Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: April 2013

Amy Tomasso: Reflections on Boston

In the immediate aftermath of the tragic Boston Marathon Bombings, more questions abound than answers.  Before the rubble is cleared, before the motives and implications of the attack can be assessed, and before the lives of those affected can begin to be reassembled, the first reactions are visceral and sentient.   


                  As a Connecticut native, I was shocked and saddened to see tragedy hit so close to home.  I have fond childhood memories of visiting Lexington Gardens, the Wharf, and following the famous ride of Paul Revere; Boston teems with history and beauty, and the Boston Marathon is an integral part of its rich story.  It was hard for me to fathom the Boston of my memories in this new light, but ultimately, I realized that Boston’s history is what makes this city so resilient.

                  Many of my high school classmates and friends attend college in Boston, and I watched as their Facebook and Instagram feeds filled up with posts about the bombing in the days that followed.  The hashtag “#bostonstrong” abounded, and the celebration when the bomber was captured brought the whole city into the streets to celebrate.  It was powerful to see the overwhelming pride and hope expressed for Boston, but I was especially struck by the role the city itself played.

                  Cities bring people together.  They are celebrations of diversity, culture, and our shared humanity.  The physical spaces that make up cities are defined by the people that inhabit them, and the unique values they contribute.  After the bombings, I have never been so aware of the power cities have to unite us; as photos showed Boston’s streets filled with revelers exuding relief, the energy was almost palpable. 

                  It is important not to forget the profound act of violence incited at the Marathon, but it is also important to understand how cities, by their very natures, can sustain us.  They encourage a sense of community and give us something to stand behind.  Let the strength of the Bostonians be a reminder of the power of place and its critical role in bringing us together. 


Ma’ayan Dembo: My First Public Hearing

This is the third post in a series chronicling Ma’ayan Dembo’s internship with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, for the Internship Capstone of the Urban Studies major at Stanford University.

At 2:00 pm on Monday, I took my bike and pedaled over to San Francisco City Hall—a mere mile away from the Bike Coalition. My destination— the Small Business Commission’s biweekly meeting. Composed of seven seats representing both current and former small business owners, along with one “expert in small business finance”, the commission reflected the diverse and varied small business owners of San Francisco. With my agenda in hand, I settled down in one of the many plush seats facing the panel. For over two hours, commissioners systematically abided by Robert’s Rules of Order and heard representatives speak, opened discussion to the public, and engaged in the various matters.

While a number of different items were in the agenda (small business month, street vending, a new “cottage business” law), the one that most concerned me was the presentation by small business owners and advocates on SFMTA outreach on parking, parking meters, and bicycle projects and programs. A huge issue within the Coalition has been the ongoing debates between the SFMTA/Bicycle Coalition and neighborhood associations along Polk Street, mainly representing small business owners who are concerned about their future.

In my efforts to learn more about the Bicycle Coalition (both before and after I started working there), I tried to find out as much as I could about the opposition to Polk Street—the best way to counter someone’s argument is to already know what they are going to say! Despite my most fine tuned searches through the interwebs, I was fruitless. Given the opportunity to take notes for the Bicycle Coalition at this hearing, I was eager to finally learn about the issue from another perspective.

When the presentation began, immediately the representatives launched into the Polk Street project; indeed, out of the five speakers, only one woman spoke on the parking meters instituted in the Northeast Mission District. Representatives from the Polk Street Merchants Association and the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association—two huge players in this debate—were present along with two long time Polk Street merchants and residents.

Overwhelmingly, the presentation highlighted the lack of outreach the SFMTA conducted when creating the initial plans for Polk Street. Merchants complained that they were only included in the deliberation process after the completion of the plans, as opposed to being part of the initial drawing. They asked for the commission to instate a formal seat on the SFMTA board for a small business owner to represent their interests—since small businesses make streets viable and thriving commercial corridors—or to just urge the SFMTA to operate with their interests more in mind. Commissioners nodded along and were very sympathetic to the small business owners throughout the entire process, echoing support of another seat within the SFMTA board.

When the presentation was over, the commissioners had an opportunity to respond, ask questions, and clarify certain points. One point that arose was delivery schedules—something of vital importance. The removal of parking spaces will impede shipment schedules that businesses need in order to sell their goods in a timely and effective way. Trucks loading goods in and out of a business will need to either double park within the bike lane (opposite of the purpose of a separate bike lane), or park around the corner and unload from a farther distance. While unloading from a farther distance may sound easy on paper, when you are carrying 30 pounds of silverware this task becomes much more daunting.

