Sustainable Cities is a service-learning course offered through the Program on Urban Studies and Earth Systems Program. Students learn and work collaboratively with Bay Area government agencies and community organizations to support their sustainability goals. Now in its seventh year, the class attracts undergraduate and graduate students from a multitude of disciplines, ranging from urban studies to civil and environmental engineering to law and public policy majors, to support clients on meaningful fieldwork-based projects. To see more information about the class, please visit: urbanst164.stanford.edu
The Winter 2016 class worked with four community partners on the following projects: 1) assessing equitable access to transit in San Mateo County (Partner: Friends of Caltrain); 2) conducting a community-serving retail analysis of the Tenderloin and Central Market Area in San Francisco (Partner: Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation); 3) developing economic drivers and development strategies for the City of Los Altos (Partner: Los Altos Economic Development); and 4) addressing local business displacement in the City of San Mateo (Partner: Urban Habitat).
The final presentations took place on March 9, 2016 at Stanford University (Video).
Wow, we can’t believe that it is already week 9 of the quarter! It feels like we just began our project. This past week we have been really pushing to finish our report and presentation. It has been great to delve into our data and literature review and really put all the pieces together. Our goal is to finish a preliminary draft of both the presentation and report by Monday so that Jenn can review our results and offer any pieces of constructive feedback. Since we do not have as much experience as Jenn compiling these types of reports, we are interested to see if she notices any interesting findings from the data that we did not originally see. Also, Jenn let us know that David from her office will be coming on Wednesday to watch our presentation and take notes since she has a prior commitment.
For the presentation we have been talking about how we want to convey our findings and importance of the project. One idea we had is to begin by telling the ‘story’ that most people have of Los Altos, but then breaking down these stereotypes through our results and data. We think this would be a compelling way to present our findings because, through our research, we have found that our original impressions of Los Altos were not fully correct. We may also try to include posters and other forms of presenting our results.
For the report we have made significant progress to finish the literature review and deliverables section. Tonight we are having a remote study session to complete the methodology and project purpose components. Then on Saturday we are going to focus on ‘seeing’ what the data is telling us. Evan has produced a variety of graphs thus far, with the intent of being able to compare economic and demographic conditions within Los Altos so that we might better understand the foundations and drivers of the city.
Moving Forward (to the finish line!!)
This past week we’ve been working on finalizing our deliverables, as outlined last week in our meeting with Jenn. Moving forward we’ll continue to do so. In the talk with Jenn today, we realized we had a few more economic variables to consider for the data analysis portion, including unemployment rates and major industries of employment. We’ll work to find reliable data for these variables, and include them in our final presentation.
Additionally, we realized that including social components and characteristics of cities in the literature reviews is relevant and important to our project. We’ll analyze existing urban economic reports to investigate when and why social impacts are economically important (e.g. in areas with high tourism rates), and how that might be relevant to Los Altos.
What We Did
This week we worked to begin finalizing our project. For many weeks, we’d been working to add a social element to our project. To address this, we are connecting with the Los Altos Senior Commission, an organization we identified as having possible connections to underserved groups within Los Altos. After having talked with Deland at the end of class on Wednesday and with Jenn last week, it became clear that we could develop a narrative about these underserved groups and connect it back to the data that we have been working with. Additionally, we met with Jenn (our project partner) at her office in Los Altos. In the meeting, we discussed the second draft of our data visualizations, as well as possible alterations to the intended project deliverables. Jenn helped to clarify her requests on what we produce for the literature review and report. Many cities in the Silicon Valley are actually in the process of producing economic development plans, so Jenn was saying that the research we do on other cities’ plans will be useful for other cities as well. Therefore, for each plan we will identify the city’s goals for economic development and the strategies to obtain these goals. She also sent Carolyn and Economic Development Strategic Planning guide to help facilitate the types of drivers that are often useful when considering economic development. Additionally, the team discussed with Jenn that she would like all completed work to be included in a single document, so this is helpful as we begin to consider how we structure and develop our final deliverables.
