The City of San Jose Involves Diverse Residents to Build Strong Neighborhoods
“As opposed to the model where the public works department comes up with a plan and then runs it by the community, we went to the community to find out what they wanted first,” says former redevelopment agency Strong Neighborhoods Manager Laura Lam.
The City of San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI) was developed at the beginning of the new millennium by the Redevelopment Agency and the City Managers Office to improve the city’s neediest neighborhoods. Nineteen areas were selected through a “blight analysis” that made them eligible to receive redevelopment funding. Since 2002, the city has engaged diverse residents of the targeted communities in ongoing dialogues with city staff, including staff from the Department of Public Works, to collaboratively prioritize and develop community improvement projects. “As opposed to the model where the public works department comes up with a plan and then runs it by the community, we went to the community to find out what they wanted first,” says former redevelopment agency Strong Neighborhoods Manager Laura Lam. This inclusive approach made a big difference, according to Lam. “It wasn’t just a traditional public works reconstruction project anymore, it was a community improvement project- that is what happens when you pull an engineer out of their cubicle in city hall and put them out in the community in direct communication with residents.”
The San Jose Redevelopment Agency began by identifying community leaders and stakeholders in the SNI neighborhoods in an effort to get everyone at the table. In some cases there were existing neighborhood groups, while in others these groups were created. Neighborhood Advisory Committees (composed of residents), now called Neighborhood Action Coalitions, worked with city staff to develop a list of the top 10 priorities for community improvement projects in each of the 19 neighborhoods. A community and a staff liaison were assigned to focus on each identified priority. Topics such as street lights, parks, street reconstruction, and traffic calming measures are discussed in each neighborhood during regular monthly meetings, where city staff provide residents with the necessary background information to make well informed decisions.
“We wanted to create better communication between residents and city departments, and to better educate and inform residents, so that we can better meet their needs,” says San Jose Public Works Senior Engineer Paul Izadyar. Izadyar participates in community meetings, goes door to door to engage residents, mails out surveys, and coordinates neighborhood walks to identify areas needing improvements. He says this engagement process pays off in very practical ways for the city. “If residents are concerned about a project after a contract has been awarded, it can lead to the need for changes that can be more expensive if they are not incorporated early in the planning process,” explains Izadyar. In the Greater Gardner Street reconstruction project area, community input from monthly meetings and community walks directed public works staff to incorporate design elements into the improvement projects to address residents’ concerns about areas where trash was being dumped and areas where homeless people were establishing encampments.
“Sometimes we had to explain to people that their ideas were not feasible; we had to educate them about the engineering, limited funding, and legal issues involved,” explains Izadyar. “However, when we went to construction everyone involved was agreed as to what we were going to do and what the elements were.” Resident input in the Greater Gardner area led engineers to incorporate some aesthetic elements of the neighboring Willow Glen area, such as ornamental lighting to identify pedestrian corridors and patterned colored crosswalks. Community input also directed public works staff to communicate with all the utilities serving the affected neighborhoods to replace any underground lines as needed during reconstruction rather than risk having to tear up their new streets anytime soon. Izadyar says the responses to surveys he has mailed to affected residents has shown that most people are happy with the results.
So what are the keys to San Jose’s success at productively involving residents along with public works staff in redevelopment efforts? “The important part is that we do all the work in the community; people don’t have to go to city hall to have their voice heard,” says Lam. All meetings are held in the affected community, at a time and place that works for people in that neighborhood. Lam says another key is that existing relationships between city staff and residents allowed projects to emerge based on real needs in the community. Some of the most prevalent needs identified included more open space, more walkable communities and recreation opportunities, more trees, and more adequate sewer and storm drain systems. “Where a city agency might normally predetermine the most cost efficient layout, San Jose took the time to see what people wanted and to work with residents to meet their expectations where possible,” says Lam.
Another key to San Jose’s success is that the city is reaching out to groups of residents beyond the “usual suspects” who attend public meetings. During the Greater Gardner Street reconstruction process, a full time project inspector was assigned to work with residents who had special needs in order to make sure the construction process would not negatively affect them. The city also took steps to include residents from different cultures in the engagement process. “We have a number of bilingual Spanish and Vietnamese staff,” says Lam. “It is important to have staff who can build relationships with and understand the culture of the people they are working with. It is not uncommon for us to put out information in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Portuguese. When possible, we try to be mindful of cultural considerations and remove obstacles to participation by providing child care and food at community meetings.”
Lam says the city is currently revising the neighborhood improvement plans and “Top 10″ lists for the 19 SNI areas in order to involve new residents and to see if priorities in the neighborhood have shifted since the original plans were developed. The redevelopment agency and city departments are developing valuable new and long-term relationships with diverse residents in troubled neighborhoods that are allowing the city to better serve the public. Lam says that she has learned, “When you put residents in contact with city staff multiple times over the course of a plan and a project, it makes people more comfortable with the process.”
To learn more about San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, visit www.strongneighborhoods.org or contact Strong Neighborhoods Interim Manager Sal Alvarez: Salvador.Alvarez@sanjoseca.gov or (408) 535-8502.