Tech tools and boisterous public meetings: Building support for community planning in the San Francisco Bay Area

Monday, April 28, 2014 - 5:22 pm
Erica Wood


Silicon Valley Community Foundation is in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area, close to the campuses of companies like Google, Facebook and Apple. Companies like these have made the region a leader in the global economy and a hub of innovation. The Bay Area is home to a diverse population of more than 7 million people, a number expected to grow by 2 million by 2040. Where will these people live and work? What impact will they have on our air, water, open space, traffic and climate?

These were among the questions SVCF grappled with during an extensive community input process that began in 2007. We learned that while land-use planning is geared toward improving communities’ quality of life, local residents – particularly those who are low-income, immigrants or people of color – are often disengaged from the planning process. We realized we had a unique opportunity to help shape local and regional planning efforts and to get residents involved in making choices about the design of their future communities. These choices required understanding, dialogue and ownership based on accurate information, education and engagement.

This post is part of the #CF100 Series of blog posts. The Council on Foundations is marking the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first community foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, by highlighting the roles of community foundations with this series.

This was the impetus for Envision Bay Area. In this two-year initiative, SVCF partnered with area nonprofits and government agencies to engage residents and community leaders in conversations about growth.

At a series of 10 public forums, more than 800 participants came together, including those who were fully on board with walkable communities near transit, those for whom high-density urban centers hold zero appeal, and everyone in between. About one-fifth of the participants had never attended a regional planning meeting. Meetings were sometimes very contentious, with some residents’ goal of disrupting the proceedings providing a real learning experience for us! Typically we lament the fact that our convenings attract like-minded people – but these sessions were truly representative of multiple and sometimes diametrically opposed voices. Real democracy in action.

In that period, SVCF also developed an interactive web-based simulation tool to provide graphic illustrations of the various ways in which a city or community can grow, from a continuation of suburban sprawl to high-density, inner-city growth.

You can read the full brief about Envision Bay Area online and try the web tool at

Through Envision Bay Area, SVCF took advantage of a sophisticated new online tool, substantial knowledge of the issues, and experience facilitating community-wide dialogue to expand its leadership. We brought new voices into the regional planning process, and many have remained involved. The effort brought government and nonprofit stakeholders together to agree on a common direction for public input on policy decisions about future growth. Our government partners decided to use these sessions as the official community input for Plan Bay Area, a long-range transportation and land-use strategy for our region.

Envision Bay Area also affirms the powerful roles that community foundations can play beyond that of funder. As the capacity of government and other public institutions to address critical issues diminishes, community foundations can step in to mobilize diverse citizens in discussions to solve challenging problems. This is an essential part of a healthy democracy.

Erica Wood is senior vice president of community leadership and grantmaking at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

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