How to Cover Urban Planning: A Guide for Local Journalists

By Nolan Gray, republished from Strong Towns

So, you’ve been assigned to write a story about urban planning. Maybe there’s a rezoning underway that would allow for more apartments in a downtown neighborhood. Or perhaps there’s a proposal to expand an already-six-lanes-wide suburban stroad. Or let’s say the city is moving to add a protected bike lane to a busy downtown street.

At this point, you’ll typically encounter three variables: First, there will be a group of people who are extremely pissed off about the proposed change and very vocal about their concerns. Second, you’ll find that, for all the surface-level local focus, the outcome of this planning initiative could have important impacts on citywide affordability and mobility. Third and finally, you will discover that a vast and complicated web of regulations, agencies, and ulterior motives are at play, which you are now expected to learn and distill down to 600 words.

All of this is to say, you have a lot on your plate! Which might explain why journalists at all levels so frequently get the reporting wrong on urban planning issues. For those of us who follow these issues with a passion, a lot of local coverage of urban planning can be a painful experience, littered, as it tends to be, with victim blaming, myopia, and uncritical restatements of special interest talking points.

To address this, I have a compiled a list of 11 friendly suggestions for local journalists covering these issues. I hope this set of guidelines will improve your reporting and leave your readers better informed. And if you’re reading this and you’re not a journalist, consider sharing it with a local reporter.

1. Don’t overemphasize the angry naysayers for things like rezonings, street diets, etc. Don’t give them the lead or headline unless you (or your editors) value clicks over quality reporting. Remember to mention supporters of the initiative and not just the developer or contractor who serves to benefit. Depending on the issue, seek out your local housing affordability or mobility activist groups and ask for their opinion.

2. The people who show up at the meetings are one unique slice of the community, not “the community.” Not everyone has the time or resources to show up for a three hour weekday evening meeting to share their mild approval of a proposed road diet. But that doesn’t mean that their voices should be ignored. As with the last suggestion, make an effort to reach out and hear the other side of the story.

3. Put the issue in the appropriate broader context. Speaking of “the other side of the story,” don’t get swept up by parochial concerns. If you only listen to the angry locals at the community meeting, the rezoning you are covering might sound like the end of the world. But if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you may find that proposal ties into broader citywide issues. Small planning decisions have big impacts on citywide affordability and mobility. When it comes to things like housing affordability, that “bigger picture” might even be national. Clue your readers into the full story.

4. If you are covering a rezoning, explicitly name and describe the current and proposed zoning. It’s actually a bit remarkable how many articles I read about rezoning that don’t once mention the zoning districts at play or the details of how they’ll regulate development. Sometimes an article lists a proposed change without actually explaining the current laws. You wouldn’t report on an election and not say the names of the candidates or whose seat they’re running for; why leave out such basic details in urban planning coverage?

5. Always link to the relevant public reports, studies, hearing recordings, etc. Most of the reports and studies you are citing will be publicly available online as PDFs, and many cities now have their public hearings recorded and posted online. This simple addition adds depth for the more engaged readers, without boring casual readers.

6. Confused? Ask the city planner assigned to the case. Their job is literally to explain this stuff to elected officials and the public, and they will almost always have a comprehensive knowledge of the situation. Plus, if they are professional, they won’t editorialize, unlike most of the other people, you will be interviewing.

7. Things that strike you as crazy might actually have solid evidence-based support among experts and professionals. For example, let’s say your city is considering pricing on-street parking or removing a lane of traffic. Everyone in the room might be up in arms about how this will make parking and driving harder, but both of these initiatives have rock-solid researched evidence to support them and to explain their benefits to your community. That doesn’t mean these sorts of decisions should be an open-and-shut case, but leaving out such details impoverishes your reader’s perspective.

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Typical pedestrian-blaming in a headline (Source: CT Post)

8. Blaming the person hit by the car is bad form. Sadly, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths are an all-too-common story that you may be forced to cover at some point. Don’t overemphasize some tiny “error” on the part of the pedestrian/bicyclists (for example, “she wasn’t wearing a helmet,” “he had had a few drinks,” “she didn’t walk a mile down to the crosswalk,” etc.) especially if the driver was known to be speeding and/or distracted. Don’t implicitly (and inappropriately) assign blame simply by the way you structure sentences (for example, say “the bicyclist and the semi-truck collided,” not “the bicyclist collided with the semi-truck”). Police reports may, at times, engage in this kind of lazy victim blaming, but know that you don’t need to overemphasize it, as stories of this nature frequently do.

9. It’s “traffic crashes,” not “traffic accidents.” “Accident” assumes that there was nothing that could be done about the incident. This is rarely the case, and I’m not just talking about careless drivers here. In many cases, grossly negligent street design makes traffic crashes practically inevitable.

