Tag: 2022-06-nn-feature

Urban Planning students measure the civic value of urban open space

Urban Planning students measure the civic value of urban open space

By SJSU’s MURP Spring 2022 class, May 24, 2022

Public and civic spaces like parks are destinations where people can coexist and enjoy nature. These are places where all people, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, can visit to relax and connect with the natural environment. Civic spaces are vital to our daily lives because they allow different communities to come together and address the problems of social isolation and economic segregation.

The City of San José recognizes that these are valuable places and is committed to providing all residents with access to superb park and open space. One of those, the Guadalupe River Park, has the potential to become the city’s finest civic asset.

Located a few blocks west of Downtown San José, the Guadalupe River Park sits along the banks of the Guadalupe River and between Interstates 880 to the north and 280 to the south. Spanning more than 2.5 linear miles and encompassing over 254 acres, the Park is known as the “Central Park of San José.” Its long trails and paths make it a favorite among dog walkers, runners, and cyclists, and its Rotary Playground is a popular attraction for young families. The Park also houses multiple sports courts. One of which is a futsal court sponsored by the San José Earthquakes, a Major League Soccer franchise whose stadium is near the north end of the Park.

Saturday morning pickup futsal game at the Arena Green East sports courts. Photo: Matt Schroeder
Saturday morning pickup futsal game at the Arena Green East sports courts. Photo: Matt Schroeder

For the spring 2022 semester, San José State University’s Master of Urban Planning students partnered with the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy to study the Park and learn who is now using the Park and how, and to develop a set of programs for enhancing the visitor experience for all community members.

The guiding principles the students used to frame their research came from the Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) initiative. San José is an RCC “Expansion City.” RCC’s mission is to transform shared civic assets to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development in cities across the country. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to increase financial investment in civic assets as a way to combat the alarming trends of increasing economic segregation, social isolation, and distrust.

RCC relies on four “outcomes,” or goals, to measure the value of civic assets. These include civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability, and value creation. These four goals are used to measure the value of civic assets based on a variety of indicators included within each goal.

Our spring 2022 class aimed to capture the stories of park users through a mixed-methods approach that divided the class into four teams, with each team assigned to one of the Park’s quadrants: Arena Green East, Arena Green West, the Trails, and the Gardens.

The teams conducted direct observation surveys to record the number of park users, their approximate age, race, if they were actively exercising, and their proximity to other park users. Through a set of survey questions provided by RCC, survey respondents were asked a series of questions related to RCC’s four goals. We asked about park users’ level of civic engagement, whether they felt safe when visiting the Park, the frequency and duration of their park visits, and much more.

To streamline the data collection process, the class leveraged Esri’s Survey123 platform to enable location-based analysis. Our research effort built off the work of a previous MURP class (fall 2020) which conducted the exact same study during peak pandemic conditions and smoke-filled skies during an unprecedented wildfire season.

Elenoa Taufalele surveys a park user in the Arena Green West section of the Park. Photo: Brian Toy
Elenoa Taufalele surveys a park user in the Arena Green West section of the Park. Photo: Brian Toy

Before conducting any surveys, the class needed to better understand the Park and its current condition. To achieve this, we participated in multiple walking tours through the park with Conservancy staff and also interviewed professionals working on different programs related to the Park.

One of the class’s first interviews was with Vanessa Beretta, senior development officer for the Homelessness Response Team (HRT) at the City of San José. Meeting with her was an essential first step as the Park currently has one of the highest concentrations of the City’s roughly 6,000 unhoused persons. She provided critical insights into how the City collects data on unhoused persons, the various services available to individuals, how the City’s HRT is funded, and the most significant challenges the City faces when it comes to addressing the homelessness crisis.

We also interviewed local artists who painted murals in the Park, City of San Jose staff who are closely familiar with the Park, and Conservancy staff who are intimately familiar with the Park’s facilities. By reaching out to professionals experienced with different aspects of the Park, the class was able to gain a deeper understanding of the Park’s various elements. The discussions with practitioners helped us draw more specific conclusions based on the survey results.

“Do You Know the Way to San Jose’s Guadalupe River Trail?” is a 2,550 square-foot mural on the Santa Clara Street bridge by local artist Kristina Micotti. Photo: Matt Schroeder
“Do You Know the Way to San Jose’s Guadalupe River Trail?” is a 2,550 square-foot mural on the Santa Clara Street bridge by local artist Kristina Micotti. Photo: Matt Schroeder

These are our key findings:

  • The Guadalupe River Park draws visitors from outside San José. Nearly a quarter of those interviewed do not live in the city.
  • Youth aged 18 and under, particularly teens, were the most underrepresented of park users.
  • Between 2020 and 2022, the number of park users who drove to the Park increased by more than 10 percent, and the number of survey respondents who came to the Park other than by car decreased by 15 percent.
  • From 2020 to 2022, the number of survey respondents who had volunteered at the Park rose by 9 percent.
  • Mirroring the MURP class findings from 2020, park users generally felt safe during the day, but perceptions of personal safety were significantly lower at night.
  • Many of the survey respondents attributed safety issues in the Park to the unhoused.

