Building the Future Together: Our Goals for SPUR’s Work in Oakland

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

As the incoming Oakland director at SPUR, I have an incredible opportunity to bridge the organization’s policy research, advocacy and discourse to this dynamic city, in service of its future and the future of the region. In this role, I will connect SPUR’s seven policy areas to Oakland’s policy and urban planning landscape in order to cultivate a more equitable, sustainable and prosperous city and region. Oakland is a complex city with a diversity of needs and a rich ecosystem of government, development, business, nonprofit, industry and community partners who are dedicated to seeing their city thrive. SPUR is uniquely positioned to convene these varied voices, bringing Oaklanders together to come up with collective resolutions to long-standing issues and build for the future.

Oakland is a study in contrasts. Within minutes of my home in the Bella Vista neighborhood, I can find myself in prolific redwood groves at Joaquin Miller Park, riding bikes along the Martin Luther King, Jr. Shoreline, eating tacos at Taqueria Sinaloa or enjoying an afternoon concert at the Lake Merritt Amphitheatre. Yet signs of chronic disinvestment are evident throughout the city: dumping, homelessness, vacant lots, empty storefronts. I see the scars of modernist city planning — the redlining, highways and rail infrastructure that brought benefits to the region while severing neighborhoods, limiting economic growth and polluting local communities. While Oakland continues to build from this history, the current COVID-19 pandemic presents immense challenges. Alameda County health officials report that the coronavirus has affected predominantly low-income communities of color in East Oakland more than any other place in the Bay Area. The city is managing a $62 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year as it works to rebuild its economy in the wake of the pandemic. Undergirding all of this is the need for safe and affordable housing, as well as the ongoing threat of displacement and exclusion from the economy, particularly for the city’s Black community, whose population continues to decline

Oakland is also resilient. Oaklanders have consistently birthed and organized influential social and cultural movements, including the community service work of the Black Panther Party, the West Oakland highway-resistance movement of the late 1980s, organizing for affordable housing in Chinatown and the annual Black Joy Parade. The city's government and development community have built significant housing and commercial developments despite economic downturns. This creativity and resolve will be needed again as the city emerges from the pandemic.

Creating Better Outcomes for Oaklanders

Here at SPUR, we have the privilege to dream about what may be possible for Oakland. How can we develop policy that will make housing more affordable and use it as a tool for closing the racial wealth gap? How can we ensure that neighborhood plans and developments — such as the Coliseum, Downtown Area Specific Plan and Lake Merritt transit-oriented development — advance equity, sustainability and prosperity? How can Oakland secure sufficient funding and evolve its public institutions to accelerate the repair and buildout of its aging and outdated transit network? And what shifts in local government would improve the delivery of city services? SPUR recognizes that the systemic nature of racism means that civic systems will perpetuate racial injustice if left to continue to operate as usual. A foundational principle of our investigations will be to ask: How can we shift systems and create better outcomes for all residents of Oakland, particularly for predominantly Black, Latinx and Asian neighborhoods?

To do this work of repairing systems and undoing harm, we must investigate our processes as civic leaders. Existing systems are set up for “us vs. them” thinking, where government, developers and communities are too often pitted against each other rather than working in alliance toward collective benefit. Broadly speaking, our dominant culture is a well-intentioned system that values authority, reaction, urgency and paternalism — which can lead to eroded trust, weakened relationships and unimproved conditions of well-being. Arriving at better outcomes will mean rethinking these processes.

Moving into a new practice requires a commitment from civic and community leaders — including SPUR — to recognize their power, acknowledge the historical harm caused by their institutions and personal decisions, and center communities of color in the development of strategy and solutions. Through authentic dialogue — structured on honesty, transparency, conflict resolution and a fair exchange of thoughts — we can build a foundation for inclusive solutions, particularly in areas where we may differ. Critical to this approach is a value-based and participatory process that allows a cross-section of people to imagine and develop ideas together. My belief and experience is that this will lead to better outcomes: more housing across income and type, authentic relationships between residents and the public and private sectors, responsive systems, shared prosperity. 

Working in Community

A core component of this vision is to build from SPUR’s strong membership and stakeholder base to include an expanded set of voices, particularly from neighborhood community organizations. A broader set of perspectives will allow for the generation of new ideas as we explore what is possible for resolving Oakland’s current challenges and building a stronger future. SPUR’s convenings in Oakland can become a model of reflective collaboration, flexibility and inclusion. We also aim to support Oakland’s civic leaders in the necessary but challenging work to put residents at the center of urban policy decisions. Bringing a true cross-section of people together can stir up fears. Community members worry that their needs will be compromised. Developers and government wonder if they will be held to unrealistic, financially bankrupting terms. The challenge in the work is to move beyond either/or thinking to allow fertile ground for the development of responsive and implementable ideas and action. The work is incremental but foundational.

Success for SPUR in Oakland will be determined by the extent to which the policies we support, the research we develop and the discourse we host have beneficial impact for neighborhoods across the city, for people of color and for Oakland's ability to thrive. In 2021, SPUR will release a body of work that provides recommendations on the structure of Oakland government in an effort to create a more efficient and responsive system of leadership. We will publish a report that reimagines the city’s freight and highway infrastructure, which has disproportionately impacted neighborhoods of color for generations. And we will analyze planning projects, like the Coliseum, to understand and elevate how they can be means for economic and environmental sustainability.

As we set priorities for SPUR’s work in Oakland, I will continue to connect with leaders across all sectors of the city for feedback on opportunities to bring SPUR’s expertise to the City of Oakland. Please contact me to add your voice to the conversation.