For the past three months, I have been traveling around the world studying cities. My coursework falls generally under the rubric of urban planning. What is the city? Who is the city built by, and for whom? Do individuals have rights to the city? What is the future of the city? The relationship of the built environment to the natural world?
I am a literature major from the suburbs. Before joining the International Honors Program’s Cities of the 21st Century semester abroad, I had never even conceived of urban planning, not as an academic discipline nor as even the remotest career possibility. Now here I am, having conversations with my peers and our traveling faculty about mixed-use waterfront rezoning and the efficacy of mass transit in the context of fuel consumption. I am writing papers about wastewater management, public phones, and urban sewers.
My study abroad program began in New York City, where we examined the housing projects of Harlem and the gentrification of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Our next stop was Rio de Janeiro, where we studied, among other things, the limited infrastructure and criminalization of favelas (informal housing settlements, or shantytowns, where over one-sixth of Rio’s population resides). In Curitiba, Brazil—a city famous for its innovative urban planning initiatives, including an extensive bus network, pedestrian malls, and creation of green space—we critically examined the connection between economic development and environmental sustainability. In Cape Town (where we have only just arrived as I type these words), we are set to examine the rezoning of a post-apartheid city, a city that was first planned with the absolute separation of races as its foremost consideration.
Despite my initial hesitation about the subject, urban planning has turned out to be an interdisciplinary minefield in which to explore questions of ecology, politics, economics, and cultural identity. And, perhaps most significantly, the program’s specific interrogation of cities has enabled me to think critically about my own San José.
I’ve been ashamed to realize just how little I know about the city I have lived in my entire life. Perhaps part of the reason for my ignorance stems from the fact that I’ve never even thought of San José in those terms. Urban? Planning? City? Growing up, my background was home, computer, the mini-van. My schools were always far away: driving distance. Car doors, cassette players, the occasional bird or plane overhead comprised the soundtrack. I grew up in relative quiet and longed for the noise of asphalt, pedestrians, and public transportation.
In my mind, San José has always been more a conglomeration of suburbs and housing developments than an actual city with public transportation and pedestrians. In fact, San José is the third largest city in California and the 10th largest in the United States. San José is the hub of the Silicon Valley, home to over 6,500 technology companies, one-third of all venture capital invested in the United States, and the largest number of patents generated in the nation.
But I have no idea where our water comes from. And where does it go? Where are the sewage treatment plants? Which areas of the city are zoned for commercial development? How extensive are the plans to bring BART to San José? Are our recycled goods actually reused or just remanufactured? How much fuel do we consume annually in San José, city of the three-car garage? I know the area is grossly expensive—it is impossible to miss the median home prices published in the Mercury News—but does the city offer subsidies or initiatives for private developers to build low-income housing?
San José households have the highest median disposable income in the nation. The housing price-to-income ratio, however, tells a different story. Only 18 percent of families in the county can afford to purchase a home, as compared with 48 percent nationally. Housing prices in San José, and the greater Silicon Valley-Bay Area, are exorbitant and have been steadily increasing in the last decade. In 1980, the median price of homes sold through the San José Real Estate Board Multiple Listing Service was $117,584. In November 2005, Santa Clara County Housing Statistics revealed that the median home price in the city had reached a staggering $745,000. Every year, more than 20,000 people in Santa Clara County experience homelessness.
San José is inaccessible and alienating to thousands of people who might have grown up in the area but can no longer afford to live there. The city has become a tech-mecca at the expense of lower-income populations, individuals who work in the service industry and public schools. Land prices have increased as urban residential developments must compete with building projects for more “productive” uses (Cisco’s latest campus, perhaps?).
I have to stop here and reread the mentioned statistics (culled from various city census reports), statistics surprisingly akin to those from Los Altos Hills, Monte Sereno, and Saratoga, where we are accustomed to seeing even higher, equally shocking, prices. It is truly an embarrassment that individual property rights have taken precedence over the social and cultural interests that should drive urban policy-making.
Which is not to say that strides are not being taken to combat the mentioned deficits. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides funding to non-profit developers like Charities Housing and the Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition to support affordable housing. Habitat for Humanity has recently undertaken a collaborative housing project with the City of Santa Clara for affordable units for low-income residents. But we need such projects designed on a larger scale, and we need to involve San José residents in their implementation.
In 20 years, I have lived in three houses in San José. Each ticky-tacky box has been larger, more expensive, and closer to the country club than its predecessor. Our current home sits atop the ravaged, former terrain of long-eared jackrabbits, overlooking a golf course, a gated neighborhood, a grocery store with an Italian name, and palm trees imported from somewhere far away. From my bedroom window, I see all the neighbors’ unused, chemically balanced swimming pools and the occasional attempt at a homegrown vineyard.
Not one of us, except the occasional bewildered hare, belongs to this place.
San José’s housing prices are not even remotely sustainable. Sustainable and equitable urban development requires the concerted effort of city administrators, government officials, planners, and residents to develop and produce adequate housing. And on the subject of sustainability, we will never have an environmentally responsible city so long as families own multiple cars, highways are extended, and a suburban car culture continues to undermine efforts to develop an efficient, cost effective public transportation system.
Do I sound like I’m ranting? I am, and as much for my own benefit as to share what I have been exposed to as a result of this study abroad experience. Whether I like it or not, I am a daughter of San José, my own country-club-city (though I may never be able to afford to live there in the future). And a city’s problems are a reflection of the city’s residents, on those of us who have no idea what goes into planning a city, on those of us who have never attended a city council meeting about the placement of lampposts, who have never asked where the water in our faucets comes from, and who is prevented from living in our midst.
San José is the safest big city in the country, with arguably the most glorious weather to boot. With increased public transportation, continued resource management, an emphasis on affordable housing projects, and, most importantly, an educated, empowered, and engaged body of citizen urban planners, it could be the most sustainable city as well.
San José City Council holds public hearings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, at 200 East Santa Clara Street, beginning at 7 p.m.
See you there.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a junior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.