The public hearing opened my eyes to the world of civic engagement in a way I have never experienced before. The issues raised regarding the Polk Street project are complex, but I hopefully will be able to brainstorm a few ideas and share them in my next couple of posts.

Why I’m Doing this: Stefan Norgaard Week 3 at NPR

This is the third part of a series of posts from Stefan Norgaard, Stanford University Urban Studies major completing his Internship Capstone sequence interning for NPR’s Forum program at KQED, the San Francisco station.


            When I was in middle school, my old 1987 Toyota Tercel did not have FM radio.  My dad and I would drive to school each morning, forced to listen to boring talk shows with long commercials.  Then we found NPR.  I was instantly a fan.  The commercial-free commentary on important political and social issues facing the US and the world was invaluable for my education, and the experience made me cherish those early morning car rides to school.  Moreover, I soon noticed my academic interests developing, and my intellectual engagement improving.  As I listened to NPR more and more frequently, I took in the information like a sponge.  I was well-versed in current events and political happenings, and I knew that I wanted to be involved in politics or public policy in the future.  NPR, quite literally, set me on my academic path back in those early middle school days. 

            Now I am literally living my dream.  Once a week, I travel to San Francisco and work at KQED, the largest and most-listened to public radio station affiliate of NPR in the country.  The opportunity means so much for me because NPR as an organization has given me so much already.  I work on a show called “Forum,” which aims to create a conversation among citizens centered around local-level public affairs and civic issues. 

            I had never thought of going into journalism, but one aspect of my work with KQED that I particularly enjoy is the fast-paced, multi-faceted nature of the work.  For example, we had shows planned on Mayor Kevin Johnson and the Sacramento Kings basketball team, but all of our work and efforts were to no avail:  just 24 hours before the show was to air, the tragic Boston Marathon Bombings occurred, and “Forum” aired a show discussing the tragedy and what it means for Bay Area residents.  The nature of my work is also faced-paced.  Oftentimes I have just 2-3 minutes to pass along crucial documents that will promptly be read on the air.  In other situations, I need to get the show’s guests ready and prepped for the show while also printing out important documents for the host.  The work keeps me fluid, living.  I work on longer research-based projects (for example, helping to decide future show topics, pre-interviewing guests, and writing background documents) but I also do work in the moment, that is important because it will be needed in a mere five minutes. 

            How does my work at NPR-KQED relate to my future plans, hopes, and aspirations?  As an Urban Studies student, one thing that I have learned is that whatever I decide to do, harnessing and advancing social change and social change movements will be at the center of what I do.  At “Forum,” we can reach a wide audience by broadcasting through the radio, and the dissemination of objective, good-quality information plants seeds for social change among our listeners.  I want a career that does just this – allows myself to be a motivator for others who want to make change in their own communities. 



Ma’ayan Dembo: Wayfinding

This is the second post in a series chronicling Ma’ayan Dembo’s internship with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, for the Internship Capstone of the Urban Studies major at Stanford University.

Yesterday at the San Francisco Bike Coalition I created power point presentation on Wayfinding Signage. After a quick Wikipedia search, I affirmed my suspicions that wayfinding referred to the signage and materials throughout the city used for Although it is extremely important for both tourists and residents alike, wayfinding is given little weight as an integral part of urban design.


Currently, San Francisco uses small green signs with a bicycle in white, along with the given route number and directional arrow to suffice for wayfinding. While these signs are clearly marked and straightforward, they are small and hard to spot if you are not actively searching for them. They do not feature the mileage or time until the destination though, which is common on many other wayfinding signages. In addition, San Francisco now also has green sharrows indicating bike routes and lanes, obvious signs that are clear to both cyclists and drivers.



Along the Embarcadero, there have been a few interesting wayfinding projects that connect the space, its history, and public art together. Throughout a two-mile stretch, there are various bronze sea creatures carefully placed along pedestrian seating, tying the area back to its seafaring connections. In addition, there are 22 black and white posts featuring poetry (in a variety of languages), historical anecdotes, and photographs. These posts are easy to spot and create an informative walking experience. Moreover, at many major intersections, there is a plaque in the sidewalk explaining the origin and significance of the street. For example, at Vallejo Street the plaque explains the contributions of General Vallejo. https://urbanter.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/embarcaderoworking-156.jpg


While doing my research I found a few interesting wayfinding campaigns throughout the country and internationally. A particularly striking example is in Raleigh, North Carolina. A group of concerned citizens wanted to promote walking in the city as an effective means of transportation. This group created placards featuring time, length, and direction to popular destinations around town and hung them up in the middle of the night. Upon completing the project, the City of Raleigh took a liking to the project and is adopting it as a permanent feature of the city landscape. https://i2.wp.com/www.blogcdn.com/www.engadget.com/media/2012/04/walk-raleigh.jpg

After scouring through pages of wayfinding examples, I synthesized the best and created a list of characteristics for successful signs. Since pedestrians and bikers require different information for best addressing their needs, I have differentiated them.


