August 17, 2020 - From the August, 2020 issue

City Age Digital Roundtable on Silicon Valley’s Urbanist Future 

TPR excerpts an August 7 City Age: Silicon Valley Digital Roundtable moderated by former Santa Monica city manager and Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, Rick Cole, with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and San Jose State University President Mary Papazian who discuss the status of urbanism, infrastructure, and design in Silicon Valley. Highlighting the ways in which the pandemic’s disruption is unleashing innovation and entrepreneurial bureaucrats, panelists share their hope for streamlining public and private sector collaboration to solve some of the region’s most pressing challenges of housing, transportation, and equity.


Rick Cole

“It is really the innovation that is going to be critical for us to be able to get to a better normal, where we are still deeply engaged in this urban vision of city building, but our focus on transit, on housing, and everything else is going to require us to do it much more cost-effectively in a world of scarce resources.”—Sam Liccardo

"If there's one thing that I hope you remember it’s that critical infrastructure is not just roads and bridges; it is social housing and social cohesion” —Libby Schaaf

“Our frame of reference isn't just the next five or 10 years, the truth of the matter is that we have people with us now who will live to see the next millennium.” —Mary Papazian

Rick Cole:  Ultimately, the success of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley is about private and public sector success at promoting places where people can successfully work. That’s a challenge because the nature of work is clearly changing in ways that are not entirely predictable. Technology is changing them, but also this unexpected pandemic has shaken our faith that we can predict even four months ahead.  The focus of today's discussion is about the balance between public sector and private sector investment.

Back in the early 1960s, John Kenneth Galbraith, the Canadian-born economist, wrote a book, The Affluent Society, in which he bemoaned the imbalance between public and private investment in the ‘50s—saying that public investment was being neglected. His warnings are even more true today. The result is that the Bay Area, like so much of America, suffers from an infrastructure deficit.

We need to do the funding for new infrastructure, but most of all, we need to do the thinking. Infrastructure lasts for 50 to 100 years, and so we need to be smart before we lay down our shovels. So, we have some of the smartest people thinking about where we lay down our shovels to kick us off here today. Mayor Liccardo?

Sam Liccardo:  Certainly, we know a lot from the past here in the Bay Area and particularly in Silicon Valley, that really, that we built these cities, communities, and valleys for cars.  What many of us have endeavored over the last few decades to do is retrofit a valley that was built for cars into a valley built for people.

We know that this is the work of a generation; it's very challenging. It's focused on a lot of density, on mixed use, on transit development, on bike infrastructure, on the spaces between buildings, and on the parks and plazas where we want to bring people together to congregate. All of those things are essential in the urbanist vision.

But at this moment, while all of this is happening, there are major investments being contemplated in both the private and public sectors in density and transit. It’s worth asking whether this investment is going to go forward and should it go forward?

We have, certainly, great anxiety about all of the aspects of our urbanist vision here in Silicon Valley and in San Jose, but I am confident that we are going to return to city building that will incorporate both density and transit. I say that, in part, because there are a lot of folks smarter than me who are deeply invested and making big bets—people like Gary Dillabough of Urban Community, Shelley Doran over at Webcor Builders and Mary Papazian, President at San Jose State University—all of whom are making major investments in a world in which we are more urban, not less.

The evidence here in San Jose is that those major movers are, in fact, moving forward. For example, the investments we have in bringing BART to downtown—the CalTrain measure—All of the major public investments around that transit are moving forward, and the private investments are still moving forward, last I checked.

 One reason why it’s still happening has to do with humanity and that, while workplace design will change, work won't. Fundamentally, work is still a social enterprise. While we are all going to be increasingly dependent on distance learning and distance work, it is the case that innovation and creative industries still rely upon the interaction of human beings in a defined space.

We often call those the creative collisions that happen in the hallway or in the elevator where ideas come up as a matter of chance. That synchronicity of having people in the same place while they're imagining and thinking is going to continue to be critical for innovative industries. We're all learning that as we've been cooped up at home a little too long that it's pretty essential for our psyche and our emotional health too.

