Urban Design for Climate Change- The Third Way

Ideas for linking urban design and healthy communities

photo (10)_editedBy Jim Bliesner

California’s response to climate change has been the passage of at least two bills requiring local agencies to develop local climate action plans. AB 32 and SB 375 establish broad policies that the City of San Diego, County, SANDAG (regional) and even the Port District use to define strategies to reduce carbon emissions to avoid long term catastrophe.

Plans at all three agencies are in draft form and open for public comment.

In addition to the climate change legislation the State has also established a “cap and trade” fund. The fund receives money from large polluters who do not meet the standards established for the respective industries. The polluters pay in lieu of achieving goals.

The fund then disperses the money to projects intended to escalate the reduction of carbon emissions throughout the state. In large part the funds go to the major polluting categories like transit, automobile traffic and car design as well as industry.

Local Woodbury Architecture School students in the graduate Landscape Urbanism program under Professor Rene Peralta have undertaken to develop designs for the “Greater Logan Heights” area to link urban design and healthy communities. The question raised by the student’s designs is whether community level efforts can qualify as strategies for reducing CO2 levels.

photo (8)_editedThe idea is that reducing carbon emissions does not just need to be about electric cars, modified freeways and bullet trains but can in fact be the impetus for making our communities more livable. Sound ecological urban design can both achieve carbon reductions and make our communities more walkable and healthy according to the students.

They presented their designs at a school forum on Monday Oct 21st. In addition to the proposed designs which used the Logan Heights and Barrio Logan areas as a demonstration area, they provided calculations on both the tonnage of CO2 reduction as well as the value of the reductions achieved.

The unique thing about the students work is that it proposes that the City, SANDAG, and the Port include strategies in their plans that promote neighborhood design which reduces emissions at the ground level, where people live. An example is the North Park Eco District efforts being spearheaded by North Park Main Street.

The focus of the students’ work that includes Barrio Logan puts their ideas into the middle of the ongoing controversy about land use planning, resident’s vs industry. According to Rene Peralta “sometimes land use issues cause unnecessary conflict between residents and businesses. If we focus on ecological design solutions we have a “third way” that improves not only the living environment for residents but cleans up polluting industries as well.”

A number of community residents were invited to critique the design efforts by the students including staff and board members of the Greater Logan Heights Coalition as well as Remy Bermudez, a community planner and resident of Sherman Heights.

photo (9)_editedOne of the more provocative and insightful proposals came from student Arturo Tovar who presented images showing how the Logan Heights area is impacted by the surrounding freeways and the low topography to create a “hotspot” in an area that included the highest concentrations of school aged children.

His response was to design a corridor between two schools filled with trees, reduced traffic with bikeways and expanded walking environments. His “out of the box” design incorporated “cooling cones” and trees on the school campus that had the effect of reducing CO2 emissions dramatically.

The idea for the cones came from a design developed in Seville Spain as part of the World Expo. The implementation of his design ideas would reduce CO2 worth over $3.5 million dollars in cap and trade value. His design included planting only 357 new trees including parking lots and street trees

Another idea suggested by Genesis Gama from Tijuana turned the parking lots that transform the area between Barrio Logan and the shipyards from a flat, endless parking lot for shipyard employees into an oasis of green; multi storied parking structures including CO2 reduction designs.

photo (12)_editedThe design proposes to create a barrier between Barrio Logan residents and CO2 emissions that emanate from the shipyard. Her design included greening of the trolley stop and creation of new parks as well as community serving structures (Caesar Chavez Historical Museum, Eco Design Curriculum for the new community college facility) and more.

She calculated that implementing these designs would reduce CO2 emissions by 134.2 tons worth over $2 million dollars in cap and trade value. A particularly community focused proposal suggested creating a green pathway between Chicano Park and the Bay Park along Cesar Chavez Parkway, an idea long championed by residents of Barrio Logan: “All the Way to the Bay”. In this case it happens along the Parkway rather than under the freeway, an idea that right be controversial..

The proposal by Denise Lora focused on the industrial corridor filled with junk yards along Commercial Street (an Eco-Industrial Corridor). She proposed that the junk yards can become “green” spaces with minimal changes. She provided illustrations of the idea that the toxic runoff from junk yards caused by oil and rust and radiator fluids could be drained into a street long system, ending up in a storage tank that could be relocated elsewhere reducing the impact on local residents (financed by an Eco Assessment District).

She proposed LEED re-adaptation for existing buildings and surrounding the toxic yards with trees and vegetation. Going further she proposed lining the Commercial Street corridor with trees along the existing Trolley right of way. This proposal would place the responsibility of cleaning up the environment on the shoulders of the polluters but allow them to stay as responsible community partners.

The final presentation came from Fei Fei Yuan, a student from China, who took a comprehensive approach suggesting that the complete area be filled with trees and as many solar panels as possible, beginning with the institutional land owners (schools) and that a path of green be created between the 18 schools in the area. She then focused on the redesign of a trolley stop that changed a toxic parking space to include an island of mixed use (Smart Growth-Sustainable Development), green space. Her comprehensive proposal doubled the potential CO2 emission reduction of other proposals and the concurrent value to cap and trade investors.

photo (11)_editedMonte Jones, the Chief Executive Officer of the BAME Community Development Corporation stated that, “greening our neighborhoods is a life and death issue and we need to confront it straight on. The City Climate Action Plan as well as SANDAG needs to include community level efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and if they do that there is a double benefit. We reduce the threat of climate change and improve our neighborhoods in the process. We cannot be left out in this discussion. It’s a life and death matter.”

In observing the presentations by the students and from the perspective of the residents of the area Remy Bermudez stated “this design exercise creates another dimension to the discussion and focuses on the health of our communities. We can only fight so long about land use designation, and we need to do that, but eventually we need to focus on what is best for the health of our people in the neighborhoods. The people who destroy the futures of our children should be partners in the solution. Adding neighborhood design initiatives to the City, County and regional plans can make our communities healthy rather than being victimized by polluters.”

The students work will be summarized by Linda Vo a Research Assistant with the Center for Urban Economics and Design at UCSD and made available to community organizations and public agencies for review and comment.


Jim Bliesner

Jim Bliesner is the Director of the Center for Urban Economics and Design at UCSD, a lecturer in Urban Studies at UCSD, resident of City Heights and an urban artist in sculpture and painting.


  1. avatar says

    These are all good suggestions, and the new Mayor and City Council should take them seriously. Obviously, green design must be taken into account for any new buildings in the city and for neighborhood improvements. More trees and solar panels are only too obvious to combat the effects of global warming and to improve neighborhood livability.


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