exposed systemic racism and oppression that was all too familiar for Black people and communities of color.
So how does the Guadalupe River Park affect its surrounding community?
Guadalupe River Park and Gardens is a three-mile ribbon of parkland that runs along the banks of the Guadalupe River in the heart of downtown San Jose. It is geographically central to the transformation of San Jose by one of the region’s largest public infrastructure and private development projects in the Diridon Station Area, where BART, California High Speed Rail, Google’s Downtown West, and a number of smaller commercial, residential, and transportation developments are underway. At the same time, the housing affordability and homelessness crises have led to a significant population living dangerously close to a river that floods annually. Not only does that leave many without the dignity of a home, it exacerbates a contentious relationship between encampments and ecology.
The San Jose community is faced with navigating uncharted territory, centering collective prosperity around public life, and restructuring our social, civic, and economic systems for equity. We must work toward these goals, keeping in mind the layered challenges of a public health crisis, systemic racism, and economic downturn. With those in mind, we can audit the social infrastructure and community assets we already possess and invest in them in ways that will translate to the greatest level of community benefit. A place to begin is with our parks.
Are parks the panacea for all of our social ills? No.
Do they play a part, both in the near and long term, in our community’s resilience? Absolutely.
Can we position our parks to be more responsive to the changing and expanding roles they continue to play in our community? Yes.
Catalyzed by investment from the Knight Foundation and the City of San Jose Department of Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services, the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy (GRPC) has embarked on a partnership with the City and SPUR to better understand how the Guadalupe River Park can affect the environmental, economic, and equity factors in our community. GRPC, as San Jose’s nonprofit partner for the active use and development of the Guadalupe River Park, promotes education, advocacy, and stewardship. We believe the River Park can become San Jose’s “civic greenway,” offering a place for people to connect with community, history, nature, and each other.
To better understand how our park can serve the ecosystem of community-based supporters who share a vision for a better River Park, we will develop a long-term direction for the park through a visioning and community engagement process. This process will also require a certain amount of GRPC introspection as to the type of organization that can best address the multitude of priorities for park use.
Our success will depend on civic partnerships and leveraging the decades of leadership that continue to propel aspirations and optimism for our River Park. Our alliance of community partners include SPUR, the Rotary Club of San Jose, South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition, Urban Confluence, UC Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County, city and county elected leaders, other public officials, neighborhood residents, businesses, cultural institutions, and more.
We all have ideas about how a great public space should look. However, this year has taught us the need to reframe the discussion in order to serve our communities more equitably. Through this initiative, we intend to re-examine these questions:
What makes a great public space?
What can public spaces do to capture the spirit of our city?
How can public spaces reflect the needs of our neighborhoods and the crises, present and systemic, that we collectively face?
The conversation is no longer what a park needs in order to become a great public space, but what a park needs to provide in order to make the community a great public place.
Join us as we reflect and re-envision what a great public place means.
Jason Su is Executive Director of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy. You can reach him firstname.lastname@example.org.
Small-scale improvements in parks and recreation amenities can make a big difference in California’s small- and mid-sized communities.
The $4 billion Parks, Environment, and Water Bond Act of 2018 passed by California voters created significant funding for parks improvements and expansion, especially for underserved communities. Cash-strapped communities have tapped Prop 68 funds to address long overdue parks needs, and now, with impacts of Covid taking hold, the competition is heating up for grants. With three rounds of funding complete, the fourth round of $395 million has an application deadline of Dec. 14. How can applicants maximize their chances? What’s made for successful projects before, and how best to pursue future funding?
Through our work designing parks and outdoor spaces, we’ve seen some recurring themes in winning proposals for Prop 68 funds and other submittal processes. As with all RFPs and selections, close adherence to program guidelines is crucial. A key goal of Prop 68’s current funding program is enhancing access for all ages and abilities, especially for parks in disadvantaged and ‘under-greened’ communities.
Here’s an update on the program and tips for success.