10. Not everyone drives. Keep their perspectives in mind. If you are a driver, it can be easy to assume that everyone drives. But if you are reporting in a mid-size city or larger, or a college town, chances are good that anywhere from one in 10 to one in four of your readers commute via by transit, walking, or bicycle. Furthermore, every city has plenty of residents who don’t drive because they are too young, too old, disabled, can’t afford a car, etc. Some of your readers may be reading your article about a proposed dedicated bus lane as they sit on a bus stuck in traffic. Don’t leave out that perspective.

11. Try to conclude with how an interested reader can get involved. When you first report on a local planning issue, the fight is almost certainly far from over. Share the dates, times and locations for upcoming hearings. Perhaps even let your readers know who in government they might contact about this issue. Local journalism matters, in part, because it strengthens local democracy—the level at which America’s ideals come closest to reality. Make it easy for your readers to join the discussion about the future of their community.

City seeks Public Input: Vision Zero, Caribbean Drive

As part of the ongoing Vision Zero program to eliminate all traffic fatalities, Public Works have identified ten priority locations where they will work to improve safety. Public input is welcome online until 5pm April 27. Project locations include:

  1. El Camino Real between Mary and Mathilda
  2. El Camino Real between Taaffe and Fair Oaks
  3. The El Camino-Fremont-Wolfe triangle
  4. Remington / Fair Oaks between Iris and Manet
  5. El Camino Real between Henderson and Helen
  6. Mathilda and Maude
  7. Fair Oaks between Balsam and Taylor
  8. Fremont between Sunnyvale Saratoga and Floyd
  9. Homestead between Heron and Wolfe
  10. Mary between Remington and Fremont

Sunnyvale_Carribean_Drive_MapJPEGforWebsite 10-16-17

Additionally, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC) will be meeting on April 19 at 6:30pm to review options to improve bicycle and pedestrian connections to the Bay Trail near the Water Pollution Control Plant and Caribbean Drive. To date, vigilant citizens have been engaged in this project ensure a safe, high-quality connection between Borregas and the Bay Trail.

Cyclist Death and a Call to Action

Last week, a cyclist was killed by a big rig truck at Borregas and Sunnyvale Ave, near the SMaRT recycling station. This is where Sunnyvale’s principle North-South bicycle corridor connects to the Bay Trail. There is further coverage at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

The SVBC has posted a Call to Action for City Council, which meets Tuesday evening. Folks are invited to contact City Council and request that the consent item for the Green Street Demonstration Program along Carribean Drive be pulled from the agenda and that additional review is made to ensure safety.

Must Be Present to Win – A Bike Advocate Success in Sunnyvale

Originally published by Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, republished with permission from author Tim Oey.

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Taking a measure along Caribbean Drive.

In September 2017, Sunnyvale bicyclists almost lost a significant connection between the Borregas Avenue bike route and the Bay Trail. Luckily a few key people were at a public meeting and eventually convinced Sunnyvale staff that a safe route in both directions was critical for bicyclists of all abilities.

Here is the story of how this evolved and some pitfalls along the way.

Sunnyvale’s Water Pollution Control Plant has been running for 60 years and is in the process of a much-needed rebuild so it can continue to serve an expanding population and generate cleaner recycled water to keep the San Francisco Bay healthy. As part of this rebuild, Sunnyvale needed to close Carl Road to allow the Water treatment plant to expand. This would sever the current Borregas to Bay Trail connection as well as close Bay Trail public access parking along Carl Road. The plan was to create new a new route for bicycles and pedestrians to go from Borregas to the Bay Trail as well as a new parking area for cars. Borregas, with its two bike/ped bridges over 101 and 237, is the northern end of Sunnyvale’s premier north-south bicycle route.

The Sunnyvale Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission and its support staff were not informed of this pending major bicycle and pedestrian change, nor were Bay Trail staff. I was invited by Larry Klein, one of Sunnyvale’s council members, to a public outreach meeting to review the final design of what was called the “Caribbean Drive Parking and Trail Access Enhancements Project.” I almost did not attend because it seemed it should be a slam dunk to maintain or even improve this great bicycle and pedestrian connection to the Bay Trail.

Alas, the devil is often in the details.

While local city staff are getting better at handling bicycle and pedestrian issues, they still have a strong bias favoring motor vehicles that lines up with our strong car culture. Call it car privilege.

So the redesign they came up with provided excellent motor vehicle parking as well as reasonable pedestrian facilities but would have required bicyclists to dismount and walk their bikes along a pedestrian sidewalk in the southbound direction for several years until a new bike/ped crossing of Caribbean was built sometime in the future. Even then, bicyclists would be routed on a bike lane along the busy and high-speed Caribbean Drive instead of the much slower Borregas Ave & Carl Drive.