As part of this class effort, students were required to record podcast episodes related to different aspects of Guadalupe River Park.  Topics range from “the value of public art” to “how park fees are assessed by the City of San José” to “how local vendors acquire business permits for tabling at community events.” Our podcasts are available on SoundCloud and can be found on the CommunityCasting Channel.


Authors of this article from the Spring 2022 Class: Top Row: Saagar Ghai, Zachary Johnson, Derek Hicks, Khashayar Alaee, Rick Kos (Instructor), and Matthew Schroeder Middle Row: Korey Richardson, Kevin Lee, Elenoa Taufalele, Boniface Chifamba, Simon Tan, and Ahoura Zandiatashbar (Instructor) Bottom Row: Marissa Mathiesen, Ruta Desai, Jo’leysha Cotton, Tam Tran, Gretel Gunther, and Brian Toy
Authors of this article from the Spring 2022 Class:
Top Row: Saagar Ghai, Zachary Johnson, Derek Hicks, Khashayar Alaee, Rick Kos (Instructor), and Matthew Schroeder
Middle Row: Korey Richardson, Kevin Lee, Elenoa Taufalele, Boniface Chifamba, Simon Tan, and Ahoura Zandiatashbar (Instructor)
Bottom Row: Marissa Mathiesen, Ruta Desai, Jo’leysha Cotton, Tam Tran, Gretel Gunther, and Brian Toy

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Bay Area transit agencies are (finally) taking collaboration seriously

Bay Area transit agencies are (finally) taking collaboration seriously

With state funding possibly on the line, 27 agencies across the Bay Area are ironing out new strategies to coordinate fares, wayfinding and more.

By Henry Pan, Next City, May 6, 2022

Noe Valley/J Church trolley, San Francisco. On the outer edge of the Noe Valley neighborhood, a trolley turns from Church Street to 30th. (Photo by Don Barrett/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, November 2021)

[Next City Ed. note: This is the third in a series of three articles by Pan about city public transit systems and the benefits and obstacles of how they integrate with regional transit providers. The first two stories covered the Twin Cities and Sacramento.]

I hardly traveled outside of San Francisco on my own growing up.

My parents, working-class Chinese immigrants, managed to get a monthly San Francisco Muni pass for me so I could get to school. I used that pass on weekends to explore the city, but rarely ventured outside of the city limits.

One of the few times I did so was in high school on a sunny and warm Friday morning. My 17-year-old self paid $13 one way to travel 65 miles over three hours on four transit agencies to get to Western Railway Museum, a Solano County museum with historic rail vehicles from around California.

I would head over to the museum by transit again in a heartbeat if I still lived in the Bay Area. However, taking public transit over such a long distance might not even work for those who do live in the Bay Area because of how time-consuming, expensive, and confusing it can be.

All of this may change in the next several years, as 27 Bay Area transit agencies work to coordinate their fares, schedules, and wayfinding, and as the California legislature considers a bill to withhold their state funding if they don’t. And to fund it all, the MTC may request a ballot measure from the legislature, after abandoning an effort in 2020 for $100 billion because of the pandemic.

Although it has been a decades-long effort, cratering transit ridership heading into the pandemic — the Bay Area lost 27 million annual riders between 2017 and 2018 — makes it urgent.

“It really is about, in the most bold vision, having a harmonious system where the rider doesn’t really notice what system they’re on. It’s a Bay Area system, and it’s clear how you connect from A to B,” says Rebecca Long, who directs legislative affairs for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s federal metropolitan planning organization.

Regional transit coordination is a fraught topic because every agency wants to have as many riders as possible, which translates into more funding. “There’s quite a lot of money at stake that agencies see as their own,” says Ian Griffiths, who runs Seamless Bay Area, an organization advocating for a unified regional transit system. “They see regional coordination as being potentially a risk to their ability to [collect] revenue.”

The regional transit coordination bill, if passed, requires free transfers between every agency, except to and from Muni’s cable cars. “Rather than having to worry about, ‘Should I take this mode, or this mode,’ [Getting from point] A to B should cost a fair amount, and it should be easy to understand, easy to pay, and there should be no surprises,” says Griffiths, whose organization supports implementing fares based on distance traveled.

To meet that provision, the MTC will revamp transfer discounts to riders using the regional fare payment card Clipper when the new version rolls out next year. Riders transferring from BART to any agency will only pay the difference in the connecting agency fare, while riders transferring from any agency to BART will pay BART fare, less the fare they already paid to the connecting agency.

