Community, Extended-stay Hotel or ...? Part 1 | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

Community, Extended-stay Hotel or ...? Part 1

Uploaded: Aug 4, 2016

The character of a city is a complex interplay between the people, its facilities--public and private--and its institutions, and it evolves over time. People are attracted to a city by what it has to offer, and what it has to offer responds to who live and work there. Public policy choices--the focus of this blog--has substantial influence: housing policy, commercial development, business development, public facilities, transportation policy.

At a 2013 Council discussion of "The Future of Palo Alto" a choice between "a medium-density family town" and "the financial and professional hub of the Peninsula" was presented by now-Council member Eric Filseth.(foot#1) That is a strategic/top-level choice that is being driven by the rapid increase in jobs located here and the prospect of continuing substantial increases. The contentiousness of this choice has forced into the background many of the details of this choice, both the consequences of the alternatives, and the alternatives within the major choices. For example, the discussions on housing focuses primarily on how to provide a certain number of units and ignore the impacts and consequences of the choices about which types of units, their locations and who is expected to live in them.

During the development of the Comprehensive Plan in the early 1990s, these alternatives and consequences received considerable discussion, but that was because of the structure of the process--it allowed for some of the public outreach workshops to focused on education and discussion rather than pushing for immediate decisions.

----What is meant by "Community"----

Let's start with what a community is. The minimal dictionary definition is a group of people that resides in a specific locality. As an experiment, I asked people for their reaction to this definition, and everyone rejected it as inadequate--a community was defined as much by its connectedness, common interests ... A perceptive few recognized that this problem with the minimal definition was that it assumed that these additional aspects flowed naturally--and necessarily?--from how people live together, and that these assumptions may no longer hold. Participation in virtual communities can provide interesting assessments of the value of, and investment in, the connections that define a community.

While the more detailed definitions of "community" include various of these aspects, they are so abstract that they provide little guidance--this is necessitated by the range and variability of actual communities. My goal here is not to advocate for any particular aspects, but rather to get you thinking about what "community" means to you, and how important the various aspects are. Recognize that some people don't see themselves as part of a community, but rather as having networks of friends, acquaintances, business contacts... Awareness of the decline of community became widespread with the 1995 book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" by Robert Putnam.

Consider extended-stay hotels. They cross the boundary into (barely) qualifying for the above minimal definition of "community",(foot#2) but no one I know says they actually qualify. Friendships develop between some of the occupants, but that falls far short of being a community. They consume services and goods from the surrounding community--just as they do from the hotel--but they make little or no contribution to that larger community. The taxes they pay, both direct and indirect, are best regarded as fee-for-service, whereas for committed residents, taxes are an investment in that community.

When I listen to various discussions about what sort of housing Palo Alto needs, what I hear has distinct analogies to an extended-stay hotel: Small units near/in a district with restaurants and entertainment for high-tech workers who are focused on their current jobs/startups. The focus is on providing services for workers--not residents--and there is typically little if any mention of interaction with the existing community. And workers whose next job could come anytime and be elsewhere are naturally disinclined to put down roots. One common method to sharpen an analysis is to pick examples that illuminate omissions and unstated assumptions. In considering the arguments being made for these small units, you might ask yourself how much they differ from the situation of living in a box van (truck) parked in your employer's parking lot (a Google intern did this).(foot#3)(foot#4)

Recognize that it is simplistic to talk of a locale as being a community--the situation is better described as a significant number of overlapping, interacting and interlocking communities. Please keep this in mind in both the discussion below and your comments.

----What makes "community" (some basics)----

One telling differentiator of a city or neighborhood is the pattern of interpersonal reactions in its public spaces. At one end are places where it is regarded as unfriendly to not acknowledge others, even strangers, with at least a nod if not a "Hello". At the other end are places where the rule is "Whatever you do, don't make eye contact." Part of this is influenced by public policy (the focus in the second part of this blog). Higher population density and higher turnover tend to breed the latter.(foot#5) My personal experience is that the presence of even a relatively few familiar faces--even when I don't know them--has a significant positive impact on how I treat an area. Building design, both commercial and residential, can have a significant influence (earlier blogs(foot#6)).