Google-Borregas-Aerial-Map

In this Google Map aerial view, the purple line is Carl Road, which will be closed; the green line is the new bike access trail along a water canal; the yellow line is the sidewalk along Caribbean, and the red line is the future at-grade bike/ped crossing of Caribbean.

During the presentation, Sunnyvale staff were quite insistent that there was no space for a multi-use path instead of a sidewalk on the north side of Caribbean and that the plans were too far along to change. When pressed, they came up with alternative detours for bicycles to go through the Yahoo campus or through a little-known back access way behind and through the Sunnyvale SMART station.

Later, I and others visited the site in person to discover that there were about 26 clear feet between Caribbean and the fenced-in landfill that provided plenty of space for a two-way multi-use trail instead of a pedestrian sidewalk. Also, the detours through Yahoo and the SMART station had navigational challenges and some safety issues in addition to being longer and out of the way — sometimes adding a couple of extra miles to what should have been a short connection.

Thanks to a flurry of dialog from some council members, myself, and many other advocates including Bay Trail staff and former council members, Sunnyvale staff did finally come up with a proposal that included a multi-use trail on the north side of Caribbean to provide safe and easy access between Borregas and the Bay Trail for bicyclists of all ages and abilities. This was confirmed in an email communication from Sunnyvale staff in late October.

In the end, we should now get a connection between Borregas and the Bay Trail that is an enhancement over the current Bay Trail connection, but it was touch-and-go for about a month. If not for the quick and concerted effort, we could have been stuck with degraded bicycle access.

Some key takeaways from this experience:

1) Never assume. It is incredible how many ways things can go wrong.

2) Must be present to win. We need bicyclists at as many public meetings as possible to make sure we catch design issues before they are set in stone (literally). It is often surprising how many developments can have a significant impact on bicyclists and pedestrians.

3) Our network is our strength. Only by leveraging our network did we have enough influence to change plans in the very late stages of this project. Also by having a big network, we can cover more territory and meetings. We need a network of alert advocates to ensure we eventually get a vast network of beautiful routes throughout Silicon Valley. Being a member of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition is HUGE! Please encourage your friends to join us!

Thanks!


Tim Oey is currently the president of the Friends of Stevens Creek Trail, vice chair of the Sunnyvale Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, life member of both the Adventure Cycling Association and League of American Bicyclists, and an SVBC member since 1989.

Sunnyvale Public Safety Accepting Toy Donations until December 15

Via Twitter:

All Sunnyvale Fire Stations are accepting toy donations, until 12/15, for low-income Sunnyvale kids.

Station Addresses:

171 N Mathilda Ave
795 E Arques Ave
910 Ticonderoga Dr
996 S Wolfe Rd
1210 Bordeaux Dr
1282 Lawrence Station Rd

Survey on Accessory Dwelling Units

Sunnyvale is reviewing regulations for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), also known as “granny flats” or “in-law” units. An ADU is a small dwelling located on the same property as a single-family home, which includes its own kitchen/bathroom. It can be a part of the main home or a separate structure.

Sunnyvale’s current code places the following limits on ADUs:

  • Minimum lot size 8,500 square feet
  • Maximum unit size 700 square feet
  • 1 bedroom maximum
  • 20-year deed restriction requiring owner occupancy

This study will consider possible changes to allow more ADUs to be built, and to what standards. The concern is to allow residents to expand the housing supply while avoiding negative impacts to quality of life.

The State of California has declared that ADUs are consistent with single-family home zoning and density standards and considers ADUs to be a viable option to create more affordable housing in existing neighborhoods. ADU standards were recently liberalized state-wide. This study will also serve to reconcile Sunnyvale’s regulations with the new state standards.

Background on ADUs in Sunnyvale:

Residents are invited to share their perspective on ADU regulations at http://sunnyvale.peakdemocracy.com/portals/209/Issue_5092

New regulations will be reviewed by the Housing and Human Services Commission in July, the Planning Commission in September, and City Council likely in October.

Sunnyvale Community Award Nominations due June 16

[Via Alisha Rodrigues, Community Services Coordinator for the City of Sunnyvale]

Each year, the City of Sunnyvale presents Community Awards to recognize and honor the outstanding contributions of Sunnyvale community members. These awards are conferred at the annual State of the City, scheduled for July 29, 2017. Award categories include:

  • Distinguished Resident of the Year
  • High School Senior of the Year
  • Businessperson of the Year
  • Outstanding Contribution to the Arts
  • Educator of the Year
  • Outstanding Environmental Achievement
  • Community Volunteer of the Year

Please help us acknowledge individuals, groups or businesses that stand out in the Sunnyvale community by submitting a nomination(s).

Nominations are due by Friday, June 16, 2017, by 5 p.m. Information about each award criteria and nomination requirements can be found on the Community Awards Nomination Form.  All nominations will be reviewed by a committee and award decisions will be shared with all nominators by the end of June.

A list of past award recipients is posted on the city’s web site.