Are we doing that well enough nowadays? I personally don't think so. I think we used to do better and we can do so again. The key is what I have learned to call "People Focused Design." Let me explain.
People Focused Design helps create places that people love and come back to over and over again. Downtown Mountain View is one great example. On a pleasant evening, Castro Street is full of people of all ages strolling the sidewalks, lingering in cafes, and enjoying the pleasures of a great place. And people come back again and again.
Why is Downtown Mountain View such a great place? People Focused Design. What is People Focused Design, and why does Downtown Mountain View have it when other places don't? Let's remember some history.
Back in the 1970s Downtown Mountain View was not an attractive place. The Mountain Bay Plaza building that houses Bank of America sat empty for 10 years with German Shepherd guard dogs prowling behind the smoked glass. Downtown was known as "Dog City" in those days, and nobody wanted to visit.
But the city and the community decided to work together to make the downtown great. A Downtown Task Force of community members began working with the city to understand the problems and fix them. Fortunately, we met Michael Freedman, an expert in People Focused Design, who helped us understand how to change Downtown Mountain View from "Dog City" to the best downtown in Silicon Valley. ("People Focused Design" is also known as "City Design," a field of expertise that is separate from "city planning." Whatever we call it, it is an essential element of creating great places for people to live.)
City planning often focuses on regulations. Regulations about use (what you can build where), density (how much of it you can build), and capacity (how big the streets, utilities and other supporting structure must be). All these regulations are important, but they don't necessarily create a place that is a great place for people to live. That requires People Focused Design.
Recently, it seems that Mountain View's People Focused Design is not as strong as it should be. Wandering around in Phase 1 of the new San Antonio Shopping Center doesn't feel as nice as wandering around in the downtown. Why shouldn't it be as good? The businesses along El Camino Real turn their backs on the sidewalk area and potential customers there. Is that what we want? Yes, I know that El Camino Real is a highway that the state controls. But the city regulates the private development along the street.
Recently the city has been approving a lot of needed residential development along El Camino, but is it doing it in a way that will produce a neighborhood that is a great place for new residents to live? Again, El Camino is a state highway and the state regulates what happens in the highway. But the city controls the design of private development along the sides of El Camino. Are we doing a good enough job? Are we creating a neighborhood where people can live and raise a family? I don't think so.
This is not a criticism of Mountain View's city planning or its city planners. They are good, competent people doing what they see as best for Mountain View. But People Focused Design is a separate field of expertise from city planning, and we need to reinstate it as an essential part of our city design and planning process.
Talking about focusing on people, behavioral economics is in the news because Richard Thayer, one of its creators, has won a Nobel Prize. Behavioral economics modifies traditional economics by adding a focus on people and human behavior, and it has opened a fresh perspective on economic analysis. Similarly, People Focused Design adds a focus on people and human experience, and it offers a fresh perspective on traditional planning and zoning. We don't need a Nobel Prize to teach us the value off adding People Focused Design to our city design and planning processes.
Let's reinstate People Focused Design as an essential part of our city design and planning processes and make Mountain View a great place for people to live.
Bruce Liedstrand is a former Mountain View city manager. He lives in Mountain View.