“Prominent Brazilian architect and urban planner Jaime Lerner, mainly credited with developing BRT, the bus rapid transit system operating in major cities throughout the world, died May 27. He was 83.
“Lerner rose to prominence in the 1970s when he was elected mayor of his native Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil, and launched an ambitious plan to overhaul the transportation system.
“Under Lerner, Curitiba rolled out what would become a model for cities worldwide, the Integrated Transport Network. Its vertebrae are its iconic tubular bus stops, with elevated platforms that make it easy for passengers to get on and off and a pre-payment system to maximize efficiency.
“[The system] has been imitated in more than 250 cities including Bogota, Brisbane, Johannesburg, Marrakesh, and Istanbul.”
The network was also the source of inspiration for the Emerald Express (EmX), Eugene, Oregon; LA’s Orange Line; and The Strip and Downtown Express in Las Vegas.
“Lerner is also remembered for making Curitiba a model of sustainable planning, creating numerous green spaces and an advanced recycling program.
“He served three terms as mayor (1971-1974, 1979-1983 and 1989-1992), and two as governor of Paraná state (1995-2002), of which Curitiba is the capital. In between, he wrote numerous books on urban planning.”
Lerner was born on December 17, 1937, in Curitiba. His family had emigrated from Lodz, Poland, to Curitiba in the early 1930s. He graduated from the Architecture School of the Federal University of Paraná in 1964. In 1965, he helped create the Institute of Urban Planning and Research of Curitiba. According to Wikipedia, “Lerner, who later became mayor, led a team from the Federal University of Paraná that suggested strict controls on urban sprawl, reduced traffic in the downtown area, preservation of Curitiba’s Historic Sector, and a convenient and affordable public transit system. The plan, known as the Curitiba Master Plan, was adopted in 1968.”
According to JTA, “He was the first Latin American to preside over the International Union of Architects, a Paris-based organization representing 1.5 million professionals in 98 countries. Time magazine named Lerner one of the 25 most influential thinkers in 2010, and in 2017 Planetizen ranked him the second most influential urban planner of all time, behind only Jane Jacobs.”
Lerner wrote this about BRT in La ciudad es una tortuga: “The surface system has the advantage — with the right features, such as dedicated lanes, level and pre-paid boarding, and high frequency — of achieving performance similar to the underground train at a cost that is affordable to virtually every city, and much more quickly. A healthier city happens where the car is not the only comfortable option of transportation.”
Senate Bill 35 (Government Code section 65913.4) was enacted in 2017 as part of an effort by the State Legislature to increase housing production. The law compels local agencies, including charter cities, to issue streamlined approvals for qualifying multifamily residential projects, even, at times, where a project conflicts with a local ordinance. In Ruegg & Ellsworth v. City of Berkeley, the court rejected Berkeley’s claim that SB 35 impermissibly interfered with the constitutional “home rule” authority over historic preservation granted to charter cities. No. A159218 (1st Dist. Apr. 20, 2021). The decision represents the first published opinion to uphold SB 35 against challenge.
To qualify for streamlined, ministerial approvals under SB 35, a project is required to comply with several criteria, among them that the development is not located where it would require demolishing “a historic structure” placed on a national, state, or local historic register. (Gov’t Code § 65913.4(a)(7)(C).) In Ruegg, the City of Berkeley denied a streamlining application on several grounds, including that the controversial, proposed mixed-use development would affect part of the West Berkeley Shellmound, a designated local landmark. The court rejected the City’s determination, finding there was no evidence that this (widely-acknowledged) subsurface resource reasonably could be viewed as an existing “historic structure” under SB 35.
The court also held that the Legislature was not prohibited from addressing through SB 35 the “municipal affair” of local historic preservation. SB 35, the court determined, addresses a matter of statewide concern — the lack of affordable housing — and the streamlining law is reasonably related to resolving that issue and does not unduly interfere with the City’s historic preservation authority. On these grounds, the court determined that the project at issue was not subject to a requirement in Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance that a city commission approve construction in a designated landmark.
