Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: June 2013

Urban Studies Fellowship: Intro & Week One! (Cassandra Calderon)






My name is Cassandra Calderon and I am pursuing a BA in Economics and a minor in Modern Languages (Spanish and French). I am a rising junior and have been granted an Urban Studies Fellowship for the summer. I am super excited for my summer project. But, before introducing my summer project, I would like to introduce myself.

I am originally from Mexico, but I have lived in Houston for the last 12 years. After finishing high school, I decided to defer my admission to Stanford and I became a Rotary Exchange Student to Rodez, France. I was hosted by four different host families and had a year of a lifetime. Ever since, my passion for traveling has grown. This past winter quarter I went to Santiago, Chile with the BOSP Program. I will be going to Moscow, Russia this fall quarter once again with the BOSP Program. I hope to continue traveling and learning new cultures and languages. 

Besides traveling, I am passionate about community development, social service, and working with non-profits. Last summer, I also worked in Houston with a non-profit organization, which helped residents open individual development accounts (IDA’s). I enjoy staying close to home and my community and that is why I decided to execute my research here. 

I have partnered with The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership (EDP) to carry out my research. The Woodlands Area EDP was established in 1997 and is a public/private partnership that serves as the lead economic development agency for the area. The Woodlands EDP directly shares my passion for discovering more ways in which the area could continue to develop economically and continue to grow and become more attractive not only for businesses, but also for local residents. 

As a consequence, my research will focus on the extent to which economic development has improved the lives of the people living in the Woodlands, Texas and what changes, if any, would improve the impact of this societal development. Through surveys, collections of data, and research, a report will be created and provided to The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership that encourages using local resources in a way that enhances economic opportunities while improving social conditions. 

Ok, so now that I have introduced myself and my project, I would like to share with you the wonderful experiences from my first week. I first came into the office on Monday, June 24th. I was warmly greeted by the four staff members that work here. They gave me a tour of the floor and introduced me to the members of the Chamber of Commerce, as their office is located right across ours. After dropping off my stuff at my new desk, we had a staff meeting where we discussed the goals of my project. 

Later that evening, The Woodlands Area EDP had their “Rebranding Reveal Party” as the Partnership just went through a rebranding exercise where they changed their logo and have a new “look”. I got to meet several board members and partners of the EDP. (The photo shown below was taken at the Rebranding Reveal Party. The posters behind show the Partnership’s new business cards and folders. )

Throughout the week, I worked on finishing my surveys, as well as brainstorming ideas of ways to distribute the surveys, in order to get the highest response rate. I also accompanied Laura Lea, the vice president of Business Retention and Expansion, to meetings with two different partner members. I learned a lot about business retention and expansion. Besides my research project, I am helping update the Partnership’s database with all the information gathered from the surrounding businesses. 

This morning, I got to attend the monthly Board Meeting. I even got to speak and introduce my project in front of about 40 partner members. Everyone was super helpful and offered to send out copies of my surveys to their employees/employers and post my project on the neighborhood website. 

As you can see, my first week was a success. Next week, I am hoping to start collecting data on the surveys. I will keep you guys posted 🙂 

P.S. I want to thank the Urban Studies Dept. for supporting me with this project. 





Mid-Manhattan Library

New York City in action!

Urban Studies Fellow Introduction | Shelby S., Class of 2015

My name is Shelby and I’m one of the 2013 Urban Studies Fellows! I’m so excited to kick off my blog-writing experience and to be partnering with Stanford’s Urban Studies Department to make such a wonderful opportunity possible. Just to share a bit about myself:

  • I am a rising junior.
  • I’m majoring in Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity with a thematic focus in Education, Access, and Equity. I’ll minor in Spanish Language.
  • I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • On campus I’ve lived in Ujamaa and Castaño.
  • I went abroad to Santiago, Chile in Winter 2013.
  • I love to travel and have been to France, Italy, Malta, Australia, Mexico, Chile, Bolivia, and all over the United States!

The “I Have A Dream” Foundation: New York Metro Area

Urban education—more specifically youth empowerment and the disparities that exist in income level at the most competitive universities—is something I am passionate about. I’ve dedicated so much of my time on campus to better understanding and combatting the issue, and I plan to continue my work once classes are over. In the past I’ve worked with Expanding College Opportunities, a research project that gained national recognition on the front page of The New York Times and in Congressional talks. I also work in outreach for The Phoenix Scholars, a student group on campus that assists low income, first generation, and minority students in California with the college matriculation process. For the next eight weeks I’ll be working with The “I Have A Dream” Foundation in the heart of New York City. This education non-profit seeks to enable youth from underserved communities across the nation in their quest for higher education. The mission of the program is to uplift these students and support them in the pursuit of a college education by offering “a dynamic, long-term program of mentoring, tutoring, and enrichment with an assured opportunity for higher education.”

