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What's land use got to do with equitable, sustainable cities? A whole lot, report students in our spring land use course.

Kylie Gordon
May 17 2021

Highlighting the power of local governance in shaping equitable, sustainable communities, our spring city planning class teaches valuable lessons about the significance of land use policy. 

Valeria Rincon headshot

Land use is an issue central to Western governance and policy, though many students learning about it for the first time don't realize how powerful a role local politics play in creating just, equitable and sustainable cities. This spring, a team of practitioners, Stanford's land use director, and the Lane Center's Bruce Cain, Preeti Hehmeyer and Dan Rich, taught a course on the subject, exploring the relationship between humans and the built environment. We caught up with Valeria Rincon (right), a masters student in Sustainability Science and Practice currently enrolled in the course. She reflected on what she's learned so far and shared thoughts on why land use matters.

Q&A with Valeria Rincon, '21

Q: What have you learned about land use in this class that was new or surprising to you?

A: As an undergraduate at Stanford, I studied Political Science with aspirations of someday engaging in equitable policymaking at the federal level. Little did I realize I could have a greater, more innovative, and more immediate impact by pursuing such changes at the local level, particularly in land use planning. This course has taught me that our federalist structure makes it so issues of equity and justice stem from land use choices and priorities we make at the local and regional levels. Resolving injustices in issues of affordable housing, sustainability, and access to economic opportunity will be battles fought at the city, county, regional, and state levels. To move the needle on these issues requires civic engagement in local land use planning decisions from those of us that have the current capability to and advocacy to expand access to those of us who currently do not.

Q: Why do you think it would be important and interesting for young people to engage in local politics? 

A: I never knew that city council meetings could be so interesting and that land use topics could be so spicy! I actually felt compelled to listen to the full recording of my city council session because the topics discussed were so important, relevant, and impactful to my quality of life and the values and goals of my community. I found these sessions to be even more interesting than some of my favorite podcasts and now I feel compelled to ask my city council to create a weekly podcast to keep the community up to date on any new and ongoing developments. I think it would benefit us all to stay informed, and honestly it’s great for young folks to engage more in local land use planning decisions, which have the potential to the move the needle on several equity (e.g. affordable housing), justice (e.g. redlining), and sustainability issues (e.g. green space) that impact us all!”

Q: Are there any other take-home messages from the class you'd like to highlight?

A: One of my biggest takeaways from this class has been how underappreciated local politics and land use policies are in the political and governmental sciences. Even in high school I remember learning more about our federal government than my local city council and the city staff even though the decisions made in the latter were far more immediately impactful and relevant to my well-being than the former. I’m glad to say my perspectives have changed and my attention has turned towards engaging in local politics and land use decisions as avenues for creating more equitable, just, and sustainable communities. This class has really brought that to my attention, and I could not be more grateful that I had the opportunity to take it in my last quarter at Stanford!”

Instructors weigh in on the importance of local land use decisions

The course's instructors obviously share Rincon's enthusiasm and passion for thoughtful land use policy as a tool for creating communities that meet the needs of all their residents.  

photo of Dan Rich

"Land Use is the 'bread and butter' of local government," said Dan Rich (right), an instructor of the course and the Center's advisor on local government matters. "It really at the heart of democratic governance and why cities exist - so the residents can determine for themselves the future of their community." As a former city manager of Mountain View, Rich has extensive experience developing long range land use plans, negotiating complex development agreements, enhancing sustainability programs and implementing strategy to address homelessness and the unstably housed.


Bruce Cain headshot

While land use is not a term that makes it into most people's daily vernacular, it actually figures into many aspects of our lived experience, particularly in the West, driving decisions about where homes and businesses should be built, the amount of open space in a neighborhood, and the accessibility of public transportation. "What we've learned is that land use is really central to the West, and this class allows students to explore that with practitioners," said Bruce Cain (left), the Lane Center's Eccles Family Director.

Preeti hehmeyer headshot

Any serious current exploration of land use should also include questions about equity and sustainability.  After all, land use policies have been used in the past to perpetuate racism through practices such as redlining.  Likewise, proposals for affordable housing are frequently met with NIMBYism, illuminating ways in which economic inequality is exacerbated by not allowing lower income residents to enjoy the same benefits of a community as wealthier ones.  As Dan Rich notes, "Land use has been used for good and bad throughout history, and this class explores both sides of that history -- along with the core concepts of planning and how it impacts current issues such as equity and sustainability."

With Rich's expertise, as well as that of Preeti Hehmeyer (right), a Mountain View planning commissioner, and Jessica von Borck, a former assistant city manager and Stanford's director of land use, students have been learning how fair land use practices can chip away at social injustices and maximize the health and safety of residents. They've also been examining how sound land use policy offers significant protections to the natural environment, helping to conserve the resources that sustain a city's population. 

Jessica von Borck headshot

"In my role as director of land use, I'm tasked with advising how Stanford's land could serve to support the university’s mission in both the short and long term, with a focus on how the university can protect its land-based resources," commented von Borck (left). "Balancing the stewardship of our lands with allowing for future growth, along with investigating and understanding the various competing components which go into making land use decisions, is something I've been excited about exploring with students."

The class is open to both undergraduates and masters students from all disciplines. As a broad, introductory course on land use and the growth and development of cities, it has attracted a wide range of students interested in  public policy, urban studies, history, politics, sociology, law, civic engagement or non-profit activism.  The class has also served students who "simply want to better understand how and why their community is the way it is, and what they can do to change it," said Dan Rich. He added, "As a long time local government manager, I have always been passionate about opening students' eyes to public service and the ability to make a meaningful difference in their community.  This class is the perfect opportunity to use my experience to do just that in a substantive way."




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