Critical Analysis/Moving Forward
As mentioned above, this week we focused on finalizing the direction of our project. Moving forward, we intend to begin gathering our thoughts and information so that we can begin developing our final presentation. Specifically, we will incorporate our narrative about underserved groups within Los Altos (i.e. house-rich/cash-poor senior citizens) into our project. This was not part of the original intent of the project, but arose as we realized we needed/wanted to incorporate an element of social impact into our project. This will be in addition to our original working plan (data analysis/visualization for Economic Big Book), not in place of. We will still develop data visualization for Los Altos to the best of our abilities. Jenn and Evan walked through how she would like the data visualization using Excel, particularly paying attention to formatting and use of data. This is very helpful as we work to refine our existing graphs and produce any additional graphs necessary to fully tell the narrative of Los Altos.
Finishing the Project
Since the final deliverables are due in about 2 weeks we also spent time discussing how we should approach the completion of our project. We decided that it would be good to split up our tasks based on our different interests and skills. Since Evan is the most comfortable with Excel he will be tackling a lot of the graph and data visualization components. Whereas, Carolyn is leveraging her background with the Bay Area and economics to spearhead the literature review research and development of the narrative we want to portray in our final report and presentation. Finally, Sungmoon has taken a lot of initiative to begin drafting the final report and powerpoint because she has a strong writing background. Splitting up tasks this week has helped the group make a lot of tangible progress towards the final deliverables. After meeting with Jenn we met to discuss how to split up tasks next week, as next week will hopefully be used to wrap up a lot of the loose ends of the project. Sungmoon and Carolyn are going to try to finish the literature review on Sunday so that next week can be dedicated to incorporating the literature review into the final report.
Earlier in the week, Jenn sent us feedback, comments, and critiques on the graphs and charts that we sent to her a couple of weeks ago. This is helpful so we can produce graphs that will best describe the narrative of the current economic condition of Los Altos.
Additionally, this week, each of us had focused on finding several sources that we individually researched for the literary review. Our goal for this was to study similar cities (for example, Menlo Park, Foster City, Los Altos Hills, etc) and analyze their economic development plans, then draw parallels between these communities and Los Altos. Jenn also recommended that we look at Winter Park, Florida because this small town is has a similar feel and culture as Los Altos. Carolyn has visited Winter Park, so she will be doing some research on this sister city to Los Altos.
Going into this project, because of the high average income of Los Altos, we had a preconceived notion that the majority of Los Altos city residents were Apple workers or programmers at Google. Though Los Altos does attract many tech workers and business executives, our research has suggested that a high portion of the community is older. We noticed this first hand during our field visits as some residents are in favor of making the city more modern and upscale, while other residents want to maintain the old fashioned feel of the original city. On a broader level, the dichotomy between the community suggests that there may be opportunities to ensure the community culture and city provided services meet the demands and desires of all residents. We have been developing some potential ways to research this further.
Meeting with Jenn:
Because Jenn was back in town after her vacation, we were able to get together with her to talk about the final steps of putting our project together. Meeting in person again after having worked on some of our own ideas was extremely helpful. She was able to answer specific questions that we had regarding the feedback that we had received on our graphs, as well as make any clarifications on her own comments. One specific question we had for Jenn was on one of her comments on a graph that summarized Los Altos’ average family incomes: while most of the average incomes were six figures, some residents earn significantly less per year. Jenn asked us to omit the $35,000 and below average incomes, because it was under the California average anyways and didn’t add any substantial value to the chart. We argued that this move would contribute to the dehumanization of poorer members of Los Altos. We compromised and chose to omit the <$35,000 incomes from the chart, but decided that it was important to talk about and elaborate on the lower income spectrum of Los Altos in our overall project, providing a textual and research analysis rather than relying on the chart(s).