“So let’s say the bus fare was $2.50, you’d be reducing that amount entirely from your trip in each direction,” Long says. “That’s a really big deal … and the operators have agreed to that.” Altogether, the change will cost agencies $30 million, with MTC footing part of the bill.

But until then, riders will have to utilize a mishmash of transfer discounts to get between different agencies, if they exist. Otherwise, California Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo and the author of the bill, says that “people who are transferring between systems are still paying double, triple.” The MTC also partnered with most Bay Area transit agencies during the height of the pandemic to launch a discounted fare program for low-income adults.

Both fare and transfer discounts are only available on Clipper, itself a decades-long effort to make riding across multiple transit agencies seamless. It’s accepted on all except one transit agency: Dixon Readi-Ride in northeastern Solano county, who chose not to participate because of administrative costs and equipment compatibility.

From Next City logoWayfinding has been a decades-long issue, too. In the early 2000s, the agency built a regional trip planner, where riders could figure out what routes to take to get to where they needed to go. It was not perfect by any means; I remember planning trips from my childhood apartment in San Francisco’s Nob Hill to Stonestown, a mall located in the southwest corner of San Francisco, and the planner returned a trip result that would take an hour to complete, instead of a more direct route that takes about 45 minutes.

Today, many agencies provide transit schedule data to companies such as Montreal, Quebec-based Transit, who build navigation apps for people with computers and smartphones. But not every agency is able to provide such data to these companies, and not everyone can use the apps.

So the MTC is working to implement a consistent brand for maps and directional signage, which the bill also requires. They hope to work with a consultant starting this summer to deploy pilot wayfinding in the North and East Bays, which are home to many transit systems, in late 2024 or early 2025.

Although the MTC developed wayfinding standards now in place at BART and some Muni Metro stations, as well as major transit hubs such as Salesforce Transit Center in Downtown San Francisco, they coexist with other signage developed by individual transit agencies. “You still have all of the other very different operator-specific signage, maps, terminology, that creates a pretty confusing environment, especially for a new rider,” Long says.

In addition to signage, Golden Gate Transit, which connects Sonoma and Marin Counties with San Francisco and the East Bay, decided to renumber their routes, in part because some of their route numbers were numbered the same as other routes operated by other transit agencies, such as Muni.

“As San Francisco started to bring back routes to their system, we had a Golden Gate Transit Route 30 [which runs between Downtown San Francisco and San Rafael] operating a block apart from a Muni Route 30 [that runs between San Francisco’s 4th and King Caltrain station and the Marina District],” says Golden Gate Transit Planning Director Ron Downing. “We had a couple complaints from people that were using [a trip planner] and they weren’t sure which route 30 they needed to board in the Marina District.”

Before they could renumber any routes, however, they needed to ask neighboring Marin Transit, which Golden Gate Transit used to operate under contract until the late 2000s, to free up a series of numbers. After they secured the series, they implemented the renumbering in December 2021, one of which involved renumbering the 30 into the 130. “That’s different enough for the passenger to know it’s different [from] the Muni bus,” said Downing. The agency has not received any complaints about the renumbering, which was praised by neighboring agencies.

The agency also used this opportunity to renumber several other routes so riders could understand how far they can get from San Francisco based on how high the route is numbered, with some exceptions. But route changes they undertook over the years made it difficult to adhere to the numbering standards.

Aside from fares, mapping, and wayfinding, Bay Area transit agencies working across different disciplines have been getting together many times a week to talk about how they can better work together. One of the changes discussed is coordinating schedule changes so they all take place on the same day, perhaps in August and January.

A version of this article was originally published in Next City, May 6, 2022. Republished with permission.

Image of Henry PanHenry Pan 潘嘉宏 (they/ them/ theirs) is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist who reports primarily on transportation issues. Prior to 2017, Pan worked with several organizations now operating with Seamless Bay Area, which supports SB 917 (Becker), the Seamless Transit Transformation Act. They hold a bachelor’s in urban studies and planning from San Francisco State University.

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Ban on Short-Term Rentals required Coastal Commission approval

Ban on Short-Term Rentals required Coastal Commission approval

This article was originally posted by Perkins Coie LLP in California Land Use and Development Report, May 10, 2022.

By Cecily Barclay and Kaela Shiigi

The Court of Appeal held that absent a distinction between short- and long-term rentals, both are permitted under city zoning ordinances, and any ban on short-term rentals that changes the status quo is an amendment that requires Coastal Commission approval. Darby T. Keen v. City of Manhattan Beach 77 Cal. App. 5th 142 (2022).