Spontaneous/impromptu conversations that occur in public spaces are important in establishing a sense of community. "Public spaces" goes beyond public-owned spaces, such as sidewalks and parks, to include a wide range of places where residents come in contact with each other, for example, stores. And some places are more conducive for this than others in that category. For example, grocery stores are highly conducive for people who know each other to stop and have a conversation, sometimes even an extended one. In stores such as hardware and garden stores it is not uncommon for shoppers to ask other shoppers for help beyond where to find a product. The expectation that strangers can and will help you is an important part of a community. Then there are places for "There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met" (Yeats and others).

The core of building strong communities are those places and activities that bring together the same groups of people repeatedly. Elementary schools are a prime example of this, during both drop-off and the various support activities by parents. Then add to this youth athletics and places such as the Junior Museum and Zoo. Playgrounds are an important special case because parents aren't supposed to be closely supervising their children, allowing them to have sustained conversations with the other parents, and grandparents, present. Dog parks are an interesting variant because they draw together people from many different parts of the city.

Walking paths that are designed for groups support maintaining social connections while getting exercise. Trying to have a conversation while walking single-file with a string of jets passing overhead--it just isn't practical.

Various studies of individual well-being have found substantial benefit from living in a supportive community, even for those with an extended family present (one common rendering: "It takes a village..."). One measure of a community's connectedness is how its members treat getting help from each other with small tasks: Do you think that you need to respond with a payment or gift, or is the attitude more of "Pay it forward" or "Things with even out". The former--by needing to constantly keep "the books balanced"--implies relationships that are temporary / transient.(foot#7) An interesting perspective on creating connections was that it was more effective to ask for a favor than to do one: The former signals that you trust the other person enough to do the task and you create a debt that makes it easier for them to ask you for a favor.(foot#8)

Random acts of kindness are contagious, and this applies not just to individual beneficiaries, but the larger community. For example, the people walking their dogs who also pick up poop left by scofflaws. For example, during a heavy rain, someone who has suited up to clear the storm drain near their house continues on to clear drains over a much wider neighborhood. Many of these individual acts are only indirectly visible, but they maintain an impression that other community members care. Similarly, destructive and disrespectful acts can be contagious. In my neighborhood, a resident--Bob Moss--responds quickly to paint over graffiti, both to discourage contagion and to discourage that vandal. Public policies that facilitate, even promote, anonymity undercut the ability of social controls to promote positive behaviors and discourage negative ones.

----Collective action----

Individual actions to protect and promote the community provide the groundwork for larger scale collective action. As an example of the various communities within a locality, consider the ones that center on the individual schools and the school district. Most visibly, the schools create social connections, both between the students and between their parents. However, the political aspects of their school's community--be it exercised though a PTA or ad hoc groups--doesn't register with many parents. Having neighborhood schools facilitates parents monitoring their school's effectiveness: Casual conversations with other parents help them determine the scope of a problem their child is experiencing. If it seems to be isolated, they can deal with it themselves. But if it is a broader problem, these conversations provide a basis for organizing themselves to press for remedies.(foot#9)

One of the famous observations in Alexis de Tocqueville's book "Democracy in America" (1835) was that American society was organized largely from the bottom up, in contrast to France where it was largely organized top-down. These observations were derived from his experience with New England townships, of which town hall meetings were but a small part (Chapter 5). He favored the American arrangement, arguing that the activism and involvement of residents derived from the ownership (modern term) of their communities constituted strength that more than offset the various weaknesses. Additionally, the process of citizens coming together to hash out decisions forced the participants to think about the effects on others and on the community as a whole (a big difference between a town hall meeting and an online discussion group such as this site's "Town Square Forums").