The court’s conclusion rested, in part, on its recognition that “historical preservation is precisely the kind of subjective discretionary land use decision the Legislature sought to prevent local government from using to defeat affordable housing development.” In upholding SB 35, the court had little trouble sustaining the direct connection the Legislature drew between subjective local land use decisions and the statewide affordable housing crisis.
SB 35 is scheduled to expire on January 1, 2026.
Alan Murphy is a Land Use, Development, and Environmental Attorney with Perkins Coie LLP, San Francisco. In his practice, Murphy secures and defends land use entitlements and counsels clients throughout the approval process. He has significant experience with general plans, zoning, use permits, variances, development agreements, the Density Bonus Law, the Housing Accountability Act, other state housing legislation, and CEQA. Murphy holds a JD from Yale Law School and a BA in political science from Stanford University.
[Ed. note: In Berkeleyside, Frances Dinkelspiel provides local context on the perspectives of the property owners, members of the Ohlone community, and city officials. Read an excerpt of her coverage in Northern Newshere. Separately, AB 168, in effect since September 25, 2020, added a tribal consultation requirement to SB 35 projects, closing a potential loophole allegedly used by the developers.]
The Alum Rock Avenue Business Corridor, located in East San José, stretches for 1.25 miles between Interstate 680 and U.S. Route 101 and intersects the historic Sal Si Puede and Sunset neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are an immigrant gateway with a notable history of activism and engagement in the political process, but also with decades-long disenfranchisement and a lack of investment. Now, the Corridor community is coping with two major forces: the pandemic (the area experienced some of the highest rates of Covid-19 in Santa Clara County) and a significant uptick in real estate development and speculation because of Alum Rock’s prime location near San Jose’s rapidly expanding downtown.
At the request of the City of San José, 14 urban planning graduate students at San José State University (SJSU) and faculty members Richard Kos, AICP, and Jason Su — in partnership with CommUniverCity, elected officials, and community leaders — engaged with Corridor businesses and customers during the Spring 2021 semester.
The SJSU team used an “asset-based community development” approach to (1) document the history and existing conditions of the corridor, (2) interview business owners, customers, and community leaders, and (3) produce a “findings” report with recommendations for ameliorating the challenges identified by Corridor stakeholder groups.
The students’ work spanned three phases.
To begin, the SJSU team reviewed previous studies of the area completed by their predecessors in Fall 2019 and Spring 2020, including a deep dive into policies and programs that shaped the Corridor. The team met with City representatives and local organizations to gather additional information about the hyper-local impact of the pandemic and planned development. The students also took two walking tours of the Corridor and surrounding areas, led by local organizations SOMOS Mayfair (We are Mayfair), City staff, and local representatives.
The team split into three groups, each responsible for a specific method of community engagement. All in-person engagement followed Santa Clara County Covid-19 protocols, including masks and social distancing.
Team One was responsible for surveying customers shopping at Corridor businesses. The survey’s 15 questions focused on respondent demographics, travel habits, and perceptions of Alum Rock Avenue’s business climate. Customers were informed of the survey through posters and flyers with QR codes linked to an online version of the survey, and through two separate table events at the Wash America Laundromat and the Mexican Heritage Plaza.
A total of 96 customer surveys were collected. Overall, 58 percent of respondents reported positive experiences visiting and shopping along the Corridor, but 7 percent of respondents were concerned about the presence of unhoused people, 20 percent about vandalism and littering, 12 percent by a lack of parking, and 62 percent by a lack of local-serving businesses.
Teams Two and Three surveyed and interviewed business owners to capture their perspectives. The wide-ranging, 60-question surveys covered Covid-19 challenges, cleanliness and appearance, transportation, development and public improvements, safety, advertising and marketing, communication, and demographics. Team Two used in-person visits, emails, and QR codes to collect surveys from 24 corridor businesses. The students ensured that a rich mix of sectors was represented, including automotive, retail, healthcare, and professional services. Ninety-five percent of the businesses were either Minority- or Woman-Owned, with business owners typically of Hispanic or Latino descent (58 percent) or Asian (29.2 percent). Several of the surveyed businesses are Corridor institutions: La Costa Taqueria (24 years), Fast Bicycles (42 years), and the Tire Outlet Store (70 years).