The City of Manhattan Beach enacted zoning ordinances banning short-term rentals in 2015 and instituting an enforcement mechanism in 2019 without seeking the Coastal Commission’s approval. The City had originally intended to seek Coastal Commission approval but withdrew its application after the Coastal Commission expressed that it did not support a full ban on short-term rentals in the Coastal Zone. The City justified not seeking Coastal Commission approval by claiming that the existing zoning ordinance from 1994 already banned short-term rentals.

A property owner petitioned for a writ of mandate to enjoin the City from enforcing the 2015 and 2019 ordinances after the City tried to enforce the ban on his property. He claimed that the City should have sought Coastal Commission approval.

The Court of Appeal held that the City ordinance banning short-term rentals was invalid because the City failed to obtain the Coastal Commission’s approval. The court reasoned that the City’s zoning ordinances prior to 2015 allowed short-term rentals because the code did not distinguish between short- and long-term rentals. This meant that rentals of residential properties for any time period were allowed. The court also rejected the City’s argument that short-term rentals should be treated as hotels under the City code, concluding that the homes that are typically rented out as short-term rentals did not fall under the code’s definition of a hotel.

The court also dismissed the other arguments the City relied on to justify the ban. The court rejected the claim that the concept of permissive zoning applied, under which zoning ordinances prohibit any use they do not expressly permit, noting that the City’s pre-2015 ordinances did permit short-term rentals. It likewise rejected the argument that the court should defer to the City’s interpretation of its own ordinances, finding that their plain language did not support that interpretation. The City’s 2015 ban on short-term rentals amounted to an amendment of the City’s existing ordinances to ban short-term rentals, which required Coastal Commission approval.

Image of Cecily BarclayCecily Barclay, Partner, focuses her practice on land use and entitlements, real estate acquisition and development, and local government law. She is a lead author of Curtin’s California Land Use and Planning Law. Barclay holds a JD from Harvard Law School and a BA from UC Berkeley.

Image of Kaela ShiigiKaela Shiigi focuses on environmental and energy law issues. Prior to her career in law, she was an environmental scientist at AECOM. Shiigi holds a JD from the UC Berkeley School of Law and a BS in environmental sciences, also from UC Berkeley.

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When you have to forget everything you know about Planning

Creating a Sustainable Urban Development Plan for the Greater Banjul Area, The Gambia

By Holly Pearson, AICP

I remember the precise moment I realized I had to unlearn all my expertise, everything I thought was the right way to approach an urban planning exercise. It was about two months into my contract as a senior urban planning analyst with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), working with a team of planners and engineers to synthesize background research and stakeholder input into a comprehensive plan for the Greater Banjul Area (GBA), capital city region of The Gambia in West Africa. I had been hired for the project based on my years of experience with comprehensive planning in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a few international planning projects I had worked on in Latin America with Ecocity Builders.

Map base: Google maps

In October 2021, I was on an official UN mission to the Banjul area. The Gambia, which carves out from Senegal a narrow sliver of land following the boundaries of the Gambia River watershed, has a current population of just over 2.5 million — roughly equivalent to the combined population of San Francisco and Alameda Counties. The capital city region, consisting of the municipalities of Banjul, Kanifing, and Brikama, plus a handful of smaller communities and villages, is home to 55 percent of the country’s population.

Like many African city-regions, the GBA is urbanizing rapidly, and much of the development is informal and unplanned. The goal of our UNOPS project was to prepare a sustainable urban development plan for the GBA that addressed the numerous challenges facing the region. These include major land use conflicts between the Port of Banjul and the adjacent urban core of the capital city, poor infrastructure, unregulated development, insufficient housing supply, informal settlements, loss of agricultural and open space lands, environmental degradation, and local climate change impacts.

My epiphany occurred during a stakeholder workshop with officials from national and local governments, the Port, tribal leaders, utility companies, and other key groups. I had prepared my part of our presentation on the existing draft policy framework for the GBA Development Plan, which included a point about strengthening both the process and regulatory context for review of proposed new development projects and the capacity of the local governments to carry out these reviews. My UNOPS colleague, Talía Rangil Escribano, who had been based in The Gambia working on the project for a little over a year, pulled me aside. “It’s not the local governments that issue approvals for development projects,” she whispered. “It’s DPPH,” the Department of Physical Planning and Housing.

UNOPS’ Talía Rangil Escribano, second from left, with Holly Pearson, AICP, center, at a strategic issues workshop. Photo ©UNOPS

I looked back at my slides, thinking on my feet about how I could quickly edit my presentation. DPPH is a division of the national Ministry of Lands and Regional Government. I suddenly felt a bit embarrassed about my error and my lack of familiarity with the structure and roles of government entities in The Gambia. But that moment didn’t just prompt a literal step back to think about how to revise my talk for that day’s workshop — it also prompted a big metaphorical step back from all my knowledge, all my assumptions, all my biases — formed by my education and my work experience in the wealthy, powerful, and orderly countries of North America. It suddenly hit me with the force of a Gambian monsoon storm — I didn’t really understand anything about how things worked in this small West African nation.