Pedestrian wayfinding signs should be in close proximity to the walkway—preferably along it. They should feature a small map of the surrounding area, along with a point indicating the current location. Thematically, they should be well integrated into the surroundings and enhance the overall walking experience by providing interesting information or simply visual stimulation. They should also direct people toward popular destinations—both for tourists and residents.


Bicycling signage differs from pedestrians since cyclists cannot stop to search for a sign, it should therefore be obvious to spot from the road and clearly convey information in the least crowded way possible. The sign should include route number, arrowed directions to popular destinations, and the distance in miles and/or time. This information is important for cycling commuters, tourists enjoying the San Francisco hills, or residents traveling by bike. The signs should be uniform throughout the metropolitan area, not just the city. Overall, bicycling signage needs to be informative, clear, and in an obvious location.

Anna Ponting: Top Urban Thinkers

As my final quarter at Stanford begins, I’ve found myself reflecting–in a much more personal way than ever before–on the tangible impacts that urbanists have had. This month marks the two year anniversary of Urbanter, and while it’s had it’s periods of explosive writing and other prolonged dry spells, it’s been nice to look through our archives and see how my own thinking has changed. Two years ago, I hardly would have imagined what my final year as an Urban Studies major at Stanford would have been like. I simply had no idea what opportunities and challenges I would come across. And now those seniors, so old and experienced in my sophomore-year eyes, are humanized. 

Now that senior capstone projects are completed, honors theses are well underway (so close!), and we’ve marked our calendars for the senior retreat, our futures seem much more tangible. And after having been in at least one class with every Urban Studies major of the Class of 2013, I can say that we have some top urban thinkers on our hands.


In 2009, Planetizen released their list of Top 100 Urban Thinkers based on a public poll. While only 9 of the top 100 are female, Jane Jacobs snagged the top spot. It’s a fascinating list, with superstar names like Daniel Burnham, Lewis Mumford, Richard Florida, Le Corbusier, and Robert Moses (in 23rd place–history seems to have treated Jacobs better) studding the list. The Urban Studies core classes have guaranteed that I recognize at least two thirds of these urban thinkers, and I can’t help but think that some of our own graduates have the potential to knock out a couple of these big names. 

Now that Urbanter has come out of hibernation, we’re excited to get back into the swing of writing and sharing our favorite urban content. On that note, it’s impossible not to note yesterday’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon. The image of the explosions sickens me, and my thoughts go out to all those affected. Nicholas Thompson has written a great piece for the New Yorker, The Meaning of the Boston Marathon, that is absolutely worth a read. As someone training for a much less important marathon, Thompson’s words hit home:

There’s something particularly devastating about an attack on a marathon. It’s an epic event in which men and women appear almost superhuman.

And another passage, this time from Dan Chiasson’s A Poem for Boston (also New Yorker):

Everyone is defying, in one way or another, mortality, the actual finish line whose figurative embodiment they plan to cross. Of course, the legend is that the first marathoner died from exhaustion after he’d run from the town of Marathon to Athens, an ancient fact that seemed nearly comic until yesterday changed it permanently.

Whether it was terrorism, mental illness or some sick attempt to break the resilience of one of the country’s greatest cities and events, the bombings have made me even more hyper-aware of the “bubble” I will soon be leaving. So, as students that deeply care about the state of our cities and their inhabitants, Urbanter is ready to explore the highs and lows of urban life. Here’s to a great spring, and to a generation of top urban thinkers within our midst!


Ma’ayan Dembo: First Day

This is the first post in a series chronicling Ma’ayan Dembo’s internship with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, for the Internship Capstone of the Urban Studies major at Stanford University.

I can confidently say the San Francisco Bike Coalition is drastically changing the biking environment in the city. Although it looks like many other company offices (aside from the indoor hanging bike racks along almost every free wall), the Coalition swarms busily with flyers printing, volunteers calling businesses, and staff rushing in and out between meetings with the Mayor and BART debriefs.

