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Learning far from a Textbook: SJSU Urban Planning Students discover Collaborative Neighborhood Planning

Paul Pereira
Paul Pereira (left), Chief of staff to Councilmember Sam Liccardo and long time community activist in San José leads Urban Planning students on a walking tour of the Greater Washington Neighborhood on February 12, 2014 . Ruth Cueto (right), Council Assistant, provides neighborhood anecdotes as well.

Author: Beth Martin

As we walk as a group in front of the Sacred Heart Church, Paul stops us and points back at the street we just walked down: “What types of businesses did you see along this portion of Willow Street?” he inquires, “did you notice any similarity or trends among them?”

Together, as a group Urban Planning graduate students in the Collaborative Neighborhood Planning class, we crane our necks back to see the shopfronts we walked past minutes ago. “Dress stores…?” “Hair salons..?” “Flower shops…?” we offer in response. Paul Pereira, a community activist who has worked for decades in this area, smiles and nods at us. These businesses all support the economy of young women who may be celebrating their quinceañera (the equivalent to a “Sweet 16” in Latino culture), Paul explains, which is tied to the activities of the Sacred Heart Church, known among the community for hosting the majority of San José’s quinceañera celebrations.

This is just one of the anecdotes that Paul will tell us on our walking tour that night.

Kevin Schroder (right), Ami Upadhyay (left), and Professor Rick Kos (behind) listen during the Greater Washington walking tour on February 12, 2014.

This semester, under the guidance of faculty member Rick Kos, our class will learn about collaborative neighborhood planning by examining the Greater Washington Neighborhood. This neighborhood is a collection of smaller sub-neighborhoods known for its active neighbors, and the area sits just a mile southwest of the San José State campus. Much of the work we will do as students for this course will be done outside of the classroom and far away from a textbook; our major objective is to gather stories like the ones Paul has told us in order to record and compile the assets and obstacles to community development in this neighborhood.

The Collaborative Neighborhood Planning model we are learning about this semester involves letting residents of the area set the community priorities, not urban planners. The idea rests on the notion that while people like transportation engineers may be experts in resolving traffic congestion and architects may be experts in designing beautiful buildings, none of these professionals have the most knowledge on the needs of individual communities. Instead, the Collaborative Neighborhood Planning model turns the table on who is viewed as experts. The true experts of community planning are residents, those who have an intimate knowledge of the place they call home.

To this end, students will convene three “listening tours” during the semester, community meetings at different community centers in the area where their task will be to listen to and capture the priorities of the neighborhood. In this way, the course aims to teach that urban planners need not be “experts” but good facilitators, creating spaces where the true experts of the area (residents themselves) can come together and determine neighborhood priorities.

This class is run in partnership with CommUniverCity, and is a model example of the type of unique service learning opportunities CUC supports each semester. This course, along with other CUC supported service learning courses like Accelerated Reading and Marketing Smarts, creates opportunities for San José State students and residents of San José to interact and share knowledge. Professor Rick Kos explains to his students their role within CommUniverCity: “As the “University” component of CommUniverCity, you will be an active and important part of this powerful opportunity for positive change in central San José!”


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