Beginning in early elementary school a class of 50-100 students from an under-resourced public school or housing project is formed. The program—mentors, staff, tutors, etc.—works with these students, fostering their growth and promoting their educational and personal development until high school graduation. Upon graduating, each student is guaranteed tuition assistance to attend the college or university of their choice. This phenomenal model of broad education reform and resource distribution was designed to enrich the students’ academic performance and social skills.  The program operates year-round and has particular need for assistance during the summer months.

By working at their central offices in the New York City metro area, I’ll have the opportunity to gain practical work place skills, interact with students of all ages, and develop the organization’s resource guides. Secretarial work in collaboration with the professionals from the organization as well as direct contact with the students promises to be rewarding. I stand to gain experience, an entirely new skillset, and the opportunity to see the inner workings of a well-run nonprofit organization.

The City That Never Sleeps

Outside of work, I try to find time to explore. I’ve already had a chance to visit the Brooklyn Bridge, venture through Times Square, and enjoy a free music concert on the Northside of Brooklyn. There’s always something new and exciting happening in the city and I will certainly be taking advantage of that fact… as soon as I get used to the subway system and humid heat!




That’s all I’ve got for now, but I will be writing weekly to keep you all updated.


For more information on The “I Have A Dream” Foundation visit their website or leave a comment below!

Ma’ayan Dembo: Market Street Repaving

This is the seventh 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.     

In an effort to make cycling more comfortable along Market Street, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has been applying pressure on the Department of Public Works to repave unsuitable pavement conditions within bike lanes. After long negotiations, the SFBC was told by the Public Works Department the fresh pavement would be ready by Bike To Work Day (May 9th), when hundreds of cyclists would descend onto Market Street. Upon hearing this, myself and my fellow excited interns surveyed Market Street from the Ferry Building until Van Ness Avenue for poor pavement conditions within the outer lanes (those bicycles would be riding on) of the street, heading both North and South. Marking Department of Public Works maps containing specific road information such as widths, lanes, and road markings, we set out for an afternoon walk. Camera in hand, we were looking for any unsafe condition in the pavement that could cause harm or discomfort to cyclists. Once we got out there, we realized the sheer magnitude of poor pavement along Market– pavement that cyclists would intentionally swerve to avoid instead of riding over. We noticed some trends: uneven pavement around sewers, patchy repaving that was not level and contained fissures, cracks, and bumps, and fading paint making it unclear whether cyclists were legally allowed within the lane.

ImageUnsafe dip in the pavement, in front of 550 Market       


Throughout the walk down Market Street though, certain areas had fantastic pavement, notably, by the ever tourist-heavy Ferry Building. Moreover, areas along Market Street that recently got green bike lanes also were unscathed and had pavement smooth like butter due to their recent construction. Conversely, lower/mid-Market contained many pavement issues that we marked. Below is an image of the pavement right outside of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s office, an example of poor leveling when repaving a patch of pavement.

ImageUnsafe pavement conditions outside of 833 Market

Following up on the initial survey, two weeks later we found out the pavement project would be postponed until September of 2013. Outraged, we resurveyed the entire street, this time only marking urgent spots along Market that endangered cyclists, not just hurt their bottoms when passing over it. With these new maps filled out, we submitted them to the Department of Public Works. Bike to Work Day came, and unfortunately, new pavement had not made it yet.

Finally though, on June 6th, the Department of Public Works announced a full repaving of outside lanes from Van Ness to Embarcadero– a step in the right direction towards a Better Market Street, but definitely not the end to enhancing the city’s main artery. With Van Ness to 6th Street already repaved, 6th to Embarcadero will be repaved later in July.


As I’m wrapping up my time at the Bicycle Coalition, the Market Street repaving was incredibly memorable for me. For one, I followed this project from the very beginning and was able to see the final product as well. Since most projects I’ve been involved with at the Coalition involve long-range planning, I probably will not see their end. However, with the repaving, not only did I see the changes, but I’m also experiencing them on my own personal commute to and from work. One of the things that draws me to urban planning is knowing that my contributions are having a tangible impact on people’s quality of life and day to day livelihood– as I experienced first hand with this project.  This project helped me understand first hand not only the bureaucratic challenges facing public projects, but also my satisfaction when impacting the urban built environment.

Amy Tomasso: The greatness of The Great Gatsby


                I absolutely loved Baz Luhrmann’s recent film The Great Gatsby.  Although it didn’t receive stellar reviews and was cited as being gaudy, ostentatious, and shallow, I found it captivating and magical.  Maybe I fell for the showiness—the elaborate costumes, scenery and accents set to life by the booming modern soundtrack.  But what I think drew me into the film the most was its depiction of 1920s New York City.