In the past year alone, state parks distributed $254.9 million in 62 grants to 52 recipients under the Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Grant Program funded by Proposition 68. Funded projects run the gamut and the geography of California, from rural to urban, and from small renovations to major new facilities. While several large cities received $8.5 million top-line grants, smaller projects can make important impacts, such as the $640,000 grant for La Placita Parkette Renovation in Placentia, Orange County.
Cites and parks jurisdictions are working diligently to meet the next deadline, Dec. 14, and those who miss out will want to consider applying — or trying for next year’s round.
In our work designing and implementing parks projects in California, we’ve found the Prop 68 grants process well organized. To optimize chances for success, applicants can:
— Plan early, study other projects, and refine until yours is the best it can be. Some efforts start six to 12 months ahead.
— Create high-impact projects that can serve diverse populations in virtually every part of the community.
— Reach out to get community input — crucial for strong applications and successful implementations.
— Leverage opportunities to distinguish beneficial design. For example, points are awarded for seeking LEED and SITES certification.
The range and flexibility of Prop 68 funding is far reaching.
Moraga, for example, pursued funding to increase usability and accessibility at their beloved neighborhood park, Moraga Commons. The highly used recreation destination will soon implement plans for new amenities including barbecue grills, shade trellises, picnic area improvements, and an improved accessible pathway to the recently added all-abilities play area.
In Union City, the Contempo Park project used grant funding to bring it into compliance with ADA. Significant improvements included upgrading an existing picnic area to, among other things, adjust grades, replace tables, benches, and barbeque grills, update walkways throughout the park, and provide access to the existing playgrounds — also making them ADA compliant.
Applications for Prop 68, due Dec. 14 for the current round of funding, are in the home stretch, but jurisdictions with ideas — big and small — for their underserved constituents can still get moving on a submittal this year, or look ahead to the next rounds.
For more information, visit the Prop 68 site. There you’ll find information on current Prop 68 funding as well as two further programs now in comments phases that would provide more opportunity: the Regional Park Program and the Rural Recreation and Tourism Program.
Casey Case is President of Gates + Associates, a landscape architecture and urban design firm in San Ramon, CA, with clients in California and the western U.S. She holds a BS in landscape architecture from UC Davis.
This article, originally published inNext City,is republished in its entirety, with permission.
At the end of March, when the severity of the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to become plain, the Oakland City Council passed an emergency resolution asking the city “to acquire buildings, facilities, and supplies for the provision of aide [sic] and housing to the homeless residents to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in homeless communities.”
There were around 1,500 cases of Covid-19 in the whole state of California at the time. Now, the state has seen over 800,000 cases, and more than 15,000 Californians have died from Covid-19. But, partly because of the early urgency to find housing in hotel rooms for some people experiencing homelessness, Covid-19 deaths among homeless communities in many cities have been lower than some once feared. And communities like Oakland are turning to a state program that is designed to establish thousands of new housing units for people experiencing homeless by the end of the year. The program, called Project Homekey, was announced by California Governor Gavin Newsom in June, and involves administering $600 million in state and federal emergency funds to buy hotels and establish permanent housing facilities for people experiencing homelessness. So far, the program is helping to create housing units at a third of the cost of building new.
“The terrible pandemic we’re facing has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy all these vacant properties, and we’re using federal stimulus money to do it,” Newsom said at the announcement in June. “Hand in hand with our county partners, we are on the precipice of the most meaningful expansion of homeless housing in decades.”
The program grew out of Project Roomkey, the state’s effort to provide hotel rooms for unsheltered people during the Covid-19 outbreak. It’s designed to take advantage of the fact that hotel stays have plummeted during the pandemic, giving owners a much greater incentive to sell. It combines $550 million of federal CARES Act money with $50 million from California’s general fund. Cities and counties are able to apply for funding to buy buildings that can be used permanently to serve families experiencing homelessness in various ways, and all the money has to be spent by the end of the year. The state began issuing awards this month.