I am no stranger to unfamiliar political contexts or rough conditions in less developed parts of the world. My passion for travel and cross-cultural experience has taken me to some three dozen countries on six continents. Yet somehow none of my previous international travel, study, or work experience had quite prepared me for The Gambia. Known as the “Smiling Coast of Africa,” The Gambia is rustic, friendly, and rich in its culture and biodiversity. It is considered a low-income country, ranking number 172 out of 189 countries worldwide in terms of the UN Human Development Index. My brief time there was profoundly eye-opening in many respects.

I had already read the statistics as part of the preparatory work for the development plan: nearly 27 percent of households in the GBA do not have piped water and nearly 32 percent lack proper sanitation service. Yet during a day-long reconnaissance tour around the GBA with my UN colleagues, I was surprised and fascinated by what I observed. Outside of the old capital city of Banjul, most of the roads in this region of 1.4 million people (except for the major highways) are unpaved.

Image of Brikama Nyambai Road
Brikama Nyambai Road, July 2019. Photo: Kreuzberger, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia

My visit coincided with the end of the rainy season, and in the city of Brikama (pop. 731,000 in 2013) and other parts of the southern end of the GBA, many city streets lack drainage infrastructure and were inundated with water. Bicycles, tuk-tuks, taxis, donkey carts, and pedestrians crisscrossed through the muddy water. Outside the Brikama branch office of the DPPH, a small herd of goats grazed the overgrown vegetation next to a heap of abandoned, rusted, old cars. At a small home-based childcare facility on the outskirts of Brikama where we made a brief stop, there was no running water.

In the heart of old Banjul, next to the massive seaport, warehousing and logistics facilities have encroached into residential areas, and freight trucks lined the city streets — there were no apparent rules or regulations for truck parking. Along the main north-south commercial thoroughfare that connects Banjul, Kanifing (pop. 323,000 in 2003), and Brikama, informal businesses encroach into the public right-of-way, competing for space with pedestrians and traffic. The main form of ‘public’ transportation is privately owned vans and minibuses that circulate through the city picking up and dropping off passengers. The “system” is highly efficient but completely unregulated, with no safety standards and no checks or authorizations required for vehicles or drivers. The region’s sole formal solid waste disposal facility, the Bakoteh landfill, is located in the heart of Kanifing, surrounded by residences, and bordering a large creek.

During my stay in The Gambia, I was told an amusing story by our UNOPS programme director, Agathe, about a discussion she had with a potential donor agency from the European Union. Agathe is a French urban planner with experience in several countries who aptly describes herself as a “planner for unplanned places.” The EU donor group had approached her about their interest in investing in a bus rapid transit system for the GBA — a flashy project featuring the newest, greenest, transportation technology. “I just had to turn my head aside slightly and laugh,” Agathe recalled. “I told them, ‘Perhaps you don’t realize that most of the roads aren’t even paved.’”

For me, that anecdote about the well-intentioned yet misguided EU donors came to embody what often happens when planners, engineers, economists, and other professionals from the Global North engage in urban sustainability work in the Global South. Once I humbly admitted to myself that I didn’t really understand anything about how to plan a city in The Gambia, I began relying heavily on the expertise and advice of my two Gambian counterparts, my planning team colleagues Felicia and Madiba. I asked them endless questions: What government entity is responsible for this? What is the procedure to accomplish such and such? What is the legal context in The Gambia for XYZ? They answered my questions and pointed me to relevant legislation, which I studied in exhaustive detail. And then I went back to Felicia and Madiba, puzzled: “So I read through the regulations for development control that are on the books. Why aren’t they enforced?”

That was the one question that no one could answer.

Image of IT training certificates for Mariama Jobe and Elizabeth Gomez-Talia
UNOPS’ Talía Rangil Escribano, right, with community members Mariama Jobe and Elizabeth Gomez, who completed IT training under UNOPS’ Greater Banjul 2040 project. Photo ©UNOPS

Back in the United States, I sought advice from an old friend who worked for many years with the US Agency for International Development, promoting democracy and governance initiatives in post-conflict places like Rwanda and Afghanistan. “Tye,” I said, “I want to write the policy chapter of this plan to be very simple — not to try to take on every challenge, but just to facilitate the government authorities really moving the needle on a few of the most critical issues. But how do I write a plan and an implementation strategy that they will follow and use, given the government’s inertia and the entrenched practice of weak enforcement?” Tye nodded with understanding, then offered, “What if you didn’t try to figure out how to change the public institutions and practices to be more effective, but rather used as your starting point the assumption that things aren’t going to work as intended? That the government systems won’t be strong and efficient?”

