Design Project 2: Community Building in East Palo Alto

Design Challenge

Address, through design, a way to build a shared sense of community identity and responsibility in East Palo Alto given the current state: changing demographics, challenging geography, lack of public space and resources, and constant pressures of transience and crime.  And highlight opportunities to capitalize on existing assets such as the hardworking families and family investments in youth education.

 

Context

East Palo Alto (EPA) is a city with a rich, yet complex history, geography, and population.  For starters, the ethnicity of the majority population of the city has shifted several times throughout its history.  African Americans at one point made up 90% of the population; now they are only 16%.  Community demographics have shifted rather dramatically to a predominantly Hispanic and Pacific Islander population, who now make up approximately 61% and 10% of the population respectively.

As demographics have shifted, there is a sense by some, that the community has become more fragmented. There had been a significant level of home ownership among the African‐American population, but as they left EPA the profile of the community shifted from one of home ownership and longevity to one of renting and transience. On the west side, where one‐third of the population lives, it is primarily a rental community with approximately a 25% annual population turnover.  

There are also 58 churches in EPA, and many of them are African‐American in heritage. It seems like many of the churches have their pews filled with former residents who come back to the community to worship each Sunday but then return to their homes outside of the community afterwards. For many EPA residents, the pattern of living is the reverse. Most work and socialize outside of the community and then retreat to their homes at the end of the day.

Schools, which normally provide a neighborhood anchor, have a hard time filling that role here. EPA doesn’t have its own school district (it is part of Ravenswood School District with Eastern Menlo Park) or a high school. Furthermore, many parents elect to send their children to one of the many charter or private schools in the area rather than their local public schools. School, like many other aspects of daily life in EPA, often take place outside of the neighborhood.

Issues of crime only exacerbate the lack of neighborhood connectivity. Over the years, the crime rate has decreased from its notoriously high levels of the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, that notoriety still remains a pervasive part of the city’s reputation for both those inside and outside of the city, supporting the internalization of daily life for EPA residents.

The fragmentation of EPA is reinforced by the physical geography of the City. Over the course of its history, the City’s boundaries and spaces have been defined by annexations by its wealthier neighbors and private interests. For example, a recent disastrous flooding in the city was exacerbated by a geographic quirk that was done many years ago to maximize the quality of a golf course in another city. There are very few public spaces in the City, and none on the west side of town, where a laundromat, taco stand, and 7‐Eleven exist as the only neighborhood landmarks. University Avenue, which cuts through the heart of the City, is the equivalent of a freeway twice a day, with motorists driving through the community to get to their jobs in Silicon Valley.

Given these factors, the city has struggled to identify effective ways to increase not only the sense of community, but also to facilitate productive and inclusive community engagement.

 

Our Partner

Despite the significant challenges, EPA has a visionary and energetic City leadership. For this project, we are working with the City Manager, Magda Gonzalez. She recently began her tenure, taking the reins late last year. Armed with many years of experience in local government here in the Bay Area, she is passionate about helping EPA tap into its potential, recalibrating the relationship between the municipal government and EPA citizens, and rebuilding a shared sense of community.  

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