Team Three interviewed seven businesses in depth to understand the owners’ perspectives and to track change over time. The team began with a 45-minute discussion, followed a few weeks later by an interview to see what might have changed as businesses adapted to the pandemic’s effect on their operations. In response to what Steve Ngo of Alum Rock Beauty Supply described as a month of “total silence,” his business adapted by selling pandemic-related products such as “…gloves, face masks …disinfectant wipes, and disinfectant sprays.” Other, less adaptable businesses such as Discount Taxes and Lezly 99 & More Market, reported that their revenues dropped precipitously while rent debt accumulated. Lezly 99 owner Maria Barrera said she needed “More people to come and buy; more customers so I can pay the rent. Because if not, I will be displaced from my business.”
The Alum Rock Avenue business surveys and interviews revealed many of the same concerns identified by their customers, such as a lack of parking and poor nighttime lighting. Corridor business owners also reported crime (robberies, break-ins, vandalism, graffiti, and littering) and harassment from unhoused people as major challenges to conducting business. The owners also were concerned about recovering from the impact of Covid-19, the effects of new development on existing businesses and residents, and the difficulty of participating in local and City decision-making because of language barriers, time constraints, and legacy disenfranchisement. Nevertheless, owners saw many positives in owning a Corridor business, including reciprocity among local businesses and the intimate client-business relationship that comes from sharing a community and language with their customers.
Based on the owner and customer surveys and interviews, the team identified four areas of concern and opportunity, or “themes”: accessibility, aesthetics, community resilience, and safety.
With those in mind, the team worked with project partners to develop corresponding recommendations that could produce positive change along the Corridor.
The third phase began April 28 with the team’s presentation of initial findings to project partners. An interactive virtual whiteboard session followed, where students and project partners discussed and posted ideas on virtual sticky notes to address each of the four themes.
Based on feedback from project partners, the SJSU team began developing feasible recommendations addressing the four themes noted above. Examples of recommendations that will be discussed in greater detail in a final report include:
Establish a community land trust
Purchasing land for community-driven and goal-oriented uses may offer the Corridor community an opportunity to use the space more beneficially. One example is the work of the Northern California Land Trust (NCLT), a nonprofit founded in 1973 that aims to perpetuate affordable housing and provide community facilities. Their mission is to innovate and develop “cooperative and community ownership models that help ensure housing and economic justice for all.” Successful NCLT projects include affordable housing properties scattered through underserved neighborhoods in Berkeley, Oakland, and East Palo Alto.
Provide corridor-focused grant programs
San José offers a number of programs and grants for amplifying culture through art. One is the Arts and Cultural Exchange Grant. Nonprofit organizations, professionals, and artists that qualify for the $2,500 to $5,000 art program are given the opportunity to create murals, exhibitions, or performances. Developing a grant program to commission local artists to introduce art along the Corridor would enhance the physical and aesthetic experience while providing an opportunity to highlight cultural heritage.
Install streetlight alternatives
Many respondents identified inadequate nighttime lighting as a possible reason for the high rates of property crime and vandalism along the Corridor. Alternative lighting options like Eco Discs can comply with lighting requirements established by the Lick Observatory. These discs offer noninvasive yet subtle lighting that can enhance nighttime visibility and nightlife. Eco Discs absorb UV light, work in a way similar to solar panels, and emit up to 10 hours of light at night. And they are a sustainable, zero-energy technology.
Construct high-visibility crosswalks and pedestrian refuges
These improvements require relatively minor changes to the streetscape and can be implemented over a short period. They also increase driver awareness of pedestrians and physically protect them. To accommodate both the existing bus rapid transit infrastructure and the proposed improvements, the SJSU team recommends the median stop, right-side boarding design developed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Incorporate CPTED best practices into future developments
CPTED — crime prevention through environmental design — involves designing the built environment in ways proven to reduce crime. The City can require that future development along Alum Rock Avenue incorporates established CPTED features. For example, the City of Oakland reviews proposed residential, commercial, and civic developments for CPTED deficiencies, such as poor lighting, inadequate sight lines, a lack of clearly defined spaces or signage, and lack of surveillance cameras or security systems, and requires developments to make improvements where needed.
