Planning Cities for Everyone Starts With Earning Trust

Viva Calle San José

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

As the incoming San José director at SPUR, I believe strongly in San José and the idea that the city can achieve social equity as it continues to develop its downtown core and other areas. I believe it is possible to not only grow San José’s jobs base and housing supply but also provide economic opportunity, cultural amenities, open spaces and recreational areas that directly benefit all residents and improve quality of life. For this to happen, however, those of us who work in urban policy must collectively strive to plan and implement policies that incorporate the input of the broader community. For real change to take place, we must be willing to admit our past failings, struggle through our differences and work together to better our community. 

For decades, the American Dream has entailed owning a nice car and moving into a single-family home in the suburbs. Now, we know better. Sprawl has immense negative impacts on the environment, economy and health of our families, and it contributes to racial inequities and segregation. For many people, living in the outskirts of the Bay Area was not a choice but a consequence of the high cost of housing; now many find themselves trapped in areas that require long commutes to work. In response, SPUR and others have championed the benefits of greater density, public transit and a more sustainable economy. But to have any chance at accomplishing the goals SPUR has set forth in its seven policy areas, the way we work on these difficult issues must be more inclusive.

While SPUR’s goals are certainly part of the solution to resolving issues caused by inequity and climate change, we should not forget the many people who have lived experiences in dense neighborhoods, using public transit, walking to their destination and riding their bicycles — not because they chose to, but because they had to. Many of these folks worked hard so that they could one day live in a single-family home and own a vehicle. We should not expect everyone to eagerly accept guidance from policy organizations, no matter how well-researched and well-intentioned it is. As proponents of a better future for all, organizations such as SPUR need to earn the trust of those who were sold on the American Dream.

My point here is: let’s get real about the experiences some people have had growing up in dense environments. The dense urban city where most people ride public transit, bike or walk to their destination is not always the utopia some urbanists suggest. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area who have lived — and still live — in dense settings, yet policy makers are often not asking their opinion of what it’s really like and how the experience can be improved. Urban policy practitioners — including SPUR — must do better if there is to be any chance at realizing our goals of equity, sustainability and making neighborhoods safe and welcoming to everyone. To do so, we must engage and collaborate with all stakeholders. Gone should be the days of doing the minimally prescribed community engagement and outreach.  

All of this of course must also be viewed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed the extent of the breakdown in relationships between young and old, rich and poor, and among our diverse communities. There is clear data showing that historically marginalized groups suffered even more during this pandemic. We saw an increasing portrayal of older and disabled people as a burden on society, even expendable.  Now more than ever, it is critical to foster opportunities for more significant contact between generations and diverse communities. 

Over the past 18 months, we have also witnessed fundamental changes in how the world views equity. Many local jurisdictions, including San José, have made a commitment to view issues and make decisions through an equity lens.” The city has even created an Office of Racial Equity. Yet, there is much work to do to truly appreciate the significant impacts that many “routine” policy decisions, particularly in land use, have on communities who trust informed decision-makers to do the right thing.   

Make no mistake, this will not be easy work.  Implementing policies that actually promote and further equity will require local jurisdictions to make difficult decisions. As South Bay residents witnessed during the contentious and convoluted debate around the proposed rezoning of the Berryessa Flea Market site, these decisions are not easy to make. There is no one-size-fits-all model for creating equitable policies. I am confident, however, that it begins with a fair and transparent process, which itself should be developed in a collaborative and open manner. 

For far too long, the processes for creating far-reaching policies have left out large sectors of the community. As we build out our cities, neighborhoods and public spaces, we must do so in a manner that is honest about the consequences and impacts these policies may have on vulnerable communities. No longer should we have an “oh well” attitude towards displacement and gentrification. Instead, let us take up the difficult challenge of ensuring everyone is provided the opportunity to benefit from the build-out of our cities. While not all inequitable policies exist because of specific and purposeful actions, they must nonetheless be equally addressed with intentionality if they are to be reversed. Equity will not happen by accident.

For our part, SPUR plans to kick-off a workshop series this fall looking at ways to address the potential equity impacts of future development proposals. We’ll be using the American Planning Association’s Planning for Equity Policy Guide. Similar work is already underway in New York City, whose council recently passed legislation that requires the city to assess the racial and ethnic impact of land use proposals that reshape existing communities. San José and other local jurisdictions would benefit from studying how future policy decisions might deepen or create disparities — and how they can be avoided. Perhaps these analyses can lead to a discussion — and ultimately decisions — about whether the equity impacts of proposed policies, particularly those related to future development proposals, should be a standard part of the public review process. 

As we continue to make our way through the pandemic, let us take this time as an opportunity for renewal — of spirit and hope. Silicon Valley is a trailblazer when it comes to technology; I challenge governments, private corporations, nonprofits and residents alike to join SPUR in renewing that innovative spirit in a way that incorporates every segment of our community.  As SPUR recognizes in its recently released Regional Strategy, “if we continue to practice business as usual, we should not expect different results.” Instead, let us visualize and choose a different path — one that reminds us how we arrived where we are and at the same time leads us to a design for real change.