Saturday, September 22, 2007

Park Here

We had some unusually early (and strong) rain this morning, so for the first time in months I passed on a planned hike. I was not too disappointed, though, since that meant I'd be able to attend a parks forum hosted by my councilmember, Pierluigi Oliverio. I randomly found out about this when looking up some info on the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and was reminded in an emailed District 6 newsletter from Pierluigi. I decided to become at least slightly civicly engaged for the day.

Some quick background: I voted for Pierluigi twice (in the first election and again in a runoff), and really like him on paper - he's young, comes from a technical background, and strikes an independent course without seeming disagreeable. That said, I hadn't actually met him yet, so this was also a chance for me to indulge in my nerdy political curiosity.

The forum was held in a Willow Glen elementary school. When I first pulled up, I thought, "Wow, this place is packed!" The parking lot was full, as was all the parking along the street. I soon realized, though, that almost everyone was there for some youth soccer games taking place in a park across the street. It seemed somehow fitting, although it also made me feel like more of a wimp for not hiking.

I parked around the corner and got to the event. It was fairly well attended, with a few dozen people in place. Pierluigi arrived a few minutes before we started, and there were also about eight people representing the parks district or other city offices. After quick introductions, we got a nice, brief PowerPoint presentation on the city's greenprint plan. This reviewed the city's goals, the current challenges (which are familiar to everyone - we've had a lot of capital expansions that are not being met with ongoing maintenance funds), and the need for community involvement in charting the future course of San Jose recreation.

By far, the longest and most emotional part of the meeting was a park-by-park review of District 6. Pierluigi led this section, and for each park people could give feedback about what they liked or (more often) disliked. Several areas kept coming up: for virtually every park, there were complaints about inadequate or improper watering, and graffiti was also a regular concern. Partway through the session, the issue of bouncy platforms came up (I forget the official name, but they're fairly popular out here - they're inflatable structures that little kids can jump around inside of), and there was a fair amount of education about where they are legal, what issues are involved with them, and so on. Some parks passed with very little comment, but a few received long and passionate attention. By far the most attention was directed to Cahill Park. I haven't been here, but apparently it's a large open lawn near a development area, and the list of issues was long: swampy ground, loitering, noise, trash, violence, and more. A lot of attention was also paid to Bramhall park, which is actually fairly close to my apartment and which I now want to visit. It sounds like a nice park that is severely over-used, and would probably be a good place to volunteer.

I was impressed with the way Pierluigi led the discussion. He kept things on track while ensuring that everyone had their say, and would move the discussion along when he could without cutting anyone off. He also has a really warm personality and a good sense of humor, which I think helped a lot... people who would show up to this are probably feeling emotional about their parks, and I think his attention and attitude really helped set the direction of the event.

After we finally got through all the parks, there was a presentation on the actual greenprint itself. This was the issue that had brought me out: I wanted to get a better idea of the City's plans for expanding and linking its network of urban trails. The person who presented this portion (I want to say his name was Dave, but could be wrong) gave a great overview of the current state of thing: he highlighted areas that the city is in the process of acquiring, spots that are being considered for future purchases, and gave really detailed answers to the many questions dealing with funding, negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad, and other things that are arcane to a lot of people but really crucial to some of us.

The last part of the program was a series of breakout sessions. There were four stations set up, each dedicated to a particular topic. People went from station to station, and at each place they could ask questions of city employees there, and also indicate, via placing stickers on a large sheet of paper, what their priorities were. One station was dedicated to trails; I stuck my green sticker next to the Los Gatos Creek Trail, of course (though the Guadalupe and Willow Glen Spur are well worth expanding as well). Another was focused on community centers and specifically which activities were most important; I've never been to one, but stuck a green next to "Dancing" (hey, why not?) and a yellow next to "Cooking". Another asked for our priorities in potential lands to acquire; on this one, I was selfish and asked for the Bascom parks (which would be close to my apartment). Finally, one board was asking for which specific improvements we'd like to see at which specific parks. A good two thirds of the stickers here went under Cahill.

And after that, I just left. It was really interesting to see everything, but I'm generally not one for much socialization.

This was the first small-scale civic community meeting I've attended, and it was an intriguing experience. I have to admit, I do like the feeling of being able to talk directly with my elected officials, and the kind of responsiveness and openness on display were good to see. I was also sort of struck by the relative power of community involvement. When you think about it, the several dozen people who came to this event will have a lot of influence over their neighborhood in the next several months: the comments of people who would come to an event carry more weight than those who stay home. I would be surprised if there weren't noticeable improvements at Cahill in the near future. I'm not convinced that other District Six parks aren't worse, but the clear message the city got from this meeting had to be "Fix Cahill." It's just interesting to think that, of the, I dunno, probably a bit under 100,000 people who live in the district, so few of us can speak and be heard. Then again, short of mailing surveys to everyone in the district, there probably isn't a better way for the city to determine our needs, and it's probably true that the people who make an effort to share their concerns are at least somewhat representative of the area as a whole.

All in all, it was well worth attending. They announced that a future meeting will specifically address the Los Gatos Creek Trail and other future developments, so I'll be attending that once they settle on a date. Until then, it was fun and encouraging to see my city, and my councilmember, in action.

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