During the three decades I have lived here, I have seen substantial weakening of civic and volunteer organizations. Part of this is that residents are committing less time to these organizations, because of both other commitments (job, family...) and choice.(foot#10) Civic organizations, and the communities that they support and/or create, have to be resilient to these competing demands. You can't expect everyone to contribute evenly: Contributions from individuals will vary over time, and there will be those who contribute far more than their share, and some who contribute nothing (or are a burden). However, there are thresholds: There needs to be a core of committed membership that provides expertise and institutional memory, and as a consequence leadership, even if they don't have the title.(foot#11) And there also need to be additional groups of volunteers who are dependable enough to provide the critical mass to get things done. When the contributors to a civic organization become too sparse there is an effect that is analogous to a retail district going into a downward spiral when it has too many empty store fronts.

These civic organizations are also important for developing leadership skills among residents, and for recognizing who has the skills to advance to the next levels.

Although people are the most important part of these civic organizations, facilities can also be a make-or-break. For example, they may need a physical office, both as a stable point of contact and for small meetings. However, exorbitant rents are increasingly forcing them into offices that are too small or badly located, with some being on the borderline of giving up. They may need larger facilities to hold public events. One of the barriers to using public facilities is the need to have insurance for the event, and this can be prohibitive.(foot#12)

----Community-Government Relations----

While most of what government does is to implement policies--providing services, performing oversight and enforcement--it also has a crucial role in developing those policies. Officials should be facilitators, both in physical and virtual meetings. They need to ensure that the various "stakeholder groups" (communities) have a chance to be heard, and to push the other stakeholder groups to factor in their concerns. There are many parallels in the corporate world.(foot#13) An earlier blog entry discussed the various roles of officials.(foot#14)

Part 2 of this blog discusses fractured and fragmented communities. A government that favors certain stakeholder groups within the larger community widens the gaps, rather than promoting resolution of the differences. Over my two decades of involvement in city politics, there have been repeated instances where issues were unnecessarily contentious because only certain stakeholder groups were invited to participate at the early stages.(foot#15) Other groups have enough clout to force their way in once they learn of the deliberations. Others are excluded, ignored and circumvented until so late in the process, such as public comment at a City Council meeting, that they typically have little impact on the decisions.

Members of the favored groups should recognize that by allying themselves with City Hall against the excluded groups that they are contributing to the fracturing of the community, and should not be surprised to be treated with hostility by those they help to exclude. And City Hall needs to be vigilant against (inadvertently) creating such situations: It is easy to involve only the stakeholder groups that correspond to City Hall's focus.

The style of public outreach meeting favored by City Staff largely eliminates the opportunity for effective community dialogue exemplified by the (idealized) New England town hall meeting. Earlier blogs have discussed the problems with the format and conduct of "community outreach" meetings.(foot#16) And City Hall's choice of social media for public input fails to support dialogue. What we have is public input from individuals that City Staff filters and then presents as representative of the community. What this produces is lots of narrow, ill-informed comments: People commenting on the small part of the problem that affects them without realizing how it affects other members of the community, partisans and advocates of narrow interests, ideologues (identifiable by comments contrary to the facts), ... It is easy for well-intentioned people to make ill-informed comments because officials have failed in their obligation to provide background on the complexities of the choice.

Civic groups and individual community members have the expertise to help City Hall create this background material, and the networks (online and physical) to distribute it. However, City Hall has long been resistant to this. Partly, it is a bureaucratic mindset. But the cynic would also point out that such contributions would enhance the credibility and standing of those civic groups, consequently enhance their ability to challenge the priorities of City Hall.(foot#17)

Civic groups themselves are part of this problem. Many groups don't have the skill or the inclination to deal with presenting multiple perspectives fairly. I find this very discouraging: This is an essential skill for leaders and civic groups provide important training opportunities.

The disconnect between City Hall and residents has long been recognized: "Civic engagement" has been declared by the City Council to be a top priority for several years. However, there were two very different understandings of that term. One group--the Establishment--saw this a promoting volunteering by residents to help implement and support decisions made by City Hall (representing the Establishment). The other group--led by neighborhood association leaders--saw promoting more involvement by residents in the decision-making process as an essential part.

