Leading With Public Space: The Case for Guadalupe River Park

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

Over the past few years, San Jose has undergone rapid growth and change — from Google’s plan to build its next campus downtown to regional investment in Diridon Station to support improvements to Caltrain and the extension of BART. While there’s been considerable excitement for this surge in development, it’s also been met with some degree of hesitation and anxiety. As San Jose continues to grow, equal attention and investment must be made to support existing assets and infrastructure.

What will downtown San Jose look like in 10 years? It might include new high-rise buildings and workers streaming in and out of Diridon Station. Or thousands of new residents traveling around the urban core to frequent their favorite shops and services. When planning for this next phase of growth, it’s critical to think beyond the physical infrastructure — the concrete buildings that will house all the workers and residents — to the spaces in between. Open public spaces offer an opportunity to bring people together, connect urban habitats and provide a healthier quality of life for all.

Seeing all these forces at play, SPUR decided in 2017 to launch an initiative to better realize the full potential of Guadalupe River Park. We recognized that Guadalupe was the city’s largest urban green space and the physical spine of a growing downtown, and it was time to leverage both the momentum and capital flowing through San Jose to inspire the park’s growth and transformation. We know that great public spaces make a great city, and we believe that Guadalupe River Park is the place in San Jose to:

  • Support and enhance a flourishing natural habitat
  • Connect downtown to surrounding neighborhoods
  • Catalyze cultural and economic vitality
  • Provide an inclusive gathering place for all

Building from this set of principles, we are excited to announce that, through investment made by the Knight Foundation and in partnership with the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, SPUR will embark on a three-year research and planning project for Guadalupe. Our work will focus on understanding the park’s current challenges, investigating what is possible, raising community understanding and awareness, and inspiring a conversation around the power of place.

Our research will encompass three key bodies of work: economy, equity and ecology. Here’s what we will be looking to learn:

1. How to balance natural ecology with a rapidly growing urban environment.

The Guadalupe River Park is a riparian corridor of high ecological importance with civic and physical pressures to serve multiple purposes for San Jose. SPUR is in the process of developing an analysis of the natural habitat and water conditions within the river. We are looking to identify how to best protect and enhance natural ecology in an urban environment. When looking at other waterfront and river revitalization projects from around the country, we’ve seen communities expressing increased desire to safely interact with the water, whether through direct activities like canoeing, kayaking and rafting or just by sitting along the shore. Our research will examine different scenarios for how to create greater connection between the river and the park.

2. How to measure and communicate the economic benefits of an enhanced Guadalupe River Park.

The project will put emphasis on placemaking, the effort to plan and design great public spaces. First introduced in the ’60s and ’70s, the idea that well-designed places promote health, happiness and well-being has largely made its way into mainstream planning and development processes. Most cities recognize that investment in the public realm leads to more inclusive, welcoming and dynamic cities. But making the case for investment in placemaking efforts can be challenging and complicated given city budget and priority needs. In San Jose, the rapid densification of the areas near Guadalupe River Park will create greater demand for access to open parks and green spaces. We know that investment in the park’s infrastructure, maintenance and programming will be needed to support increased usage. Through examining economic development policy, land use planning and real estate development finance, we will seek to quantify the social and economic benefits for investing in Guadalupe River Park.

3. How to demonstrate that public space is a driver for creating more engaged, equitable and sustainable communities.

There are considerable civic and health benefits for individuals who have access to parks and open green spaces. Recreation has largely become a privatized industry in the United States: Community recreation centers have closed in many neighborhoods, parks have largely been underfunded — and yet the health and wellness industry is booming. New fitness studios and boutique health clubs continue to open in cities around the country. But what does this mean for individuals who cannot afford these facilities? Access to well-maintained, active green spaces is critical from a public health standpoint. Research shows that residents who are in close proximity to parks are more likely to meet their physical activity goals, have improved mental health and experience less crime. The Guadalupe River Park runs between neighborhoods of extreme economic differences and has the opportunity to serve as not only a physical connector but a place to foster social and community connection. Future investments in the park should also be made in a way that allow existing residents to benefit. We will explore different value capture tools for how to best ensure that the economic impact of investment supports existing neighborhoods.

Along with our research, SPUR will be designing an engagement plan that includes a speakers series, public forums and an interactive exhibition to showcase our findings and solicit community feedback. All of this work will be done in collaboration with the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, City of San Jose Parks Recreation and Neighborhood Services, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Through this effort we hope to produce a series of recommendations and ideas to better inform future planning and design of the river park and its connection to greater downtown San Jose. Now is the time to showcase the invaluable benefit that Guadalupe River Park can provide to the entire city.

To learn more about the project or get involved with SPUR’s placemaking efforts, contact Michelle Huttenhoff at [email protected]