Despite the challenges facing Corridor businesses, the SJSU team believes there are many ways to effect positive and lasting change along the Alum Rock Avenue Business Corridor. Our final report, which will be available on the San José State University’s Department of Urban Planning website will include a complete discussion of our findings, recommendations, and conclusions. We hope the business community, local organizations, and the City of San José will draw on our recommendations to help the Corridor realize its full potential. Going forward, graduate planning students at San José State University will continue to work with the Alum Rock community and our project partners to support this vision.
Matthew Mooreis a third-generation Bay Area native and a graduate of The Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy of the University at Albany, SUNY. He has a passion for protecting communities and the environment, which he currently pursues through his work at a local environmental consulting firm.
City planners ask the public to participate in planning processes, but people are tired of showing up. Here are some of the reasons why.
My friend Tom lives in North Denver’s Elyria neighborhood, down the street from the I-70 highway and within smell of the city’s famously odiferous dog food factory. He keeps a scrapbook that most people wouldn’t. It contains all of the flyers, explainers, invitations to contribute to health studies, meeting requests, and info sessions that have been delivered to his door over the past four years.
Tom, who is an artist, plans to make it into a collage — a reminder, or maybe even a historical record — of the days when planners and researchers knocked on his door all day long — and tried to transform North Denver from a superfund site to a sustainability hub.
I live in Denver too, some 25 blocks south of Tom, also within the smell of the dog food factory. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to understand the city’s growing inequality. By some metrics, Denver leads the U.S. in displacement of Latino residents, and there are meetings — so many meetings — all focused on gathering resident input on coming changes.
These meetings have a name. Urbanists call them participatory planning. A movement now integrated as orthodox in urban planning schools, participatory planning seeks to involve a multiplicity of voices in urban development projects. In Denver, some of these aim to transform formerly industrial areas like the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods (locals call this area GES), once the site of heavy metal smelters during Colorado’s mining boom times, from superfund sites to leaders in environmental remediation.
But neighbors living in industrial areas are fatigued. They frequently say that the city seeks their input on projects but doesn’t listen to their concerns. Community engagement specialists in North Denver, on the other hand, are frustrated by low turnout at city-organized meetings. Why does participatory planning — an approach originally conceived to make cities more just — fail?
In Denver, activists say planners failed to account for historic harm in a highway corridor.
Candi CdeBaca grew up in Swansea and was a student at Denver’s Manual High School when the public participation process to redevelop and widen the I-70 highway through GES began in 2003. Sixteen years later, she was elected to city council on an anti-gentrification campaign that included fighting the highway expansion.
“That’s kind of what catalyzed my race for office,” CdeBaca said, referring to the participation system.
“Having participated in several of the I-70 meetings … and a range of other things, I got to see firsthand how community input really just meant show up, complain, and we’re going to do the opposite of what you’re asking,” she said.
In the lengthy process to break ground on I-70, the Colorado Department of Transportation had proposed a redesigned highway corridor that would fix and expand aging infrastructure.
Neighbors instead wanted planners to consider past and perceived future harm — the health impacts of smelters that operated starting in the 19th century, the cumulative effects of air pollution, and a future where, without significant investment in affordable housing, displacement seemed assured.
Several lawsuits later, the highway project broke ground in 2018, with some small concessions for affordable housing and pollution mitigation efforts.
Development is continuing at a rapid pace in North Denver, and this time, community engagement practitioners and organizers are trying to learn from past mistakes — by moving slowly and acknowledging the history of the neighborhoods.
Celia Herrera first stepped into Swansea recreation center in January 2020 to gather resident input about the redevelopment of the National Western Center, a historic cowboy venue that will soon host a university campus, shopping, and potentially housing. It presages a future that’s less about celebrating agriculture and more about retail, education, and real estate.