----Summary (Part 1) and pending (Part 2)----

Cities such as Palo Alto may be termed a community, but are actually many overlapping and interacting smaller communities. Public policy decisions can do much to create the opportunities for interactions between residents that foster community. Or not. Community revolves around common interests, and require a critical mass of people and public and private facilities in order to be viable. Larger concentrations support stronger, more attractive communities. This implies a focus to support the cores of those communities, and focus implies choices. A community that is everything to everybody seems to be an impossibility: It would so dilute the potential commonalities that there wouldn't be enough of the strong connectedness that define the very notion of community.

Part 2 of this blog addresses various problems that that can beset a city and weaken or impede the development and maintenance of a sense of community. It will be published soon after this website is no longer promoting this entry. Note that you can sign-up below to receive notifications of not just of comments on this blog entry, but of future blog entries--many readers have told me that they didn't spot the latter.

----Footnotes----

1. "There are two conflicting visions for Palo Alto, and pretty much all of this other stuff stems from that. Vision A is we're a medium-density family town, a great place to live, with good schools to send your kids to. Vision B is more like San Francisco South -- basically the financial and professional hub of the Peninsula. The idea is that Palo Alto will accommodate regional growth through high density office and housing construction, near public transit, and with a thriving retail and entertainment sector to support it. That said, Vision B also comes inherently with unsolvable traffic and parking problems, pollution, and overstretched city infrastructure and schools. If you want Vision B, these things are the price. It is San Francisco South, for better and worse." -- Eric Filseth during public comments at the City Council meeting of 2013-12-03 (Filseth was elected to Council in November 2014).
The complete comment and more coverage of that agenda item is in my blog "Listen for Yourself: An index into 'A Conversation on the Future of the City'". This Council meeting was a follow-up to the results of the referendum that rejected the upzoning of a property on Maybell Avenue (Measure D).

2. The primary clientele of most extended-stay hotel are workers on an extended assignment away from home and its suites are marketed as being closer to a home than a normal hotel room. "Residence Inn" is the trademark of a chain of these hotels.

3. "This 23-Year-Old Google Employee Saves 90 Percent of His Money By Living in a Truck" - NextShark.com, 2015-10-21. Aside: There was a story, which I can't find, of someone trying to make a business out of such rentals.

4. Be aware that "small" housing units means different sizes to different people. For some, it means "micro-apartments" of 150-300 sq.ft.; for others, units of 600-900 sq.ft.; for others still, larger than that, with the upper limit seeming to be about 2000 sq.ft.. For comparison, the box van (truck) used by that Google intern was a 16-footer, which has roughly 120 sq.ft. in the box. (Aside: There are larger box vans, for example 24-footers with 180 sq.ft. in the box). Of course, the van doesn't have a bathroom, so its occupant has to use his employer's office building as an outhouse. :-)

5. "...for every 10% drop in population density, the likelihood of people talking to their neighbors once a week increased 10%, regardless of race, income, education, marital status, or age. And involvement in hobby-oriented clubs increases even more significantly -- by 15 percent...", 2006 paper by Jan Brueckner, Professor of Economics, UC Irvine.
Apologies for no link: Although web search return many hits, I didn't spot any that warranted recommendation to the general audience.

6. Earlier blog entries on effects of commercial and residential design:
"Environment, Design and Healthy Cities", 2016-06-01.
"El Camino Sidewalk Width and the 'Grand Boulevard'Delusion", 2014-03-29.

