Home > News > Dayana Salazar, Latina Leader in Sustainability

Author: Katherine Cushing

Professor Salazar has been a part of San Jose State University’s Urban and Regional Planning Department for over 20 years as well as CommUniverCity since its inception 11 years ago. Dayana has served as the driving force behind CommUniverCity San Jose, a university-based public-private partnership aimed at creating great neighborhoods in disadvantaged communities in Central San Jose. There are three central program areas which include community health, infrastructure, and education, all of which have connections to sustainability. 

Dayana speaking at the Design for All: Fountain Alley event in Downtown San Jose.

Every year, CommUniverCity involves about 1,200 students in community engaged learning projects. For example, in the area of community health, CommUniverCity engages faculty and students with the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department as well as Environmental Studies to work with local elementary school children on programs ranging from garden education to materials recycling and reuse. Its efforts have been locally and nationally recognized by both regional, state, and national agencies.

“When I came to San Jose State University, I realized that the best way to teach urban planning was getting students out into the community, to do more than textbook learning. The moment we started working with our neighbors, some magic really started to happen.”

Salazar notes that sustainability has been a part of her whole life’s work. “If you think about sustainability as the Three E’s—the environment, equity, and economics, every project I’ve worked on professionally has had a sustainability component in it. When I came to San Jose State University, I realized that the best way to teach urban planning was getting students out into the community, to do more than textbook learning. The moment we started working with our neighbors, some magic really started to happen.”

At the new curbside cafe outside Rollo’s Donuts with Mayor Sam Liccardo during the Spring Northside Neighborhood Open House

One project she is particularly proud of is the Bay Area Rapid Transit station planning effort organized by community members, and Urban Planning faculty and students several years ago. The project arose in response to a land use plan that called for a massive surface parking lot at the center of a regional commuter rail line stop. “This site had the potential to change the entire face of the downtown area. The community had a much stronger, more visionary stance for that project than the regional transportation agency. So, the community pushed for a more sustainable transit-oriented village concept and we were happy to go along to support them. Eventually, the plan was officially incorporated into the City’s General Plan.”

Thinking back on her Latina roots, Salazar credits her grandmother with raising her in a family environment that valued quality and having an great eye for good design. “Growing up in Ibeagué, Colombia, my grandmother helped me understand that it’s important to protect what we have. She would always make sure that what ever she bought would last her—clothes, food, even fabric scraps. She had everything neatly organized and cataloged. Laughing, she says, “Twenty-five years later, I’m still wearing some of her blouses! My grandmother also had an amazing eye for space and flow without having any formal training. I believe my inspiration to go to architecture school was influenced by  her and learning how to appreciate well designed and well built things.”

“Being effective is all about education and starting early on. Kids inherently understand the importance of clean air and their own connections to growing cycles, they are drawn to it. So, what we need to do is nurture this natural interest throughout their time in the educational system.”

Salazar’s views on sustainability are global. As she puts it, “Sustainability cannot be exclusive—solutions have to work for everybody. Sustainability knows no boundaries. It’s really about the human race and other species and about our viability on the planet. It concerns all of us, yet the conversation has been somewhat limited to the upper middle class, highly educated folks in our country. A lot of these issues affects communities of color more directly. To me, we cannot leave so many people out of the decision-making process, it will come back to bite us.”

Celebrating one of our most engaging events regarding sustainability, Safe & Green Halloween

Through her own personal journey from Columbia to the U.S., Dayana became determined to capturing the ‘outsider’ voice on important urban issues. “Being Colombian and living here in the U.S., I still feel like an immigrant. This feeling allows me to empathize with those who are left out of the decision-making process, to work towards opening some of those doors for them.”

Salazar also highlights the effects of environmental justice on Latinos within the CommUniverCity service area. “They are working on understanding how communities of color are disproportionately affected by community health issues. For example, access to places where you can run and walk, high incidence of diabetes, and lack of green space that people feel safe using in the community.  These issues are connected.”

Salazar recounts the benefits of having students working with local neighborhoods overtime on sustainability projects. “It started with SJSU students. Once we did that, it was easy to connect with the community. Our residents are very willing to connect and work with our students—it’s an easy and direct bond, our students come from similar backgrounds.”

“Sustainability cannot be exclusive—solutions have to work for everybody.”

As she puts it, “CommUniverCity is the vehicle for faculty participation. Once an instructor completes a project, she gets excited about finding like-minded people—coming together with City staff and residents who have common goals.”

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