San Jose, CA

I recently spent a few days in San Jose which is a part of the Bay Area that I don’t visit that often. Downtown San Jose seems like a place where people go to work but don’t really live and hang out. Since I was mostly there during non-business hours it was hard to get sense of what the place would be like when its really busy. This type of downtown that empties out when no one is at work is a known phenomena in urban planning, and something that most planners think is problem. I hope that that city will work to bring more housing downtown because it has a lot of cool spaces that would be improved by people hanging out in them. (And because the Bay Area, especially Silicon Valley really needs more housing.)

One space that caught my eye was Plaza de César Chávez which is located in between two busy streets but near several museums and pedestrian walkway lined with shops. Every time I walked by this Plaza there where people there, sitting on benches or kids playing on bikes. The Plaza also had interesting things going on, such as food trucks and live music.

Plaza de César Chávez

Another public open space that caught my eye was the Guadalupe River Way. This park was mostly below street level along the river. It looked like it had been landscaped with river restoration and flood control in mind. However it was very overgrown and didn’t have many people at the times I visited. This was really too bad because it felt like it could be an awesome space if it was better cared for and had more visitors.

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View of Guadalupe River Way from under a freeway
View of Guadalupe River Way; close up showing how over grown the park has become

Downtown itself had some nice pedestrian features like this arch. There’s also the nice pedestrian mall I mentioned in an earlier post. First St was clearly designed for pedestrians. This street featured a light rail, colorful crosswalks, wide sidewalks and many trees. Because of the trees this street was noticeably cooler than the nearby streets.


When I walked out side of the downtown area I notices a sudden change in the buildings. Instead of office towers, the buildings around me were now two story Victorian houses. Since this area is so close to downtown it seems like shame that its not denser with more housing for people who want to live close to downtown.

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Houses near downtown San Jose

However I did see signs that San Jose is improving. Within a short walk of where I was staying I saw an apartment complex under construction and two signs for developments in the permitting process, one of them affordable housing.

Overall, based on my visit I thought downtown San Jose was nice urban space that needed more housing and more people to make it really reach its full potential.



6 Things Most People Don’t Realize Actually ARE Urban Planning

Urban planning covers a wide ranged of topics. Zoning codes, parking, and housing issues are some of the first things that come to mind. All of those are part of urban planning, but planning is a big field. When people ask me what urban planning is, I generally tell them its about who is allowed to build what where, but a simplified explanation can leave someone unsure of exactly the scope. Urban planning isn’t just concerned with the details of urban form, such as where to put new apartments or parking; it’s also concerned with the big picture of communities and regions. Here are some things that shape cities and communities but aren’t what most people think about when they think about planning.

1. Highways Highways are key tool in regional planning, as they make travel along their routes quicker. Highways can change the geography of a region by making travel between two places more straightforward (at least for people with cars). Building a new highway or expanding and old one can change where people live and shape where people go. For example highways can be encourage urban sprawl by making it easier for people to commute to far flung bedroom communities. Federal investment in Highways as opposed to other forms of transit has shaped US cities Highways encouraging car centric low-density communities.

2. Water Infrastructure Everyone needs water to live, and urban dwellers also like to have green landscapes around them, which frequently need to be maintained by water. In many places the water comes from somewhere else, and that requires infrastructure and maintenance. If you live in California you probably get some of your drinking water form the Central Valley Project (which includes Shasta Dam and the delta pumping stations) but you might not even know that this vast system involves dewatering the San Joaquin River pumping that water south and refilling the river down stream with water pumped through the delta. Water infrastructure is huge and landscape altering but also almost invisible to most urbanites.

3. Street Trees —I love street trees! They help reduce the urban heat island effect (where urban areas are hotter that surrounding rural areas), they look good, help reduced air pollution, and they help increase walkabilty by providing shade when its hot as well as visual interest for walkers. Its impressive just how many ways trees help cities. Trees might seem like a small detail but most trees you see in urban areas are carefully selected. Planners select hardy trees that don’t shed messy fruit. For example Ginkgo trees have been popular street plantings in recent years but cities carefully plant only male ginkgo trees which produce pollen but not fruit.

4. Food Systems  As well as water people need food. Since most food is grown in rural areas getting food into urban areas can be very complex. Food has to be grown, packaged and processed before it gets to urban consumers. All of that takes a lot of planning. Unfortunately we generally leave all of this planning to corporations who are more interested in profit than justice. This means that some areas are under supplied with access to fresh foods. The term “food deserts” has been used to describe these areas and planners have recently stared paying attention to this aspect of the food system.

5. Wayfinding Have you ever tried to figure out which train or bus to get on in a strange city and wished that the signs where more helpful?  Then you have some idea what wayfinding is and why planners need to keep it in mind. Wayfinding also includes street signs, maps and signs giving directions. When well done, wayfinding takes into account people’s varying abilities and makes everyone safer and more efficient, since when other people know where they are going they are less like to get in the way or bump into other people.

6. Fighting Climate Change —  When discussing how reduce the impact of climate change we frequently talk about national governments, but even small local governments like cities and counties need to address climate change. Plus some of the actions national governments should consider taking are planning related. The most important planning consideration for addressing climate change is urban density– the number of people who live in a given area, the more people the denser the area is considered. Density reduces the number and the distance of trip that people make, eg commutes, trips to the store and trips to visit cultural attractions such as museums. Transportation is responsible for twenty-seven percent of US carbon admissions so by reducing trips we can reduce emissions. Local governments can also help reduce carbon emissions but requiring more energy efficient buildings and making it easier to install solar and wind power, among other things. In addition to reducing emissions we also need to plan for the effects of climate change. What are we going to do about rising sea leaves and increased weather events? We’ll certainly be better off with a plan than without one.

So as you can see urban (and regional planning) covers a lot of ground! Many things that are part of your everyday life touch on urban planning even though you might not have thought of them that way.