My first assignment was to get familiarized with the Coalition’s current projects. One of their main projects, Connecting the City, aims to build more than 100 miles of bike paths throughout the city, allowing people from age eight to eighty to easily commute, travel, and play via bicycle. In order to familiarize my dear readers with this project, I’ll describe some key aspects of it and add my own commentary below.


The San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority is working closely with the San Francisco Bike Coalition to improve biking conditions on Polk Street, a vital artery for North to South bike commuting within the city. Polk Street is the shortest, *flattest* route connecting downtown with the Northern neighborhoods of San Francisco. Every month, there are two serious collisions on Polk Street, making itself a dangerous street to bike on. The issue of instating separated bike lanes would require the removal of one side of the parking on Polk Street itself, which only amounts to 17% of the parking in the entire vicinity. Nonetheless, proponents of this change cite a removal of all parking spots leading to a decrease in overall business vitality. In an intercept survey done by the SFMTA, only 15.1% of people drove their car to the area. Moreover, those who drove spent roughly the same amount of money as those who biked, walked, or took transit. One thing not covered by the survey was the amount of people who drove to the Polk Street area with the intent “to shop”. This statistic would either uphold or discredit the loss of business revenue from a decrease of parking spots on Polk Street. Next week (April 27th and 30th), there will be more open meetings to discuss the fate of the street, one of which I plan to attend.


The funky diagonal street in San Francisco, originally created to maximize train freight efficiency, now is on a biking revolution as well. Market Street has the potential to become the major bike thoroughfare in the United States. Boasting twice as many bikes as cars in the 2008 and 2009 Bike to Work Days, Market Street has a long way to go before it can complete this transition. Working alongside the Better Market Street project, the San Francisco Bike Coalition has made great strides already, by creating separate marked bike lanes in some intersections and requiring right turns to increase biker safety. In addition to increasing biker safety, these measures have aided congestion and increased bus speeds by 3%. However, the Coalition aims to create an entirely separate bike lane down the entirety of Market Street, which is only slated to be constructed in 2017– too far in the future. Current problematic areas are between Embarcadero and 8th Street, where the traffic lanes narrow and are congested. Moreover, between Octavia and Castro Street, the bike lanes emerge and disappear, creating tricky situations for cyclists.


The Embarcadero is the road that follows the Bay and provides stunning views and cool breezes. As part of their Connecting the City plan, the San Francisco Bike Coalition plans to develop a separated two-way bike lane. Although this project is less developed than others, it is a little too late. Such an attraction would have timed up wonderfully with the America’s Cup this July, an internationally acclaimed sailing competition held in San Francisco this year. Unfortunately, knowing the speed of public projects in San Francisco, this bike lane will not be completed by the time the tournament rolls around.

Stefan Norgaard – Day Two at NPR Forum

This is the second part of a series of posts from Stefan Norgaard, Stanford University Urban Studies major completing his Internship Capstone sequence interning for NPR’s Forum program at KQED, the San Francisco station.


 Week Two Internship at National Public Radio (NPR-KQED)

Stefan Norgaard


            This week at KQED Forum, I helped with shows on the Supreme Court weighing in on owning of genes and gene patenting and on Bay Area wineries.  After the shows concluded, I began research and preparation work for the Monday and Tuesday shows on Forum.  On Monday, April 15, Forum ran a show featuring the winners of the 2013 Goldman Prize for Excellence in Protecting the Environment, and on Tuesday, April 16, Forum is hoping to run a show featuring Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson discussing the potential movement of the Sacramento Kings basketball team to Seattle. 

            Working to prepare the Goldman show was especially gratifying because I was able to do extensive audio editing with help from one of the KQED Producers.  Pulling from videos and interviews with each of the finalists, we created short radio segments describing each Goldman award winner, to give a summary to listeners.  For example, we pulled clips about Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, the North American prize winner, who helped start a grassroots nonprofit in Chicago’s Little Village to combat coal power pollution.  We also pulled clips about Jonathan Deal, the African Goldman Award winner, who single-handedly started South Africa’s anti-fracking campaign against oil companies like Shell.  As I listened to stories and interviews with these passionate social change-makers, I realized that social change can truly take many forms.  Some Goldman winners used grassroots campaigning, and others used advocacy and legal action.  Here at NPR, I am able to make social change through dissemination of good, objective information and stories to the public.  The audio editing skills (using Dalet) I am acquiring in the process will prove to be useful tools when it comes to editing sound clips in the future. 

