On March 15, the San Jose City Council voted to prioritize an initiative to relocate homeless encampments away from sensitive creek habitat, while also providing essential services such as sanitation and trash removal, as one of the top two priorities for 2021. The Urban Greening initiative was not chosen for this year, but remains on the short list of priorities for the future. We’re pleased that the City Council ranked these environmentally-focused initiatives highly when deciding how to allocate staff time and resources for the future.
Protecting Both Creeks and Unhoused Population
San Jose’s unhoused population has grown significantly as a result of the pandemic, and encampments in creek corridors have multiplied. With no options for sanitation or trash removal, unhoused people cannot avoid having a negative impact on the water quality and habitat of these riparian areas. It is generally agreed that tactics such as “sweeps,” where homeless encampments are forcibly removed and people’s belongings are confiscated, are ineffective. Displaced residents just move to a new location along the creek, still without trash disposal services. Furthermore, the traumatizing effects of these sweeps on the unhoused population cannot be ignored.
Green Foothills, together with 7 other environmental groups, urged the San Jose City Council to support a comprehensive management strategy focused on improving protection of and access to sensitive public spaces and community institutions including creeks, trails, and schools, while being sensitive to the voices and lived experience of unhoused residents, and without criminalizing homelessness. A critical part of this is improving on-the-ground conditions for people living in encampments, including providing them with hygiene and sanitation services, trash removal, and social services.
Urban Greening Implementation Planning Delayed, But Still On Short List
At the March 15 City Council meeting, City staff was clear that due to the challenges of responding to COVID-19, only two new priorities could be added to the existing staff workload. The homeless encampment management initiative received enough votes to be in the top two, but the Urban Greening Implementation Plan only received enough votes to be placed on the “priority backlog” list (along with 6 other initiatives).
Urban Greening means the utilization of green spaces, tree canopy, rain gardens, and bioswales to improve water quality, reduce flooding, and promote biodiversity and climate resilience. San Jose already has policies in many of its existing planning documents that encourage urban greening, but the actual implementation of these policies has been lagging behind. With San Jose undertaking a massive street repaving program over the next few years, we hope that the City Council will recognize the need to prioritize Urban Greening next year, since if street trees and bioswales are not included when repaving happens, those critical opportunities will be lost.
As our region continues to struggle with the impact of the COVID-10 pandemic, we know that cities cannot meet every need right away. We will continue to advocate to ensure that cities recognize the importance of prioritizing environmentally-focused initiatives along with their other pressing needs.