                New York was colorful, radiant, and wild through Luhrmann’s directorial eyes.  It was a place of crazy parties, zooming cars, and high-flying people.  It was hard not to become engrossed in the vibrancy of a city that was literally on fire with the overwhelming energy and life of the roaring 20s, and I think this depiction was one of Luhrmann’s fortes.  He firmly grounded the plot in a physical place—Manhattan—which becomes just as much a character in the story as Gatsby himself. 

                Yet what makes this portrayal believable is that, underneath the pomp, New York City harbors secrets and problems.  It wears its humanity on its jazz-playing, fringe-wearing sleeve.  Ultimately, the New York of the film is about the people who inhabit it, something which should be true of any city.  Without their messy interwoven stories, the city becomes a dull and empty façade, and Luhrmann transforms this skeleton into a celebration of urbanization itself. 

                New York City, as depicted in The Great Gatsby, shines in all its diversity.  One scene stands out in particular: after the downtown party Nick Carraway attends with Tom Buchanan, he stumbles out onto the apartment flat’s balcony.  Despite his haziness, he surveys the surrounding buildings and the camera pans into various windows showing city dwellers busy at work and play, each person occupying his or her individual world.  It is the combination of all these stories woven together, as Nick points out, that make up the patterns and interactions of the city.  As the camera slowly zooms out, the windows fade into a resplendent city skyline ablaze with twinkling lights—is there anything more humanly beautiful than that?   


Amy Tomasso: Urban Environmentalism


(Golden Gate Park in San Francisco)

                When I tell people I want to be an urban planner, they often seem puzzled.  Why would I want to devote my life to cities, they ask, when I am an avid backpacker, camper, and self-proclaimed nature lover?  While it is true that I am passionate about the outdoors, I don’t see this as being incompatible with my interest in urban planning.  In fact, these seemingly different fields are actually highly interrelated. 

                It is my love of the natural world that makes me so committed to urban sustainability, a field made up of sustainable design, increased open space, and better regulated public transportation, to name a few aspects.  Harvard economist Edward Glaeser is one of many theorists to have labeled cities as templates of good environmentalism, if planned and used correctly.  He gives the example of New York City as one of the most environmentally friendly places because residents consumer fewer resources than their suburban counterparts and have lower carbon footprints.  What is lacking is robust support of cities as bastions of conservationism.  Not enough people associate cities with best environmental practices.

                Not only do I admire urban environments for their internal ecological benefits, but I see the urban-nature connection in another area, as well.  It is crucial that urban downtowns do not continually sprawl outwards, eating up open space and natural resources.  Cities without experienced and astute planning will be prone to unlimited growth, which is potentially devastating to surrounding areas.  Even as the regional metropolis gains traction, traditional downtowns should not become so diluted as to fade away.  In this sense, my love of the outdoors gives me a sense of commitment, urgency, and obligation to protect the environmental integrity of urban spaces.   


Amy Tomasso: An exploration of urban big box retail, Part 2


Previously, I asked whether any mediation can be found between the perverse physicality of big box retail and consumer values which demand its existence in both urban and suburban environments.  While I am not in favor of big box retail and would ideally like to see it phased out of modern society, this is not a realistic expectation.  The next best thing is to try to adapt these commercial meccas to be more amenable to consumers and more geared to the neighborhood scale. 

How would such an adaptation look?  The New York Times has published multiple articles which chronicle New York-specific improvements to downtown big box design, but the principles can be applied at a larger scale to cities everywhere.  One suggestion is to downgrade the size of big box stores, which necessitates a revamping of the internal business model.  If these companies insist on a downtown presence, they would have to limit merchandise available at these locations.  Thus, a downtown Wal-Mart would be somewhat like a mini-me of its regular sized suburban parent. 

In order to downsize, big box stores would need to first readjust their outlook from insistence on quantity, to provision of only the most necessary products.  For example, a toothbrush display at Costco would offer only one or two brands instead of the current overwhelming plethora of options.  The accumulation of all these reductions would yield a net decrease in floor space.

The two other options which were reviewed are drastically different but both offer a better alternative than the current single-story, architecturally bland state of big box.  The first is to build up.  Placing big box stores in multi-level buildings increases density and is preferable to structures which eat up whole city blocks with little visual diversity.  While I’m skeptical of the American flag steel wrap design put forth by the designers for one such structure, I think this model has its focus in the right place—reduction of sprawl.

Finally, the second model is most in-line with traditional neighborhood and mixed-used design.  This model seeks to retrofit vacant multi-story downtown buildings by placing shopping areas on the ground floor and office space above.  Windows which look in on store activity or interesting display cases woo shoppers more than the impassable concrete walls of most big box stores. 