            A second show that I helped prepare will hopefully feature Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.  Though Johnson has not yet been able to confirm for the show and it is unclear whether my work and preparation will result in a show or not, I was nevertheless able to interact with the Mayor and his Team, discussing the important news in Sacramento today:  whether the Sacramento Kings basketball team can stay in Sacramento, or whether it will move to Seattle, and replace the Seattle Supersonics.  Mayor Johnson, a former NBA-professional himself, is a staunch supporter of keeping the Kings in Sacramento.  For Mayor Johnson, however, the move is about much more than a basketball franchise.  The Kings are a symbol of Sacramento’s status as a growing metropolis and California city.  The sports team brings together Sacramento (and suburban Sacramento) residents around a common cause, fostering civic identity and pride.  Losing the team would be a blow to Sacramento’s civic image, according to Mayor Johnson.  In trying to schedule Mayor Johnson on the show, I learned firsthand that scheduling big name guests is not an easy task.  Mayor Johnson has been giving press conferences with numerous other media stations, and confirming a one-hour at the San Francisco studio for a Tuesday morning was a very challenging goal for me.  Though the Mayor has still yet to finally confirm his participation in the show tomorrow, I am glad for the experience of interacting with a Mayoral team in the midst of an important news story.  I ended the day excited; I had learned about wineries, environmentalism, and local government.  I am ready for next week! 



Fans hope The Sacramento Kings will stay in Sacramento.  The team may be moving to Seattle, something that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson would not like to see. 


Stefan Norgaard: First Day at NPR

This is the first part of a series of posts from Stefan Norgaard, Stanford University Urban Studies major completing his Internship Capstone sequence interning for NPR’s Forum program at KQED, the San Francisco station.

I couldn’t stop laughing.  It was my first day of work at National Public Radio (NPR-KQED) in San Francisco, where I am an intern with the “Forum” program.  I was editing audio clips from Kaumau Bell’s FX show “Totally Biased.”  Bell was slated to be Monday’s guest on KQED’s “Forum Program,” and our interview sought to highlight the important social messages in Bell’s hilarious comedy shows.  So I pulled sound bites from Bell’s “Stop and Frisk” show, commenting on the all-too-common actions by the NYPD and other police departments in urban areas.  Bell interviews residents on the streets of Harlem, asking why they are frisked so frequently, and why white people never seem to get frisked by the NYPD.  Bell soon asks Harlem residents whether they would mind the frisking so much “if it was ladies cops [would they mind] if they could search me everyday?”  Bell mixes humor with important arguments about racism and classism directed towards the urban underclass that remains alive and well.  In Bell’s show “The Most Racist Things of All Time,” he highlights similar social issues in a hilarious and comic way.  Both shows can be viewed at the following links:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v42WLN_4Scw and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5h2cB5Jzv8.

    As my Urban Studies capstone internship, the KQED position enables me to apply the academic coursework I learned in Urban Studies and disseminate that information to a large public audience.  KQED is the “most listened to” public radio station in the country, and Forum shows like Monday’s with Tatum Bell, which highlight issues of racial discrimination against the urban underclass, shed light on the difficulties of life for urban minorities.  More importantly, the humorous nature of the show allows everyone to laugh before tackling such a divisive issue.

    Though it was only my first day working at KQED, other important issues relating to my Urban Studies coursework most certainly came into play.  For our show on recycling and sustainable living, for instance, I met and talked with Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA Administrator for Region 9, the Pacific Southwest Region.  I helped prepare Mr. Blumenfeld for his upcoming Forum interview, and we were able to discuss the importance of good urbanism and smart growth in the meantime.  A man who truly practices what he preaches, Blumenfeld had biked to the station, and made sure to tell me exactly what was recyclable and what was not.

    Once Blumenfeld was on the air (he was the guest on a Forum show titled “How to Get to Zero Waste”), I fielded emails, tweets, and other comments from listeners across the Bay Area.  “Forum” is a truly interactive show, and many listeners were curious about everything from how to recycle daily items to ways Waste Management can help incentivize recycling for communities like Oakland.  I screened the comments, deciding which ones were most relevant for the radio conversation, and passed on appropriate comments to the producer for final review.  Though only a few of the nearly 80 calls, emails, tweets, and comments were able to make it to the air, I enjoyed hearing and seeing all of the public discussion on “How to Get to Zero Waste.”  I am truly fortunate to work for National Public Radio on the “Forum” show, where everyone’s individual perspectives can add to and shape the news.

–Stefan Norgaard