Tye’s suggestion set me into motion to fundamentally rethink my approach to the GBA development plan. Chaos, informality, and lawlessness were not likely going away anytime soon. My job was to figure out how to get those dynamics to work in favor of sustainable outcomes instead of against them. I realized the need to simplify the plan’s approach and build on things that are already working in the GBA (no matter how confusing and disorderly they might seem to my “first-world planner” mind).

In March 2022, my UNOPS colleagues and I delivered the final Greater Banjul Area 2040 Development Plan to the Gambian Ministry of Lands and Regional Government for formal adoption, along with a roadmap for implementation of the plan. As our team wrapped up the project and reported on its outcomes to our funder, the African Development Bank, I felt proud of what we had accomplished and cautiously hopeful about the future of the GBA region. Most of all, I was profoundly aware and appreciative of how the experience of planning for a West African city had shifted my professional perspective and opened my worldview.

Holly Pearson, AICP, is an independent planning consultant working on international initiatives and projects in northern California. From 2007 through 2015, she was a planner for the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, and from 2014 through 2021, she worked for Ecocity Builders and Michael Baker International.

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Meet a local planner: Zachary Dahl, AICP

Meet a local planner: Zachary Dahl, AICP

Image of Zachary Dahl

Born and raised in the small northern California town of Fort Bragg, Zachary Dahl, AICP, had a passion and interest in urban planning from a young age. He is currently the Deputy Community Development Director at the City of San Mateo, CA. Dahl has over 20 years of public and private experience in planning. His previous roles include planning and building director with the Town of Los Altos Hills and planning services manager with the City of Los Altos. He holds a bachelor’s degree in city and regional planning from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Dahl was active in APA leadership roles at both the state and national levels and he helped organize the first student planning conference at San Jose State in 2003. Dahl now volunteers to support ULI’s Urban Plan, an educational program for high school students that opens them to concepts and ideas of planning, development, and economics.

What motivated you to pursue a career in planning?

My grandfather was a civil engineer, my great uncle was the visionary architect Charles Moore, and my parents are an artist, contractor, and photographer. All of them fueled my passion for and interest in urban planning. I didn’t actually know about city planning but was very interested in attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to study either architecture or engineering. I loved bridges and thought maybe I could be an engineer who would one day design another Golden Gate Bridge!

My grandfather was a strong role model. I loved visiting his office and seeing photos on his wall of the buildings his company had built, including Hartford’s General Hospital. I never got to meet my uncle Charles Moore who passed away when I was 11. But I’d heard so much about him, read his books, and visited his buildings. One of his buildings, Sea Ranch Condominium #1, is still in the family. I love visiting there; you can feel his presence in that building.

I came across urban planning while going through Cal Poly’s course book and fell in love with the profession.

Tell us more about your involvement with APA

At Cal Poly, I joined the Associated Students in Planning (ASP) through the city and regional planning department. Through ASP, I became aware of APA and got involved with the local Central Coast Section. Later, I was nominated as Cal Poly’s Student Representative on the Central Coast Section Board for my final years of college. As a student rep, I attended my first national APA conference in New Orleans in 2001 — an amazing experience. I also connected with the Student Representative Council (SRC) and was nominated as the Region VI Representative. The 2002 conference in Chicago left me disappointed with APA’s effort to involve students. The few student-focused activities felt like APA didn’t really care about supporting students — their future members. Student discounts and registration assistance were minimal, and many fees were the same as for professionals.

After the conference, I raised these issues and concerns with my connections at APA. A number of people in APA’s leadership responded, and I was subsequently appointed to APA’s election reform task force. I believe the task force planted some serious seeds, because it now seems that APA is doing a better job of engaging and supporting students.

What was it like to serve on national’s election reform task force?

I had lobbied to be on the APA’s membership task force, as this was at the core of the issues I raised and cared about, so it felt a little like tokenism to be appointed to the election reform task force. But it was a positive experience. I got to meet with other planners from around the country and work with them to improve APA’s election processes. Still, when you’re a student in a room with seasoned professionals, it’s hard to find your voice. I was just a planning student with probably half-baked ideas. But, along with several other students on the SRC who kind of rattled the cage, I like to think we pushed APA to invest more effort into its student membership.

And you also helped organize the first student planning conference?

After graduation, I moved to Santa Cruz and got plugged in with the Northern Section of APA California. I had a friend at San Jose State (my predecessor on the SRC Council), who was on the Northern Section Board. We were both passionate about planning and politics, and had lots of big ideas about how we were going to effect change. Both of us felt that the APA could do better for students, which resulted in the idea of having a student-focused planning conference.