7. Some self-tests about your connections to your neighbors:
- If your home's Internet connection is out, would you take your laptop to a coffee shop and ask a neighbor if you could temporarily connect to their WiFi?
- Who else has a key to your home? For example, a friend was the last person out of her office on a holiday weekend and had locked her keys in there. The closest key to her house--and backup set of keys for her car--was in San Francisco.
- If your immediate family was away and you had a lesser medical problem that didn't require an ambulance but did prevent you from driving yourself to the hospital, who would you call? This should also be a person who doesn't just drop you off, but stays as your advocate and supporter. Recognize that many Palo Altans have medical plans that don't use Palo Alto Medical Foundation and/or Stanford Hospital, for example Kaiser (hospitals in Redwood City and Santa Clara). Recognize that you need multiple such people, in case the primary choice is not available.
- If you had an emotional shock such as being fired (or a loved one dying), who would sit with you. For example, in the aftermath 9/11, a "downsized" coworker was a woman in her 50s with a medical condition that was going to make it difficult for her to get another job. She had moved here from LA during the DotCom boom and had been working full-time at the startup, and I suspected--correctly--that she hadn't had time to put down any roots. I knew her only because she sat near me in the cube farm, but I sat and talked with her for 4-5 hours while she tried to connect with family and friends back in LA (I had been fired a week or two earlier).

8. My first encounter with this perspective was in Chris Matthews' 1999 book "Hardball: How Politics Is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game".

9. I have been told that the number of elementary school students living in northeastern Palo Alto is far greater than can be accommodated by the neighborhood school (Palo Verde). This has reportedly negatively impacted the two nearby choice schools (Ohlone and Hoover) as parents would rather their children go to those schools rather than be sent to a distant neighborhood school. Consequently, the choice mission of those schools, and their (school) communities--shared interests and priorities--is diluted (undermined?) by members who don't subscribe to that mission.

10. The changing lifestyle of retired people is partially to "blame": They used to be the backbone of many of these organizations because they had the critical mass of time required for key positions, and their time commitments were predictable, for example, not having emergencies at work that caused them to "disappear" for weeks or months. Now, many seniors are traveling so often that they have to be regarded as unreliable volunteers: You can't have the person who has accepted responsibility for a task take off on an extended vacation just as a crucial deadline is approaching.

11. I have belonged to multiple professional societies where the real leadership was provided by the Secretary and committee chairs. The position of President and Vice President turned over routinely--often term-limited--being partly honorary and partly to lead one significant initiative.

12. The cost of insurance for the event itself is usually manageable, it is the cost of the underlying insurance policy that is too much. One way around this is for the group to get a co-sponsor of the event that already has such an insurance policy, and have the event budget only have to cover adding an additional event to that policy.

13. Government parallels in the corporate world: Think of a technology company as having many communities (stakeholders): Engineering, Marketing, Sales, Customer Support, Production, Finance ... Each has their needs: some decisions help them--make their jobs easier--and some hurt them--make it difficult to achieve their goals. A good CEO achieves balance between these various interests by forcing consideration of the tradeoffs. For example, allowing Engineering to dominate decisions can result in products that are difficult to market/sell and to support. But allowing other interests to dominate Engineering can result in the company's technology being surpassed by competitors.

14. Earlier blog: "City Council & School Board: Leaders, Overseers, Technocrats or Advocates?", 2016-05-05.

15. Example of City Hall favoring stakeholder groups:
- Several of my blog entries have been about bicyclists, especially longer-distance bicyclists, being favored over other stakeholder groups, especially pedestrians. And this favored status has been a complaint in a series of other issues.
- The Housing Element updates of the Comprehensive Plan have given undue weight and early participation to housing advocates, with the result that factors affecting nearby residents and business were not taken into account until later.
- The development of the Historic Preservation Ordinance (1998-2000) became highly controversial because the early considerations included preservation advocates and didn't include many of the homeowners that would be affected.
- Individual development projects: While it is reasonable and appropriate for the early stages to be conducted between the developer and Staff, there is a failure when important stakeholder groups are told it is already too late to consider their interests and issues.

16. Blog focused on problems of community outreach meetings: "'the Summit' (CompPlan): Forewarned is Forearmed", 2015-05-20.

17. On City Hall being hostile to various civic groups: Neighborhood associations are one of these. I was a neighborhood leader (1994-2013) and was repeatedly surprised by how resistant City Hall was to using our email/discussion-groups for even the most mundane and non-controversial items, such as pushing out schedules and updates on when streets would be closed for re-surfacing. Aside: An earlier blog entry gave an overview of my perspective on neighborhood associations. "Neighborhood Associations: Why they are still important", 2015-03-10.

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