The City of Oakland submitted four applications, says Shola Olatoye, the city’s director of housing and community development. In September, the city received funding for two of them. The $20 million grant will allow the city to purchase a vacant dormitory building owned by California College of the Arts to create 63 units for seniors and families, and, working with the nonprofit Bay Area Community Services, create another 100 units for people experiencing homelessness at scattered sites around the city. The 163 new units don’t match the scale of homelessness in Oakland, but Olatoye says the Project Homekey funding is a chance to make a dent in the city’s housing shortage, and it was only possible because of federal funding and the planning work the city did prior to the program being announced.
“While we as a city do not currently have enough resources to build new units to address the 4,700 souls that sleep on the street every night, I think these two projects represent the possibility of what this city can do when it aligns its policy, its resources, and its program,” Olatoye says. “We do not have to be an example of homeless and housing policy gone bad.”
One of the first-round awardees was Contra Costa County, which received $21 million to acquire a 174-room motel in the city of Pittsburg, where Newsom first announced Project Homekey. Aside from that facility, there are only around 20 shelter beds for the 500-some people experiencing homelessness in the eastern part of the county, says Lavonna Martin, the county’s director of health, housing and homeless services. The county plans to acquire the building and use it permanently as interim housing for people experiencing homelessness, Martin says. Once the negotiation for purchasing the property is complete, there “aren’t a tremendous amount of modifications that need to take place,” she says.
“The wonderful thing about hotel rooms and non-congregate settings is that you have the flexibility to serve individuals, couples, and different family configurations,” Martin says. “It’s not unique in that it’s a hotel, but it’s unique in that it’s exactly where we need the resources right now in our community.”
Earlier in the summer, as part of a series called “Housing Justice in the Time of Covid-19,” the Luskin Institute for Inequality and Democracy at UCLA issued a report calling for cities like Los Angeles to expand on Project Roomkey by permanently acquiring hotels to establish affordable housing, using eminent domain if necessary. Gary Blasi, a professor of law emeritus at UCLA School of Law who co-authored the report, says that Project Homekey is the right use of emergency government funds.
“If you gave me half a billion and asked me to spend it by the end of the year, I can’t imagine any other potentially workable solution that could accomplish getting so many units online in relatively short order,” Blasi says.
Some nonprofit groups have already experimented with converting old hotels and motels into housing for unsheltered people, Blasi says, and it’s been clear for a while such a strategy could be scaled up with more funding.
“I think the difference here is the urgency that’s caused, ironically, not so much by the suffering of the people on the streets as the deadline on the money,” Blasi says. “It suggests to me that if you want to accomplish something on an urgent basis, this is the way to go.”
Under Project Homekey, cities and counties are having to make deals so quickly that it may turn out that the terms of some of the acquisitions aren’t as optimal as they might be under other circumstances, Blasi says. But it’s also true that owners have more incentive to sell, because the pandemic has ruined the business model for so many of them. And it’s better to get any amount of good new housing online than “the usual pace of ‘Let’s study the situation for another year or two,’ ” Blasi says. Meanwhile, the recession is likely to push even more families into homelessness over the next year. And other cities and states should consider making their emergency use of hotels permanent where possible, Blasi says.
“There’s a stock of this short-term housing that the economy is going to change the demand for and the pandemic is going to change the demand for,” Blasi says. “So in terms of quick acquisitions that can be stood up and made available in a short time frame, it’s worth exploring anywhere in the country, particularly for those … properties that are basically working-class motels that have direct access to the outdoors. Those are going to be safer long-term, and anything that’s two stories and doesn’t require getting on an elevator is going to make a lot of sense.”
If all of the Project Homekey money is deployed to acquire housing at an average of $130,000 per unit, it will create around 4,600 new units for people experiencing homelessness. That’s housing for just around 3 percent of the state’s homeless population — far less than what’s needed, but still a substantial infusion of housing in a short period of time, advocates say. And it wouldn’t be possible without federal funds.
“We can do this, but we can’t do it alone,” says Olatoye. “I think that’s what Homekey really highlights, is that we need a public partner. We need the state and we need the feds to help execute on this, We know what works. Give us the resources and we will execute on this.”
This article appeared as part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable, and more environmentally sustainable.
Jared Brey is Next City’s housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, APA California Northern News, and other publications.
