Urban and Regional Planning
What research questions currently preoccupy you?
There are two predominant components to my research interests: Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and methods for effective community engagement in the neighborhood planning process. As for the first, GIS is computer technology that turns location-based data (e.g. demographics, survey findings, addresses, etc.) into maps that can be analyzed for patterns and to build spatial knowledge. I am particularly interested in methods to convey the technology to my SJSU students in an engaging and memorable way but, even more so, in a manner that boosts their chances for landing jobs and internships by possessing this powerful skill set. I'm always thrilled when a student contacts me to excitedly announce that he or she secured a position thanks to their new-found GIS skills! I keep a log of such messages at home and I'm well into my third dozen! Aside from GIS, I work under the umbrella of CommUniverCity San Jose to engage teams of graduate students with leaders in central city neighborhoods to conduct a comprehensive community assessment, which is a documentation of current conditions in the community. My students bring the time, energy, and solid research skills, and the neighborhood leaders provide the local "lived expertise" about their home. Together, we use the finished assessment as a platform to identify a Top Ten list of planning priorities for the neighborhood, such as improved street lighting, more public open space, or safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists. Both the assessment report and the Top Ten list can be powerful lobbying tools to improve central San Jose communities.
What personal factors contributed to your research?
I've purposely tried to maintain a solid footing—both in my research and in the classroom—in the two areas that excite me most: GIS technology and progressive urban planning. As a certified urban planner I am committed to fostering a range of housing, transportation, and employment choices for the communities I serve, but only if they pass a variety of sustainability tests. I am not at all motivated to perpetuate low-density suburban sprawl which, in the words of James Kunstler, is probably "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world". I believe strongly that with progressive urban planning communities can provide choices in living arrangements for all tastes and life stages, but I don't believe that we need to spread out mindlessly into the hinterlands to do so.
What has been most challenging in your research?
Would it be too predictable to say "lack of time and money"? Well, that's the truth. I pour so much time into class preparation, teaching, and detailed grading that research often takes a back seat. Finding funds to adequately conduct a professional-grade community assessment is often a challenge as well since organizing community meetings, producing a top-notch report, and undertaking careful data collection entails costs. I am thrilled, however, that my work at SJSU has been so well-regarded that I've earned a one-semester sabbatical to take stock of next steps for my teaching and research interests.
How has your position in SJSU contributed to your research?
I say this often, but I have the great joy of waking up in the morning and knowing that I get to play a small role in the professional development of my graduate students in the Dept. of Urban & Regional Planning. As the department's Practitioner-in-Residence, I bring over twenty years of processional experience into the classroom and seem to have a knack, I'm told, for conveying enthusiasm and great optimism for our chosen field. I've lost track of the number of students who told me that my teaching approach results in them being astounded by how much solid, resume-building work they can accomplish in just one semester. Being able to operate in a university setting, which I feel is intrinsically optimistic, forward-looking, and exciting, is a thrill for me. More specifically, collaborating with my kind-hearted, smart, and inquisitive students never gets old. I also have the advantage of closely monitoring their work habits and interpersonal qualities in the classroom and, over time, identifying especially promising students who can assist me with my research efforts. It's a classic "win-win".
One book that changed your life (or research) and why:
I alluded to this earlier, but The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler articulated, early in my career, how despondent I felt about the countless problems with suburban sprawl in the United States. Admittedly, I was a beneficiary of my parent's choice to raise me in such a setting—it was safe, I went to good schools, and it was quiet—but over time, I found such places to be largely devoid of spontaneity and horribly consumptive. One is essentially mandated to own and maintain a car, productive farmland is permanently taken out of circulation, and the calculated manner in which most suburbs are built and funded excludes many while welcoming a few. This purposeful segmentation of people into "income pods" runs very counter to my DNA-level, egalitarian views. Kunstler put all of that into words that are both scathing yet hopeful, with a nice dose of dark humor to boot!
A website/journal/newspaper (in your field?) you follow without fail:
Planning magazine keeps me connected to the practical side of urban planning and features many case studies that are eye-opening and inspirational. When I'm in the mood for a dense read with a much more academic focus, I tend to turn to the Journal of the American Planning Association. For fun, I enjoy any websites or blogs that focus on the day-to-day lived experiences of fellow urbanists who simply love the dynamism and spontaneity of cities. CurbedSF is a current favorite.
Advice you’d give to newer faculty or students:
Most urban planning faculty members should already be well aware of this, so I would encourage students new to the field to be aware that most change we planners strive for occurs at a glacial pace. We have to be comfortable with this and adopt a patient, "long-game" approach to our work. When we planners talk about objectives like fostering sustainability, or reorganizing land use patterns to be more efficient, or improving public transit options, or adapting to climate change, these things take years to realize, if not decades. We live in a society that wants 'quick fixes', but that is not really the nature of progressive urban planning.
I will be forever grateful to colleagues and committee members who, via an RSCA grant, enabled me to travel to Cuba in January 2016 to conduct research about efforts being made in the areas of urban sustainability, farm-to-table agriculture, and neighborhood planning. Since I only just recently returned from this journey, I'm still processing everything I saw and learned, but I can at least say that I am amazed at how much Cubans have done with so little, in terms of financial capital. I also found the streets of Havana to be a “lovely mess”—full of gorgeous but decaying buildings, fascinating and boisterous street life, and unfailingly warm and gracious people. I plan to write up my findings over the next month or two and share them with whomever is interested. I'm in love with Cuba now!