A second reason why it’s still happening is because God's not making any more land. The reality is that the challenges of suburbia—and particularly, issues of equity—are not going away. We're going to need to continue to find ways to house people more affordably. We're going to continue to need to move people and promote mobility in a way that’s more sustainable. While we have a large cadre of knowledge workers here in our Valley and in our Bay Area, it will continue to be the case that many people will need to be transported and commute to where they need to be. 

For those reasons, as well as the fundamental challenge that equity is forefront in our minds in this moment and certainly in our future, everything we need to make our Valley and our Bay Area more inclusive somehow or another involves greater density, greater investment in transit, and a greater focus on what's happening in cities, not in the suburbs.

Now, that's not to say resources won't be more constrained. The new normal— and what I hope will be a better normal ahead of us—is one in which we're going to face what will likely be a half-decade or more of severe resource constraints,

This recession isn't going away. It's going to take a lot of work to get through it. We're going to need more innovation, not less. More innovation in building types, everything from prefab and modular housing to CLT. A lot of emphasis down here in San Jose is on how we can use prefab ADUs for backyard homes to try to see if we can densify many of our single-family neighborhoods.

There’s going to need to be innovation in transit as well. There are a lot of exciting conversations happening now throughout the area, certainly with Tesla and their investments in the Boring Company for example, and what they could do to be able to move us to underground much more cost-effectively here in Santa Clara County. We're going to be undergoing a very significant conversation in the weeks ahead around how we transform a rail system or light rail system, potentially, to a rubber tire system with autonomous buses that will move more people, more affordably.

 It is really the innovation that is going to be critical for us to be able to get to a better normal, where we are still deeply engaged in this urban vision of city building, but our focus on transit, on housing, and everything else is going to require us to do it much more cost-effectively in a world of scarce resources.

Rick Cole: Mayor Schaaf, you've been working very hard as Mayor of Oakland to get the public sector to be more nimble and agile. How can that lay the groundwork for a renaissance of investment in public infrastructure, both the physical that we've been talking about, as well as the social that you and others have emphasized?

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Libby Schaaf: I do believe that one of the silver linings of this crisis is the unleashing of entrepreneurial bureaucrats. The fact that we stood up, literally in 24 hours, a complete virtual permitting system for businesses to use sidewalks, parking spaces, and in some cases to close off streets for flex streets program. Do you know government to ever do anything in 24 hours? It was amazing.

 There is this moment of permission. I believe now more than ever that the only way to change the world—and the world needs some changing—is through public-private partnerships. Government was intentionally designed to create stability and predictability. You don't want the rules changing every five seconds, and that's what the government does for you.

But that stability also is preserving the status quo. It is preserving systemic racism and barriers to opportunities. Take the single-family home zone, something that was literally created for racial exclusion, and we haven't gotten rid of it yet.

In the private sector, you can innovate all you want. You can move fast, fail fast, and break things, and that obviously does not necessarily work for government. But the private sector will never be able to touch everyone the way that the public systems can, so if you want to change the world, we have to work together.

We created something called the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation, which is a private nonprofit that allows us to take private money and experiment with it.

I talked about the cabin communities that we've done in Oakland to resolve problematic encampments in a very dignified and effective way. When I originally talked about this idea to my city council, they thought I was crazy. Putting people in Tuff Sheds like that was considered bonkers. We were able to raise private money to pilot two sites using private resources. That provided the demonstration, the proof, and the data that this is not crazy. It's effective, it’s cost effective, and it’s dignified. We had 90 percent acceptance of this form of shelter compared to congregate shelters, which people don’t want to go into even before COVID.

So, this is a space where we have got to innovate and collaborate together, because at the end of the day, Silicon Valley, do not waste your incredible innovation on the next picture sharing app. Come on, let's innovate with our public systems, because that's the only way we're going to address things, like racial justice and the kind of work that you've got to do to change the public systems and major institutions that touch, everyone, not just the lucky few.

We cannot claim greatness, as a region, when young people are living in tents, but I do believe that in the midst of the tragedy of COVID-19—which comes on top of the tragedy of homelessness in our Bay Area—that we absolutely are seeing some silver linings.