The conference came about mainly through a group of SJSU students in their urban planning program. My SRC predecessor was one of the leaders, and we collaborated to put together a day-long conference. It included a mobile workshop, speaker panels, and a keynote speaker. All things considered, we students did a pretty good job. I have to give credit to Hing Wong, FAICP, and the Northern Section Board, who provided our group with a grant to cover conference expenses. Students who attended paid only a small admission fee, $5 or so.

You switched from private to public sector. When and why?

I might have stayed in the private sector longer. I was exposed to projects and did things that probably were way above my pay grade and my experience level at the time, but in 2007 I began to worry about where the economy was going. Obviously, I didn’t foresee the crash, but it felt like something bad was going to happen. I was looking at my company’s workload and thinking about our vulnerability if the economy cooled. Our projects depended on development, and a drop in project volume would put me at risk. I had wanted to gain some experience in the public sector, which I saw as stable; so I made the switch.

I feel every professional should spend time on both sides of the counter, experiencing the planning profession through different lenses. As a professional, you benefit when you’re able to think about something through both of those lenses.

What planning challenges are you are coming across in San Mateo?

The biggest challenges are in housing and the way the regulatory landscape is shifting. It’s a shift we won’t fully see until the dust settles (if it ever does). Local jurisdictions have to implement within the framework of all the State legislative requirements that are coming out. It’s kind of like the legislature is saying, here you go, figure it out, we don’t have all the details, but don’t get it wrong or you could be exposed to a legal challenge from the State, a developer, or an advocacy group.

Tell us more about ULI “UrbanPlan” and your involvement

It is an engaging educational program for juniors and seniors in high school, plugged into the economics or government curriculum. Students, grouped into development teams, are tasked with responding to an RFP from a city to redevelop a large parcel of land in an urban context. The students use large Legos to develop a 3D mixed-use development and strategically place parks, commercial, office, and residential uses. The exercise touches on many things we do as planners, like dealing with neighborhood opposition, financial constraints, and jobs/housing targets.


Image of facilitator with students in 2015
Teacher Wendy Holm talks to students during UrbanPlan Facilitation Day at Boston Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, January 14, 2015. Photo: ULI UrbanPlan

There are two facilitations where volunteers coach the student teams and help them think comprehensively about the RFP and build the model. Then my colleagues and I volunteer as a faux city council where the student teams present their proposed development, and we select the group that put together the best proposal. At the end, we provide all of the groups with feedback, and the students get to ask questions about the work we do. It’s a really fun and rewarding experience.

How do you balance work and life?

It’s always a challenge to keep up with the demands of work without letting it take over. My non-work time is focused on my family as my wife and I raise our two sons, ages seven and four. That is so rewarding and fulfilling, and as they grow up, I get to enjoy more activities with them. Just the other week, I took them to their first Giants game. When I do have spare time, I enjoy the outdoors, gardening, hiking, carpentry, golf, and traveling.

Any advice for budding planners?

Don’t try to climb the career ladder too quickly. There’s a lot of value to spending time at each rung, and it will hurt a lot more going down than climbing up. If you climb too fast, you may get in over your head, setting yourself up to fail.

Also, build your professional network, and never be afraid to reach out to someone. Fostering connections is important, and your network will help you build and broaden your outlook. If there’s a planner who intrigues you, reach out and say, hey, can we get coffee and talk about the work you are doing?


Interviewer Dhawal Kataria, AICP, is a transportation planner at Kittelson & Associates and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.

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What a Planning grad student learned at NPC22

What a Planning grad student learned at NPC22

By Snow Zhu, UC Berkeley, May 23, 2022

After two years of virtual conferences, planners from around the country descended on San Diego earlier this month for the national APA conference. I was one of the lucky attendees — and especially excited, as I had never been to an APA conference. With my first year of planning graduate school nearly completed, I was eager to learn and connect with others in the field. Below are a few standouts from the many interesting panels and events offered.

Image of UC Berkeley planning graduate students
UC Berkeley planning graduate students Whitney Francis, Joann Martinez, and Snow Zhu at the San Diego Convention Center. Photo: Snow Zhu

Policy and programs towards an inclusive economy

In this panel, representatives from the City of Brooklyn Park, a northern suburb of Minneapolis, described several case studies on equitable economic development. The presentation began with two goals: 1) to share strategies for economic inclusion and 2) to start conversations about racial equity and inclusion in economic development. Breanne B. Rothstein, AICP, the city’s economic development and housing director, described their efforts toward inclusive economic development.

The first portion of the presentation focused on workforce development programs aimed at increasing BIPOC employment in high-demand, high-wage employment in the fields of IT, nursing, and construction. The programs found success by engaging youth (BrookLynk) and leveraging American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The second portion covered the financing process for equitable development. The Economic Development Authority has made efforts to invest in mixed-income and affordable housing projects such as Autumn Ridge, Brook Gardens, and Brook Landings. These projects are funded through tax increment financing, an affordable housing trust fund, and state and federal tax credits. Rothstein noted that the city has a new program to support local aspiring developers and developers of color.

