If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, it’s that people need parks and nature.
During the past year, as we have all taken more and more to the outdoors for our exercising, relaxing and even (socially-distant) socializing, the inequity between those who have access to nature close to home and those who do not has been stark. Particularly for residents who do not have private backyard areas, urban green space is a necessity, not a luxury.
That’s why it’s critical for cities to prioritize parks and urban green space when planning future development. Dense infill development needs to happen in order to provide housing close to transit corridors and job centers, avoid sprawl into our rural and agricultural lands, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect people from climate change impacts like wildfires and sea level rise. But dense infill development must be planned in conjunction with an adequate amount of parkland and access to nature. Otherwise, we’re not creating a thriving, equitable community.
Urban green spaces provide more than just recreational benefits. Trees and other vegetation absorb carbon, filter air pollution and stormwater runoff, reduce temperatures on the hottest summer days and provide habitat for birds and insects. A neighborhood park is often the social center of a community—the place where family gatherings happen, where birthdays and special events are celebrated and where friendships among neighbors are formed and strengthened.
These social bonds among neighbors create a stronger sense of community and make it more likely that residents will look out for one another. Both physical and mental health outcomes are improved when people have access to nature. Stress, anxiety and depression are reduced. There are studies showing that living near a park or other green space literally adds years to your life.
The Diridon Station Area Plan, being considered by the San Jose City Council on Tuesday, falls short in this regard. The weakness of the Diridon plan when it comes to providing adequate parks and open space is especially sharp by contrast with the creative and forward-thinking urban open space planning demonstrated in Google’s Downtown West project, which falls within the Diridon area.
Google’s plan is exceptional because it incorporates nature into the public urban environment, choosing to bring in greenery where traditional design would place concrete and turning what could have been lifeless sidewalks into vibrant gathering spaces. Moreover, Google has committed to enhancing and restoring the Los Gatos Creek corridor and embracing a California native plant palette that includes locally native trees such as oaks and sycamores—thereby not only providing an adequate riparian setback from the creek habitat, but actually enhancing and benefiting the habitat and urban forest.
However, the same cannot be said of the larger Diridon Station Area Plan, which calls for significantly less parkland and green space, and does not require adequate riparian setbacks. This raises the question of why other developers aren’t being asked to achieve the same high standards as Google. If San Jose wants a truly thriving Diridon area, with adequate public green space and a design that respects both the community and the environment, now is not the time to aim low.
We hope that San Jose will consider requiring the larger Diridon Station Area Plan to be consistent with the standards, guidelines and overall quality of Google’s Downtown West Plan.
Alice Kaufman is legislative advocacy director with Green Foothills. Shani Kleinhaus is an environmental advocate with Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.