I could not be more proud of what we’ve seen from the entrepreneurial bureaucrats that have been unleashed and empowered because of this crisis. I want to highlight six silver linings—six lessons—six new muscles we're building that I don't think we should give up the gym membership for when we get out of this pandemic.

  1.  We are reclaiming our streets from car dominance. Oakland's Slow Streets program has been wildly successful. The fact that people can scooter, roller skate and bike and start to use their neighborhood streets as outdoor recreational spaces for people, not just as transitory corridors for cars. That is not going away, and we should not let it.

  2. Our ability to telecommute. We’ve seen the break on emissions in our environment and the positive impact on air quality. We are giving our roads and our stretched infrastructure a break. We are also rethinking how public transit works. But I believe these are all good things because there's this other piece of infrastructure we cannot forget, and that is social cohesion. The fact that people are having time with their families, rather than on the road, is also a piece of the infrastructure conversation that we cannot lose.

  3. I'm excited that instead of talking about low-wage workers, we have started talking about essential workers. It’s a shameful reality that workers are coming to work sick because our wages and our cost of living continue to be unsustainably apart.  They come home sick to overcrowded housing conditions because people cannot afford housing in the Bay Area. The fact that we are shining a light and recognizing how urgent it is to solve that problem gives me hope. We cannot lose that focus.

  4. There is a window of appetite for more radical transformation than we've seen in other times. I personally am very excited about these experiments around guaranteed income. We are seeing how inefficient our current systems are to deliver immediate emergency aid for people. Millions of Californians are without their basic unemployment benefits. We have to have simpler, more effective methods of relief and support that go directly to the people that need it.

  5. The call for racial justice is not just about police reform or police brutality; it's recognizing that single family zoning is historically rooted in racial exclusion and starting to undo those racial harms—those systemic discriminations and barriers—that still perpetuate to this day. I am excited about the call for racial justice and the new focus that the public and private sectors have on heeding this call.

  6. Closing the digital divide. I am a parent of school-aged children. Like many Americans, my kids are going back to school next week completely virtually. Yet we recognize that so many households don't have that critical connectivity—that critical digital literacy— that is so needed in the 21st century but is now needed more than ever. So, this urgent need to close the digital divide particularly for our children is an opportunity to close that digital divide, for good.  

If there's one thing that I hope you remember it’s that critical infrastructure is not just roads and bridges; it is social housing and social cohesion. Obviously, our roads and our bridges need investment, but so does our need for affordable housing, so does our need for a sense of fairness, a sense that families can support one another and that social cohesion is part of infrastructure as well. 

Rick Cole: We have this moment to think. And that's actually a rare opportunity, not to predict what the future will be, but rather to think about what we agree on.  How do we use this time and what's the role of the academic sector in driving a conversation or consensus about getting Silicon Valley's act together on infrastructure? How do we involve the brains of the tech sector in solving some of these big challenges? 

Mary Papazian: We really think that as a public university in the heart of Silicon Valley —right in the downtown core of San Jose that draws students and employees from across the region—we face, on multiple levels, all of these issues. We're a perfect space for bringing the various stakeholders together and really looking beyond the immediate disagreements toward future goals.

We now have more millennials and Gen Z than we have baby boomers, so we're in a transitional moment. My new nieces, who were born in May, are going to be 80 in 2100. So, our frame of reference isn't just the next five or 10 years, the truth of the matter is that we have people with us now who will live to see the next millennium. Educational spaces are a way to move the goals even a little bit further out. And it's less threatening when you can look a little further out.

Climate change is still a reality for us, and our newer generations know this. It will create an urgency for them that means that cities won't go away. They will still want an integrated transit system and to be able to live in places where they can sometimes commute and sometimes stay at home.

If we set those goals further out so that the immediate threats of change aren’t there, then I think we can bring the stakeholders together and lean into longer-term solutions. Once we have agreed on longer-term solutions, we can then break it down into the short-term steps. I would start there, with education at the core.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.