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Faculty Corner: Richard Kos

Urban Planning professor and distinguished CommUniverCitan Richard Kos has been an instrumental part of CommUniverCity’s work within the neighborhoods of downtown San José. As an instructor for the department’s capstone course, URBP 201:Community Assessment, he leads students in applying the theories they’ve learned in class to identify the assets and opportunities of a real urban community. These assessments result in a comprehensive report, which is then used by the planning staff at the City of San José as a guide for future development.  These past two semesters, Professor Kos has led students in a thorough assessment of the East Santa Clara corridor.

We recently sat down with Professor Kos to ask him a few questions about his long-standing relationship with CommUniverCity.

What was your first connection with CommUniverCity?

I’ve known my colleague Dayana Salazar and her great work with CommUniverCity ever since I started teaching at SJSU in 2007, but my first substantive involvement with the organization through one of my classes started in summer 2010 as I prepared to teach my Community Assessment course the following fall. This course prepares the graduate students in our Urban & Regional Planning program to comprehensively document and understand the current conditions in a study neighborhood as a platform, or baseline, with which to develop future planning priorities in partnership with local residents.

In 2010 our focus was the very unsafe pedestrian conditions in the Anne Darling Elementary School area at the intersection of McKee Road and Highway 101. Dayana, as well as Imelda Rodriguez, were instrumental in connecting my students with the principal, students, and parents of Anne Darling to learn about the pedestrian safety problems they faced on a daily basis. After two semesters of work, guided by sustained involvement by a parents task force, my students organized a half-day event at the school and in surrounding neighborhoods to promote pedestrian and biking safety. One of the highlights for all of us was the creation of a “Walking School Bus” in which many dozens of parents and their children walked safely – in a large group, door to door – from their homes to the school, holding up traffic on McKee Road in the process (and for a worthwhile cause, I’d add!)

The finished assessment report prepared by my student team was a major factor in the City of San Jose receiving funding from the federal government specifically to improve pedestrian safety in the neighborhood.

How do you fit the Urban Planning Department’sCommunity Assessment technique within the CUC partnership model?

From day one, the students in my Community Assessment course learn that their work in this intensive course reflects the core principles upon which CommUniverCity is based – neighborhood-driven change that builds on the capacities of that neighborhood’s strengths, institutions and leaders. The graduate students recognize that they are integral to this process and that CommUniverCity is not a separate entity from the work they are conducting. More specifically, as the university component of this wonderful multi-sector partnership, the students provide time and skills in the form of stakeholder outreach, demographic mapping using GIS, and video and photo surveys to capture the unique qualities of the neighborhood. They also invest a great deal of time analyzing local and regional policies that shape the physical form of the study area. As the students dig deep into a San Jose neighborhood’s assets and challenges, their appreciation for the “bottom up”, grassroots approach to community planning espoused by CommUniverCity really begins to takes root, and that is wonderful for me to witness as their instructor.

How many neighborhood plans have your students produced in conjunction with CommUniverCity?

Dayana Salazar’s work with our urban planning graduate students stretches back almost to the point at which CommUniverCity was founded, if not before. When I assumed responsibility for teaching the Community Assessment course, Dayana passed along so many pearls of wisdom that I continue to incorporate into my lectures and assignments today. I mentioned our work with the Anne Darling Elementary School area earlier. Since then, we have completed neighborhood planning reports in the Dorsa-Tockna, Spartan-Keyes, Hoffman Via Monte, Greater Washington, and East Santa Clara Street neighborhoods.

In 2011, with the dissolution of the state’s Redevelopment Agencies and the city’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, the leaders of CommUniverCity called upon my student team to conduct an ambitious assessment of all of central San Jose to see which neighborhood was most receptive to partnering with CommUniverCity to develop new planning priorities. It turned out that Spartan-Keyes was the most ready to go, and that shaped my work with the graduate students for the next year. I am so pleased that the Spartan-Keyes Assessment report produced by the students won a major award from the American Planning Association!

Professor Kos alongside his students, accepting the 2014 Academic Award of Merit from APA California, Northern Section

Describe a situation where your students went above and beyond to help the community.

What we learned in Spartan Keyes was that the physical form of the community greatly inhibits its social connections. Many of the north-south streets in this community have been designed by traffic engineers to rapidly move cars to and from Highway 280 along with large trucks from a neighborhood cement plant. These streets (“car sewers”, as they are sometimes derisively referred), badly slice and dice the neighborhood. This condition, coupled with a scant amount of public open space in Spartan-Keyes, is part of the reason for very low “social capital” in the neighborhood.

The disappearance of Redevelopment Agency funds and associated staffing also meant that the modest Neighborhood Action Center – one place where community residents actually could gather – was in a precarious position. I was so proud to learn that my students were instrumental in collecting signatures to advocate for the center to remain open. They took up this cause on their own, and it demonstrated how passionately our urban planning students are for the kind of positive neighborhood change that CommUniverCity stands for.  The petition was successful in extending the neighborhood center’s lease for an additional year.

How does Community Assessment class experience benefit the students, the community, and the City of San Jose?

The students gain exposure to real-world planning concepts and principles; direct and real involvement in public participation processes; essential skill development; direct and regular feedback from faculty, community leaders, and planners; as well as invaluable connections to professional planners, elected officials, and local communities.

Community members benefit from an awareness that they have an immense capacity to implement change from within (we refer to this as an asset-based approach to community development), they help craft a set of unified community goals conveyed through a professional plan; they are presented with professional planning reports that can be used as advocacy tools for fundraising and lobbying, and they benefit from building connections and mentorship opportunities with professional planners and elected officials.

The City of San Jose benefits through bridge-building with communities; observing the work of the graduate students as a training and recruiting ground, and by harnessing the time and talents of the student researchers which can definitely be a cost-effective use of limited municipal time and financial resources.

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