These are thought-provoking improvements to current big box retail models, but in addition to these physical re-examinations, perhaps a larger revaluation must be made of consumer values at large.  If big box retail is potentially destructive to the physical designs of traditional urban downtowns, why do consumers continue to support these stores and create market demand for them?  Do we value material goods over the built environment?  This is an important question to ask before we continue to pollute our downtowns with big box retail. 

Amy Tomasso: An exploration of urban big box retail, Part 1


Something that has fascinated me for a long time is the presence of big box retail in urban downtowns.  It seems like such a paradox—as their name implies, big box stores are awkwardly large, impersonal, and unseemly.  They correspond to vehicular dependence and are generally accompanied by massive parking lots.  In short, big box stores seem to defy the qualities of human scale, pedestrian accessibility, and community orientation touted by movements like Smart Growth and New Urbanism.  They seem to defy the principles of urban functionality.

Yet despite this, big box retail exists in cities with a noticeable and obtrusive presence.  Along the Division Corridor of San Francisco’s SoMa district alone reside a Costco, a Sports Authority, an OfficeMax, and multiple car dealerships.  These stores are unwelcoming and make for a difficult navigational and pedestrian experience.  Why does something so noticeably counterintuitive as urban big box retail continue to persist?

In 2004, the city of San Francisco promulgated its first Formula Retail Use Control Legislation which placed strict limitations and even some outright restrictions on big box and chain retail, and it has revised these ordinances in almost every subsequent year.  Yet not every city has been as open to limiting retail ingrowth as San Francisco and are in fact encouraging it with subsidies and tax breaks, as the example of Sacramento has shown. 

The existence of big box in urban cores raises some bigger issues in my mind.  While a Walmart or Target is not ideal in a traditional urban neighborhood, the alternative development pattern to this is sprawling strip malls and isolated big box clusters.  If big box retail seems to be a fixture in our modern capitalistic society, which of these two locations—the urban or suburban setting—is the lesser of two evils?  Is there any place where the physical mass and convenience retail model of big box will not impede on community interactions and good design strategies? 

Ending KQED With Thrill, Perspective

 Stefan Norgaard is completing his capstone internship at National Public Radio (NPR – KQED San Francisco).  This is his final blog entry on the internship.  

            This is my final Urbanter Blog Entry for my quarter interning with National Public Radio (NPR-KQED) and I have been so thrilled with the experience.  Recently, I have enjoyed working with shows on topics ranging from new exhibits at the Oakland Museum of California Natural Sciences, to the regulation of e-cigarettes (as opposed to regular cigarettes), and the debate on women freezing their eggs to delay childbirth until later.  All of the topics took my academic knowledge in new directions, as I’d had little exposure to all three of these issues previously.  This last Friday afternoon, I worked on writing the background material for two exciting (and very different shows), one on Dr. Temple Grandin and her work on the autistic spectrum, and the other on Oakland Schools Superintendent Tony Smith and his upcoming resignation. 

            The preparatory research work I did for the Temple Grandin show taught me quite a bit about autism today.  Dr. Grandin, I soon discovered, is one of the leading successful autistic women in the workplace.  She has a high-functioning variety, but nonetheless continues to struggle with social interactions and other group settings.  Dr. Grandin has written a new book recently, and is touring nationally to discuss this book.  From the ranch country of northern Colorado, Dr. Grandin attributes a large amount of her successes with autism to a ranch lifestyle.  She has noticed lots of similar sensory responses in cows and humans, especially those with high-functioning autism.  Dr. Grandin also discussed how lucky she was to have been given intense attention from her parents, relatives, and schoolteachers, a technique that had been largely ignored when it comes to autism prevention and treatment but is now making a comeback.  I enjoyed learning about this new individual (whom I had previously never heard of) and the way she has become a public intellectual working on both animal sciences and also autism research. 

             I also enjoyed researching Tony Smith and the Oakland Unified Public School District.  Tony Smith will resign as Superintendent this coming June, and will leave Oakland for Chicago, citing family health issues.  Before Tony Smith leaves, however, he will talk to KQED Forum about his accomplishments.  I learned quite a bit about Tony Smith’s accomplishments in my research.  Tony Smith, himself a Bay Area native and longtime Oakland community activist, took the role of “Community School” to new levels, making the transition to community schools for all Oakland institutions.  Tony Smith was able to fix large budget gaps, raise test scores, and impose accountability standards, so many applaud his work, but he is not without his critics.  The charter school vs. public school debate will surely be mentioned in next Wednesday’s show, as will discussions of teachers’ unions and pensions. 

            The original research I did for both of these shows allowed me to learn about completely new topics of high importance.  Now and in the future, I can reference information about Temple Grandin or Tony Smith when I talk about the autistic spectrum or education policy at the Bay Area level.  Such an academic journey is the true joy of working for a place like KQED:  each and every day allows me to learn something new about the world, the Bay Area, or even myself.