By Leila Hakimizadeh, AICP, and John David Beutler, AICP. This article, a version of which was published in Strong Towns, September 24, 2020, presents the authors’ professional opinions, not those of their employers.
Elmwood is a fifteen-minute, tree-lined walk southwest of the campus of UC Berkeley. Centered on a two-block commercial street at the intersection of two-lane roads, Elmwood is filled with small apartment buildings, parks, and craftsman bungalows with flower-filled, water-efficient front yards. An irregular street grid links everything and offers views east to a row of hills and west to San Francisco Bay. While not short of college students, the area is a mix of families, the retired, rich, poor, and middle class. All support Elmwood’s restaurants, stores, shops, and the movie theater. The area has a school, a library, and a small hospital. Elmwood is a neighborhood.
Neighborhoods have become rare in much of the United States. Andrés Duany once told of a woman who informed him that she was interested in protecting her neighborhood. “No, ma’am,” he replied, “you live in a subdivision.” Indeed, most people outside core cities, in areas built after 1940, live in isolated, drive-to housing developments with businesses congregated around arterials. This is sprawl, reinforced by zoning, traffic engineering, retail practices, and social discrimination, and it has disrupted and hollowed out older mixed-use neighborhoods.
Yet the last few decades have seen, if not the end of sprawl, at least a strong rejoinder. Many cities and their neighborhoods have sprung back to life after years of official and unofficial neglect. Neighborhoods’ social, economic, and environmental advantages are being increasingly understood.
Covid-19 is a worldwide tragedy and creates urban challenges, but it will not be the end of cities. We have been here before. There will be long-term effects specific to neighborhood planning. The urban studies theorist Richard Florida predicts that we will continue to see one in five people working remotely. What will this mean for neighborhoods? How can planners, urban designers, officials, and developers create future neighborhoods to respond to the needs of tomorrow?
The future of cities lies in their neighborhoods. More people will be around, more of the time, needing even more from their neighborhoods than before. What an incredible opportunity! In Elmwood, restaurants serve food to go and at outside tables (socially distanced), but post-pandemic, “working from home” will mean “working remotely,” not just “from home.” People will go back to the cafes, or for a long lunch at the corner restaurant, or to the office supplies store. The 24-hour neighborhood may once again be possible. As these local amenities flourish, the trend will be to walk for errands. To meet the neighborhood potential, we should move forward in five ways:
1. Develop equitable and socially just neighborhood plans
The pandemic has deepened social and economic gaps between our rich and poor neighborhoods. We must make an effort to rid them of decades of social injustice and inequity. Acknowledge many professions’ culpability in urban renewal, freeway location, and redlining. To create change in disadvantaged areas, engage backbone local organizations to understand peoples’ needs. Embed equity and inclusion principles, such as PHEAL, in neighborhood plans. Invite communities to work with us to write anti-displacement policies. Chicago uses Equitable Transit Oriented Development to prioritize investments in communities of color.
2. Practice place-keeping before placemaking
While working for positive change, recognize existing community patterns, public life, and the local ecosystem before undertaking neighborhood planning and placemaking. Place-keeping is preserving historic buildings and affordable housing and maintaining public spaces. It’s protecting cultural identity, sense of place, and belonging. How a community decides to maintain their way of life might be different from how we as urban planners imagine it for them. In neighborhoods of color, placemaking should enhance how a community uses its neighborhood based on analysis of existing patterns that represent the norms valued by residents. For example, see Restore Oakland, a model for repairing injustice, investing in economic opportunity, and restoring community safety.
3. Create new development compatible in built form, not density
To have enough users to support stores, parks, libraries, and public transit within walking distance, some neighborhoods will benefit from additional housing. However, new buildings much larger or different from existing ones can create fierce neighborhood opposition. In his recent book Missing Middle Housing, Dan Parolek recommends that planners and designers understand a neighborhood’s existing built form and scale before proposing new development. Moving codes away from measures like units per acre and minimum lot sizes toward a focus on compatible design will change the focus from density to urban form and allow us to bring in the missing middle housing that was common before the 1940s.