Herrera, who works for the city, knew that something was off about the room. People were exhausted and really hesitant to show up for another meeting. After talking to a resident who was candid with her, Herrera said she learned that the city had been contracting out engagement work to public information firms that cycled in and out of the community with a speed that bewildered neighbors.
She realized she needed to slow down to build relationships with residents, bringing as many people as possible into the fold while acknowledging the long-term contributions of the three or four people who always show up.
Her experiences growing up between Denver’s nearby Park Hill and the East Side during the 1990s as a person of color help her contextualize where neighbors are coming from. She understood that people have a historically informed relationship of distrust with the city, developers, and other institutions. “I didn’t set out to find a ‘job’ as a community engagement consultant,” she said. “Community has just always been at the foundation of my work.”
Ren-Caspar Smith is a Sierra Club organizer working in North Denver and nearby Commerce City around energy transition for the Cherokee Generating Station, a power plant that provides energy for the area using natural gas.
Smith also pointed out that North Denver community members’ distrust of the city and the environmental movement extends back far beyond the starting and ending point of community input-gathering phases. Big green organizations such as the Sierra Club historically focused on protecting wilderness instead of people in cities, and an early 2000s alignment with anti-immigrant politics has been destructive for coalition-building with Latinx communities.
Instead of pushing participation in big initiatives, Smith focuses on supporting ongoing efforts, like an Earth Day celebration neighbors put together this year in GES. “I need to learn more and shut my mouth and slow down,” Smith said.
“Every time I think I’ve done that, I then have another moment where I’m like, wow, I need to slow down more.”
Research shows that participatory planning addresses the needs of older, whiter, and wealthier residents.
At community gatherings in the North Denver neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea, neighbors frequently say that they have to sacrifice time with family, work, or both in order to show up to participatory planning meetings. It’s harder for people with kids, long work hours, or lower incomes to contribute, so recently some community activists who participate regularly have advocated to be paid for their time, pointing out that community engagement professionals are salaried.
Recent research by Katherine Levine Einstein, a professor of political science at Boston University, sheds light on how race and class can show up in some participatory approaches to new housing. In a study of participation in zoning forums for new housing development in Massachusetts, Einstein found that participants who gave their feedback to city councils opposing new affordable housing developments were whiter, older, and wealthier than the average resident in their cities.
In a different study investigating the discourse of community engagement processes around the National Western Triangle development in Denver, education researcher Sabrina Sideris found that residents “participated without power.” In other words, community members showed up to meetings guiding development but their feedback was not incorporated in planning decisions.
Cities like Denver do lots of community engagement. But there’s no standardized way to make sense of the data.
Over the course of 15 years, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) conducted 432 community meetings about the Central 70 highway development, before deciding to put the freeway underground in key sections of the city. Neighborhood activists instead wanted the department to investigate an alternative route for the highway through less dense, more industrial Commerce City.
“There’s nothing that holds anyone accountable for … taking in feedback,” said Nola Miguel, the executive director of the GES Coalition, a group that has organized around housing access since 2015. “It really frustrates me that equity and community process are put in the same sort of box when an equitable process is very different from a general community process.”
If the engagement process was good enough for the city but not rigorous enough for activists, it raises the question: What counts as good participation? Surveys, meetings, flyers, coffee hours, focus groups, and petitions can all help planners understand community needs. But without a more comprehensive approach that includes standards for participatory approaches, cities may continue to reach their targets for involving constituents in the planning process while the most vulnerable residents go unheard.
A way forward.
There isn’t a quick fix in the cards for Denver, but there are some bright spots on the horizon. CdeBaca said that the impacts of Covid-19 social distancing measures forced city meetings to go online in a form that’s now recorded and more accessible and transparent. She wants to see heavily impacted communities use a Community Bill of Rights, a strategy promoted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to increase local control in decision-making. And a more holistic approach to engagement in the planning process — rather than one that’s project based — could decrease planning fatigue overall.
North Denver is also now home to a Community Land Trust developed by the GES Coalition. Community land trusts, a model where land is owned communally and individuals or families own the house they live in, are increasingly popular tools to prevent displacement and build housing stability in U.S. cities like Denver.