Rothstein also recognized that the city’s efforts would be incomplete without recognizing the need to evaluate their own hiring and procurement processes. She explained that “partnerships with community-based organizations achieve far more robust and impactful engagement results.” For example, a local firm, NEOO Partners, which was also represented on the panel, was selected to manage the second phase of a community engagement process for the 80-acre Brooklyn Center project.

National City “Market on 8th” tour

While deciding what panel to attend next, I saw that the newly formed APA Asian Pacific Islander Interest Group was hosting a tour of Market on 8th, a new public market and community space in National City, California. The 9,000 square-foot market is the first of its kind in the area and that Saturday afternoon, I was feeling curious (and hungry). I emailed the interest group email, and the group chair, Hing Wong, FAICP, kindly replied within minutes that I was more than welcome to join.

Pedro Garcia (left) and Joel Tubao (right) describe the development process for the Market on 8th project. Photo: Michael Tactay
Pedro Garcia (top left) and Joel Tubao (top right) describe the development process for the Market on 8th project. Photo: Michael Tactay

When I got there, people were chatting in a large indoor seating area and enjoying everything from mango sago (a popular Hong Kong dessert) to tacos. I sensed some planning magic in this place and wanted to learn more about how it came to be. First, Joel Tubao, the developer of Market on 8th, described his family’s roots in San Diego’s South Bay and his desire to work collaboratively with the community and the city to create projects like this. For projects that are innovative (and therefore riskier), he credited the city for its proactive planning and development process. For instance, National City had prepared an EIR for the area’s specific plan that expedited the process significantly.

Pedro Garcia, National City’s economic development manager, emphasized that creative solutions are important to making projects like Market on 8th a reality. For instance, the city improved pedestrian crosswalks in the area to make it less of a corridor, and created an environment where a project like Market on 8th would be more likely to succeed.

In my work as an urban economics consultant, a frequent topic is how to incentivize a desired type of development, whether my firm is working with a developer or a city. It was really valuable to hear directly from Tubao and Garcia about their strategies for successful projects.

Less can be more: Data for Affordable ADUs (California)

After attending another housing panel — where I discovered just how different the legal planning framework and policy tools available to planners can be state-to-state — I was relieved to be back in a California-centric landscape. I have heard a lot about ADUs over the years. As an undergraduate researcher at the Center for Community Innovation, I combed through the municipal codes of Bay Area cities for ADU guidelines. And recently at work, I learned that SB13 exempts ADUs smaller than 750 square feet from impact fees.

Now, at the conference, I wanted to learn more about effective codes and programs that have been adopted to support the construction of ADUs. This ADU panel was put together by Lauren Ashley Week, currently pursuing a dual Juris Doctor and Master of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan. The panel featured:

  • David Garcia, Policy Director, UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation
  • Darin Ranelletti, Policy Director for Housing Security, City of Oakland
  • Evita Chavez, Associate Initiative Officer, Partnership for the Bay’s Future, San Francisco Foundation
  • William Huang, Housing Director, City of Pasadena

Darin Ranelletti’s presentation on Oakland’s Keys to Equity pilot included a list of community partners that were essential to the creation of the project. Photo: Snow Zhu, Presentation Slide: Darin Ranelletti
Darin Ranelletti’s presentation on Oakland’s Keys to Equity pilot included a list of community partners that were essential to the creation of the project. Photo: Snow Zhu, Presentation Slide: Darin Ranelletti

Ranelletti described Keys to Equity in Oakland. The program “provides design, permitting, construction, and financing services to Oakland homeowners who would like to build an ADU on their property.” The city worked with community partners such as Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services to cater the program to communities of color. Ranelletti explained that cost was not the only barrier to building an ADU for homeowners of color; they also needed the skills of a project manager to navigate the planning, construction, and financing process. He credited the many organizations the city worked with to put together the program, which even in pilot mode, is already proving to be a promising model for other cities wishing to launch a similar program.

A variety of opportunities in Planning

The APA conference emphasized something I had begun realizing in graduate school: planning offers us so many opportunities to work on pressing issues in housing and economic development. I have already reached out to several people I met at the conference, and have come back to school and my workplace with a renewed sense of purpose.

Thank you, APA California Northern Section and Economic & Planning Systems (EPS) for funding my conference attendance. I hope to see everyone again next year!

Image of Snow ZhuSnow Zhu is a city planning graduate student at UC Berkeley and an Associate at Economic & Planning Systems. She has worked with public and private sector clients on a wide range of development, finance, and policy challenges. You can reach her at snowxzhu@berkeley.edu.

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