4. Create accessible open spaces
People go to local public spaces to get outside, exercise, and meet the neighbors. With more people working from home, high-quality open spaces within walking distance will become more valuable. Neighborhood parks — already essential — can host community gatherings and events. Elmwood’s Willard Park, filled with sunbathers and picnics on any sunny day, also offers movie nights and Easter egg hunts. We could build on the slow streets programs implemented near Elmwood and elsewhere during the pandemic to make low-traffic streets a permanent part of each neighborhood.
Black Lives Matter speaks to longstanding exclusion and discrimination in our public open spaces. Parks and public spaces that connect people and welcome diversity and inclusion can impart a sense of belonging and community trust. Well-designed and maintained parks can reduce the isolation of people and communities, nurture community dialogue, and reconnect the social fabric of neighborhoods frayed by sprawl and redlining. We should design our public spaces so that people of different backgrounds feel they belong.
5. Create “15-minute cities”
The 15-minute city concept gained momentum with Covid-19. A 15-minute city provides access to food and services within walking and biking distances of all homes; offers a variety of housing types and affordability levels; includes green spaces for everyone to use; and gives multiple purposes to buildings. A 15-minute city allows places to better handle health, economic, and climate crises, increasing neighborhood resilience and social interaction.
Walkable Main Streets like College Avenue in Elmwood play an important role in 15-minute cities. These streets provide community amenities for vibrant and active neighborhoods and may see renewed activities and businesses. But for the many residential subdivisions built without commercial uses, walkable retail will be more difficult to achieve — but not impossible. We suggest two options:
Accessory commercial units
By loosening the restrictive zoning that has limited urban activities for the last century, we can create small businesses in our homes. “Accessory Commercial Units” (ACUs) in residential zoning districts can make space for small home-based businesses — bakeries, juice shops, homegrown produce, art studios, neighborhood cafes, and barbershops — visible from the street and engaging to pedestrians. ACUs can diversify and strengthen social life and foster entrepreneurship in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Who knows what might grow from these seeds? H-P got its start in a garage. The pandemic gave rise to small back or front yard offices that are among the most sustainable ways to bring life to neighborhoods — and fight climate change. These small spaces, often around 120 square feet, create a work/life separation that many people need.
Mobile food strategy
Mobile food facilities could be great additions to neighborhoods that lack walkable Main Streets and fixed-location restaurants. As temporary facilities, they offer access to wholesome food without the expense of a take-out or sit-down restaurant. Unlike traditional food trucks, these super trucks provide food trailers, carts, pop-up shops, awnings, and kiosks. Mobile grocery facilities such as Chicago’s Fresh Moves Mobile Market could alleviate food deserts.
While working from home is not an option for essential workers, more of us may be working from home in the future. Neighborhood cafes, restaurants, and co-working facilities will flourish — once the fear of the pandemic subsides — and local amenities like parks will return to high levels of use. The pandemic isn’t going to change everything about the ways that we live and work. But our stressed-out commute world might look more like our homebound life in 2020, and some subdivisions could begin to look like Elmwood. And that could mean we pollute less, waste less time commuting, and know our neighbors and family better.
John David Beutler, AICP, has worked as a mission-driven planner and urban designer connecting urbanism, land use, and transportation for the last 20 years. First at Calthorpe Associates and then Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), he is now an independent consultant. John focuses on the importance of human-scale design in addressing sustainability and equity from the street to the neighborhood, city, and region. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Leila Hakimizadeh, AICP, is a socially aware, passionate, urban planner and designer who applies measures of diversity, equity, inclusion, public health, and sustainability to facilitate community engagement and plan for the future of cities. She has 14 years of experience in land use and transportation planning, urban design, and housing for the public and private sectors in Canada and the US, at the building, neighborhood, city, and regional scales. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Ed. note: According to KQED News, single-family zoning was first implemented in the United States by the City of Berkeley in 1916 and applied to the Elmwood neighborhood featured in this article. See “The Racist History of Single-Family Home Zoning,” an article that advises planners to recognize the impacts historical zoning decisions have on their communities. Also see Northern News, September 2020, for information on research on single-family zoning cited in the KQED article.]