“Having that stability for the long-term … can focus your time on your work, your education, your community … all those things that a lot of times, when you don’t have stability, you just can’t add to in life,” Miguel said.
The land trust will make decisions by involving a board composed equally of people who live on the land, GES residents at large, and housing experts.
The key to better participation, for Miguel, is to distinguish community engagement processes at large from equity-focused development. She pointed to tools that other cities have used to judge fairness in development processes — like Minneapolis’ Equitable Development Scorecard.
And in 2020, Denver allocated $1.7 million for participatory budgeting, a process in which residents decide how to spend a portion of the city’s budget. My colleague Vincent Russell, who studies participatory budgeting at the University of Colorado, found that in the process participants form new alliances and learn how to navigate bureaucracy with community members they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Denver’s current investment in participatory budgeting is small, though — the equivalent of just $2.37 per person.
Participation will be a key component of U.S. cities’ efforts to design climate resilience processes in neighborhoods heavily impacted by industry and real estate speculation. That’s why CdeBaca wants her constituents to keep showing up. “While it is annoying and frustrating to participate in rigged processes, I think it’s critical that we are participating, one, so we can understand the deficiencies, and two, so that we can map out a path to doing something better.”
Arielle Milkman is a researcher and writer based in Denver, Colorado. She is a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she is focusing on the politics of environmental remediation.
A version of this article appeared in Next City. Republished with permission.
Alex Hinds is an International Director for APA California – Northern Section. He co-founded, and was a senior consultant to, the Center for Sustainable Communities at Sonoma State University. He was a planning lecturer at Sonoma State and at Cal Poly, SLO. From 1984–2008, Hinds served successively as Planning Director for Lake County, Planning and Building Director for San Luis Obispo County, and Community Development Agency Director for Marin County, where he lives. He holds a master’s degree in social science (cross-cultural community environmental management) from the United States International University in San Diego, and a bachelor’s degree (applied ecology) from the University of Hawaii, New College. Hinds is best known for leading the trend-setting 2007 Marin Countywide Plan update and its nationally recognized implementation programs addressing sustainability and climate change.
What are some hot topics in your world?
Where I live in West Marin, the perennially hot topics are sea-level rise, climate change, wildfires, and Tule Elk and cows in the Point Reyes National Seashore. I support continuing to affordably lease appropriate agricultural lands in the National Seashore so long as the operations practice exemplary environmental and agricultural stewardship.
How and where do you work now?
I mostly volunteer. Recently, Northern Section’s co-International Director Hing Wong, AICP, and I collaborated on a series of Zoom-based Covid Conversations with the Chilean Planners Network and APA members in the California, New York Metro, and Illinois Chapters. We are currently working on a new initiative — Connecting the Americas: Collaborative Planning, North and South — that is intended to be mindful of our shared circumstances and to be more accessible to students and emerging planners. I am also a member of and participate in the projects of the California Planning Roundtable.
What was your first job as a planner and its impact on your trajectory?
My first job was in El Centro, California, a small city (now about 44,000) seven miles from the Mexico border. I had a great boss who let me do interesting work: I coordinated their general plan update and a redevelopment plan, oversaw a geothermal park feasibility study, and established a recycling center. I learned a lot, made lifelong friends, and gained invaluable experience.
Tell us about Northern Section’s international tours.
Purposeful international travel accelerates learning! Northern Section has led tours to Cuba (2003), China (2007), India (2009), Brazil (2012), Eastern Europe (2014), and Southeast Asia (2017). No other APA section or chapter has such a program. In light of the pandemic, our international activities that require in-person attendance remain temporarily suspended. Planners can learn about future tours on the Northern Section website.
My favorite tour was to lively and diverse Brazil. I have since returned several times to work on Section-sponsored collaborations. Our collaboration work gained traction after connecting with Bruno Borges, an emerging planner in Brazil, who then accepted an ABAG internship. After returning to Brazil, Borges was essential to establishing our initial collaboration with Sao Paulo staff, focused on regional planning and governance.