Next week, we plan on reaching out to homeless shelters in surrounding cities such as Menlo Park and Redwood City, where people from Los Altos may seek out support and resources. By speaking with people who work at these homeless shelters, we’ll be able to identify the demographic of Los Altos’ population that often slips through the cracks and whose needs are often overlooked. While the average resident of Los Altos may have a high income and standard of living, there are residents that have been locked into their homes as the residential prices began to rapidly rise. Jenn described this phenomenon as ‘house rich, but money poor.’ This often occurs with older residents that purchased their homes before the community became affluent, and they are depending on little to no earned income to afford the amenities within the community. By helping to gather a better sense of the population in Los Altos that may fall into this category, we can develop ideas to help serve the needs of this demographic.
Additionally, she offered to set up meetings between us and city commissioners. Each of the commissions focus on different areas, such as transportation, youth, or human rights; we decided that we will be meeting with the Senior Commissioners, as they represent much of the city’s population. By meeting with them, we hope to be able to gain a better understanding of the needs and interests of the older residents in Los Altos.
In order to put together a cohesive and effective report, we need to understand and internalize the story that we want to be telling through this project. At this point, we have a slew of reports, data, graphs, charts, site visits, photographs, and statistics: over the weekend, we will be putting together each of the pieces and see how everything fits in with one another. We think that the meeting with Jenn today gave us a better understanding of the economic condition of the city that we have been noticing in our field visits and data analysis. On the one hand, Los Altos is made up of residents with mansions fit for celebrities like Beyonce to rent for her Super Bowl appearance, on the other hand there are retired residents and families who are struggling to keep up with the increasing affluence of the city. We need to begin describing this narrative through our analysis of our data and personal field experiences.
What we did
With Jennifer out of town this week, we focused our attention on demographic research and the literary analysis. We are hoping that we can use the case studies we find in the literary analysis to give us ideas to help ‘humanize our data.’
We found Vivian’s presentation to be very relevant to our project because she discussed how shopping locally can help improve the economic development of a city. We can apply this concept to Los Altos because we learned through our various visits with merchants and officials that one of the biggest challenges to retail in Los Altos is leakage. Leakage occurs because many residents go to the Stanford Shopping Center where they can find many big name stores, such as Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus, rather than patronizing smaller, locally owned stores. While we recognize that the Stanford Shopping Center is very convenient and enjoyable for the community, we think we can develop some strategies to increase the number of residents staying within Los Altos to shop. We spent an afternoon over the weekend exploring downtown Los Altos to better understand what types of retail dominated the area; this field experience helped us better understand this issue.
In class, Vivian mentioned that Chinatown had a Noodle Fest where festival goers could try different dishes from various restaurants within North Beach and Chinatown. Maybe Los Altos could do a community day that emphasizes the historic aspects of the city, as many residents find the historic part of the city to be integral to the culture of the community.
Additionally, after talking with Deland during class we realized that a big part of humanizing our data and finding the social equity part of the project is to take the data and find where the gaps are. For example, she mentioned that there is a homeless shelter around Los Altos, are people in Los Altos going to this shelter? Maybe not all residents fit the affluent stereotype we assumed when beginning this project.
What we learned
After speaking with Los Altos locals, our peers, and Deland, we realized that one of our greatest challenges was incorporating social impact into our project. We’ve been given large amounts of data to sift through and analyze, but were not quite sure how to add a humanizing element to our project. In light of this, we’ve decided that searching for underserved, or “invisible” portions of the Los Altos population will allow us to develop social impact within the scope of our project. We will aim to understand how certain groups might have fallen through the cracks in Los Altos, and how they might be better served.
Next week our strategy is to begin compiling our sources we individually researched for the literary review. We also are hoping to meet with Jennifer and review her feedback on the charts we sent her. We also plan to discuss the format she would like for the final report so we can begin to prepare for the final deliverables due in a few weeks.
So far, we’ve been studying economic development plans for cities with similar demographics/economies. Examples include Menlo Park, Marin County, and Foster City. We plan to focus on how their plans deal with existing or potential income inequality, housing prices, and frail retail sectors in order to understand how they might make their respective economies more resilient.