SPUR Launches San Jose Urban Design Initiative

By Benjamin Grant, Public Realm and Urban Design Program Manager
October 2, 2012

Downtown San Jose's Outdoor Living Room project uses urban design elements like landscaping to create an inviting public space along South First Street. Photo from SPUR's San Jose study trip.

SPUR’s San Jose office is convening a task force of city officials and planning and development thought leaders to tackle a vexing question: How can the nation’s tenth largest city transform its historically suburban built environment into one that supports an active street life, greater use of transit and a stronger urban fabric? San Jose has charted an ambitious course through its new 2040 General Plan; one of the major goals is to concentrate development in key areas called urban villages. These villages, mostly located along major transit lines, aim to support reductions in solo driving and associated carbon emissions while creating a more engaging, livable city that can compete for the creative workforce that is driving today’s tech economy.

As the city initiates a local planning process for these areas, a critical opportunity emerges to get the placemaking details right. SPUR’s initiative will focus on physical planning and urban design. We will address site planning; building placement, orientation and access; the design of streets and blocks; the design and use of open space; and the organization of land uses. In short, we will look at all the ways a land use program is translated into a place that either does or does not support walking, cycling and transit.

Efforts to achieve better urban design outcomes are nothing new in San Jose. In fact, sound urban design principles have been articulated repeatedly in city guidelines since the 1980s. But despite great strides in the downtown and some gradual improvement elsewhere, development in San Jose is still overwhelmingly auto-dependent and has not produced the kinds of pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighborhoods that can truly support a shift away from the private car. Financial pressures and fierce competition for employment uses have hampered the city’s ability to uphold the principles espoused in its plans.

SPUR’s task force will reach well beyond planning and urban design, drawing from all the disciplines that shape the built environment, from development and traffic planning to lending and marketing. We will drill into the policies, processes, decisions and compromises that shape real-world projects and identify impediments to urban design excellence. We will also develop a collection of precedent projects from places similar to San Jose to show what success can look like — and how it can happen under complex real-world constraints. Finally, the task force will produce a report recommending changes to the development process that can yield improvements on the ground. Once these recommendations are in place, SPUR will support their implementation through the urban village planning process and help city officials make this ambitious vision everything it can be.
Read the San Jose 2040 General Plan >>
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