Our next project was in Ouro Preto, a city of 70,000 some 250 miles north of Rio. There, we partnered with city staff, San Jose State, and the Veloso Community Association on a variety of safety and sustainable development issues. I’ll always cherish their warm welcome. City Attorney Celso Carvalho picked us up at dawn on a Sunday so we could attend a local holiday celebration complete with colorful pilgrims from all over Brazil assembled in a massive parade.
Who or what has influenced your work?
I had the good fortune to work with or learn from many excellent practitioners. Si Eisner, an APA Planning Pioneer, showed me how images can enrich public discourse and decision-making. Barry Commoner, professor and author of 1971’s The Closing Circle, drove home the importance of understanding ecosystems, science, and technology. And Sim Van der Ryn, a green building and planning advocate who became California’s State Architect and director of the California Office of Appropriate Technology, influenced me.
Back in the day, I would read counter-cultural publications such as the Bay Area-based Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly. I dropped out of college for a while, took up organic farming with my older brother before going on to grad school, then went to South America under the Fulbright-Hays Program to study the impacts of colonization on the Ecuadorian Amazon. Rather than becoming an “eco outlaw,” I decided to infiltrate the planning profession to try to change planning rules from the inside.
Were there moments that changed your worldview?
Early on, I was influenced by the ecology, civil rights, and peace movements. Although the planning profession has a noble history of helping make cities healthier and more livable, our profession also has been associated with privilege and many unfair zoning practices that made it difficult for less affluent people to share in regional prosperity and homeownership. Working up and down California in both poorer and more affluent communities, I sought to not automatically carry on past practices.
What career advice do you have for planners?
Your first job may be the hardest to get; be flexible on location and pay.
Play to your strengths. Where appropriate, volunteer to work above your pay grade.
Be respectful to all, and generous with praise.
Strive to address compelling issues and desirable outcomes.
Keep current with science as we transition away from fossil fuels; update policies and codes accordingly.
Pursuing awards is not a superficial pursuit. Showcasing your (or your team’s) best work helps spread the word on what is working.
Maintain your credibility.
Be empathetic, and be a good listener and a good communicator.
Where and to what do you turn for joy and balance?
I swim in the open waters in nearby Tomales Bay; hike and travel in inspirational settings with my wife; spend time with the grandkids; and enjoy Latin American, Cuban, and Africa music. Planning can be very stressful, so it helps to have an active family and a social network.
Interviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is senior development manager at FivePoint and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.
Oakland is the Bay Area’s third-largest city (pop. 433,000) and a major West Coast port
Many of us have experienced what it’s like to evaluate a major development proposal while having to follow general plan policies that do not reflect current values and best practices, or that may inadvertently perpetuate past injustices. The City of Oakland is doing something about just that predicament with a transformative update of its 20th Century general plan and associated zoning amendments.
The General Plan update is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Oaklanders to work together on an equitable blueprint for how the city will change and progress over the coming decades. It can be expected to “totally reshape City policies to rectify existing racial and social disparities in health and well-being,” noted senior planner Christina Ferracane, AICP, the City’s lead on the project, “as it re-examines City policies for where and how growth will happen, and where and for what the City prioritizes its funds.”
Oakland worked with stakeholders to develop 11 principles to guide the update process
The principles, which have not yet been adopted, are based on what City staff heard in the fall of 2020 during Listening Sessions with the Mayor, Councilmembers, City Departments, and more than 41 community-based organizations (CBOs).
Three principles — “Equity and environmental justice,” “Transparency,” and “Relevance and clarity” — will aim the plan toward equitable opportunities for all people in the city, build trust in the community through a transparent and easily accessible engagement process, and clarify who will be helped — and in what ways — by the physical and community benefits proposed by general plan policies and actions.
In fact, the Oakland Municipal Code has a central mission to “intentionally integrate, on a Citywide basis, the principle of ‘fair and just’ in all the City does in order to achieve equitable opportunities for all people and communities.” As to transparency, the City plans to have readily available, easy-to-understand information about the process; communicate clearly to the public what the General Plan can and can’t do; keep the public informed about legislation and regulations that now — or could — restrict local decision-making, and show where and how public input was considered. The City also promises to use simple language, avoid jargon, and show how policies translate into actions on the ground.
