By Derek Ouyang
In the face of modern urban political, economic, social, and environmental challenges, interdisciplinary collaboration between professionals, data-driven research, and holistic design will become increasingly crucial to sustainable urban planning. Fascinated by the educational opportunity this context presented, in 2011 I co-founded the Global Urban Development Program (GUDP) at Stanford University as a project-based learning experience challenging students from different disciplines and educational backgrounds in virtual collaboration and systems thinking. However, in 2013 I met somebody who inspired me to realize the real-world value of the students’ efforts.
That person was Michael Tubbs, who at the time was just one year into his position as the city’s youngest-ever councilmember representing his own District 6, comprising much of South Stockton. We were both presenting at the 2013 TEDxStanford conference, I about building sustainable homes, he about building city government. I still clearly remember the night before the conference when we met at a speakers’ dinner; after throwing ideas back and forth about how urban blight affects quality of life in Michael’s South Stockton community, he invited me to visit Stockton one day and see it for myself.
A year later, I took Michael up on that offer and spent a day in South Stockton. There I was able to see first-hand, as an outsider, just how disparate South Stockton was from the rest of the city in nearly all indicators of quality of life. I was also able to see the window of opportunity Michael’s leadership provided, along with the coincidental timing of Stockton coming out of bankruptcy and amending its General Plan, to make a strong academic statement about the future of the region. Right there we formulated a plan for a GUDP project based on South Stockton, bringing together students from Stanford, Ljubljana, and San Jose State in partnership with the City of Stockton Planning Office, led by Planning Director Forrest Ebbs, and the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition, led by Tubbs. A Record article written about that first meeting concluded: “With his eyes wide open, the grad student from Stanford is about to step into the middle of decades of Stockton neglect, decline and misuse.”
Last Thursday, April 9th 2015, about seven months after that first trip to South Stockton, I brought with me five students (along with two from Slovenia remotely checking in) and my faculty advisor Glenn Katz to present the culmination of our work to the Stockton Planning Commission. What we had found was that, despite those decades of neglect, decline, and misuse that had evidently blighted the community, there was nothing but potential and opportunity in its future.
The broader approach of GUDP, as it has developed, is to explore the potential for a multidisciplinary, multiscale, and multifunctional methodology for urban planning — in other words, a science-based urban planning. In this light, our project was divided into two major phases: Research and Design. The Research phase attempted to diagnose the quality of life (QoL) in South Stockton through the combined lenses of Place, Movement, Environment, Health & Safety, Youth & Education, Housing, and Economic Development. Often these sectors are separated into silos of governmental departments and commissions without clear channels of communication of coordination in terms of overall impact on QoL. Our approach in GUDP is to consider these all holistically, measure them consistently, and interpret them synergistically in order to understand which areas of the city are critically stressed by multiple conditions, and why. This research culminated in a single table of Target Goals which identifies key metrics of QoL as a current measurement and a future projection. In other words, this kind of table is demonstrates gap analysis of the most impactful issues affecting South Stockton and turns them into quantifiable problems which are validated by objective data rather than tossed around in political rhetoric. This analysis also allows us to begin identifying tangible and feasible solutions which can be designed to have strategic impact across multiple metrics or areas, and furthermore, can be implemented and tracked with results-based accountability.
After the Research phase, the students were asked to form new teams and propose unique design projects of their own choice which focused on a set of indicators they had analyzed in the Research phase and presented an innovative approach to closing those gaps through macro or micro projects, policies, and programs. The first project, Industry Revitalization, presented three industries (food processing, tire recycling, logistics) which could be developed in South Stockton through governmental facilitation and provide valuable job opportunities and economic growth for the community. The second project, Environmental Resiliency, designed an affordable energy-efficiency retrofit program for old homes in South Stockton that is driven by community volunteering and clear payback incentives. The third project, Airport Way Revitalization, proposed the revitalization of 19 vacant lots along Airport Way into a neighborhood center over the next twenty years, beginning with DIY, affordable temporary structures and gardens, followed by a community center, and completed with new commercial development. The fourth project, CSU Stockton Proposal, presented strong evidence of the economic and social benefits of developing a CSU Stockton campus in South Stockton. Each of these projects were presented to the Planning Commission on April 9th, and more detailed design reports including drawings, figures, and feasibility studies will be published online in the next few weeks.
Of the various learning goals of GUDP, including online teamwork, interdisciplinary teamwork, systems thinking, and research methodology, perhaps the most important one is human-centered design, or participatory design. The students were introduced to this concept with the help of the Stanford Haas Center for Public Service, which provided them with its Principles of Ethical and Effective Service as well as a grant for service-based learning. The students used this funding to travel to Stockton many times throughout the project and organize a community engagement activity on February 7th, in which citizens from the neighborhood came and provided their local insights on the problems their neighborhood faced, as well as ideas for revitalization which were incorporated into each of the design projects. If we had more funding, I would have loved for the students to engage the community more times in both the Research and Design phases, because I think this is the most critical aspect of making urban planning successful. If we are to design a truly sustainable future for cities like Stockton, it will require buy-in and effort from the top-down and from the bottom-up. I believe our GUDP project has provided one example of how this might look in practice.
While we produced a lot of insights and ideas in this GUDP project, I’m most excited about the possibility of continued collaboration between the City of Stockton and academic institutions around the world. This first partnership has shown us that students all around the world can care deeply about a community unlike their own, as well as pool together their various talents and backgrounds to produce innovative ideas grounded in political, economic, and social reality. In fact, many of the ideas that the students proposed can be implemented within a year through governmental encouragement and a small amount of funding, and some of the students and I would love to work with community partners this summer to push forward our ideas. I think this example presents a promising future for what collaborative, scientific, and community-driven urban planning could be, and I look forward to organizing more and more projects for Stockton in the years to come.
Derek Ouyang, age 23, graduated from Stanford University in 2013 with dual Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering and Architectural Design, and is currently completing a Master’s in Structural Engineering. He participated in the AEC Global Teamwork Project in 2011 and co-created the Global Urban Development Program in 2012. He was project manager of Stanford’s first-ever entry to the U.S. DOE’s 2013 Solar Decathlon and has been featured as an up-and-coming architect in the Los Angeles Times, in Home Energy magazine’s “30 under 30”, at TEDxStanford and Stanford+Connects NY and Seattle, and at fiiS 2014 in Santiago, Chile.
All presentations, as well as plenty of additional information, are available at gudp.stanford.edu.