As carefully planned as such important processes are, there often are issues that haven’t been recognized. Another three principles — “Focused planning process,” a “Flexible and adaptable process,” and “Strategic and long-range thinking” — will assure that the most important issues to address in the plan are identified at the outset, that the plan will be both long-range and strategic, that it will be flexible enough to meet changing conditions, and that decisions about programs and policies to address community needs and disparities will be based on data.
It’s also important that the updated plan be developed with the people the policies will affect and with those who will be tasked with putting it into effect and seeing that it works. Five principles have been adopted to cover those aspects of the update process: “Inter-departmental coordination,” “Inter-agency coordination,” the “Important role of community-based organizations,” “Youth engagement,” and a “Place-based approach.”
The principles of “Inter-departmental coordination” will assure that all affected City departments will coordinate their programs and policies with each other as they implement the new policies and programs that are adopted in the General Plan. To fully and successfully implement some of those programs will require coordination with, and support from, other government entities outside of the City — “Inter-agency coordination” — so every effort will be made to ensure those agencies are involved in and kept informed about the process as it progresses. The same can be said for involving youth and community-based organizations.
While there will be citywide objectives and strategies, the principle of “Place-based approach” recognizes that there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. Rather, the General Plan must be rooted in the land, the microclimates, the neighborhoods, and Oakland’s many communities and cultures.
The process begins this fall
The staff expects to work with a consulting team that includes not only professionals, but also community-based organizations and nonprofits that have demonstrable relationships with, and engagement experience in, Oakland’s underserved communities.
This will be a complex four-year effort, kicking off in August 2021 and concluding in 2025. But some topics (officially, “elements”) in the General Plan are required by state law to be completed early in 2023. For that reason, the update will be accomplished in two phases: Phase I is scheduled to end in January 2023. Phase II will conclude in July 2025.
California Law requires a number of “elements” to be covered in a general plan. They include land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, and safety. Cities can add other elements to the plan as needed.
In Phase I, the staff and consulting team will prepare a “Vision Statement and Equity Framework”; an internal “Strategic Plan,” essentially a work plan for interdepartmental coordination during the update; a framework for the Land Use, Transportation, and Open Space elements; an “Industrial Land Use Policy”; a new Environmental Justice Element; a Housing Element Update; and the Safety Element Update.
Phase I will also see the start of a “Racial Equity Impact Analysis,” an update of the Zoning Code and Map, and initial work on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process and on Implementation and Monitoring, followed by review and adoption of all of the above in January 2023.
During Phase II (18 months), City staff and the consulting team will refine “Preferred Alternatives” and complete work on the Land Use and Transportation Element, the Open Space, Conservation, and Recreation Element, the Racial Equity Impact Analysis, associated updates to the Zoning Code and Map, an Implementation and Monitoring Matrix — essential for tracking policies and actions proposed in planning documents — and a Noise Element update. Two elements not required by state law — Historic Preservation and Infrastructure and Facilities — will also be drafted. The CEQA process, including preparation of draft and final environmental impact reports, will be completed. Phase II will end in July 2025 with adoption of the final EIR and final General Plan.
The City has already issued an RFP requesting proposals by 2 pm, June 25, from consulting teams to assist City staff in preparing the plan.
Throughout the four-year effort and leading up to Planning Commission and City Council action, Oaklanders will be invited to participate in the process to ensure that it is as inclusive and reflective of community concerns as possible. The City will be reaching out to people who live, work, shop, gather, and visit in Oakland through its General Plan website and other venues to engage all in developing the plan through the many coming meetings, workshops, surveys, and hearings.
You can keep informed about what’s happening with this extraordinary planning effort by subscribing here for updates on the City of Oakland General Plan.
Naphtali H. Knox, FAICP,is the editor of Northern News. As Palo Alto’s Director of Planning and Community Environment, Knox oversaw the preparation of that city’s first Comprehensive Plan from 1973 to 1976. From 1986 until he retired in 2009, his consulting firm, Knox and Associates, Inc., prepared general plans for 10 cities in Northern California. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.