Nina Johnson Senior Assistant to the City Administrator of Santa Barbara | Credit: Paul Wellman

“We’ve had lots of conversations about next steps for downtown, and now we’re at a point where ideas need to be demonstrated to help us figure out whether they’re worth pursuing,” says Nina Johnson, the City of Santa Barbara’s senior assistant to the city administrator. “We need the community’s reactions to different types of test projects: expanded outdoor dining, temporary lighting installations, the underpass as a destination area, pop-ups in vacant spaces, and closing the street for a pedestrian promenade area.”  

The first demo is called “The Experiment Weekend,” and runs this Friday, April 19, and Saturday, April 20. On Friday, from 7 p.m. to midnight, the State Street underpass will be closed to vehicles so that the public can see a light art installation for free. The light displays are being produced by the Arts Fund, and there will be a small beer garden and a DJ.

Nina hopes people will eat out downtown, then check out the underpass, perhaps by taking the downtown shuttle, which will be free that evening. “We’ve received so many suggestions to redesign the underpass so I’m excited to try out the first new experience there and see how businesses benefit,” she says.

On Saturday, the 400 and 500 blocks of State Street will be closed to vehicles and there will be expanded outdoor dining from noon to 10 p.m. The 400 block will be lined with large coloring walls for all ages to decorate as well as a sip-and-paint wine garden for adults.  

“There’s risk involved in all of this,” Nina admits of closing streets, “but relatively low risk in trying them only for a day. Based on survey results, the community can see what ideas should be explored further and what ideas didn’t work after all. With the city in the lead, this is also a learning opportunity for our internal staff team to see firsthand what goes into planning events and how we can be more creative and flexible within our guidelines. This is a safe space to learn from our own event.”

Nina explained all of this in the first five minutes of our lunch. She’s serious, focused, and able to get down to business right away like no one I’ve ever dealt with before. “I really enjoyed collaborating with a small army of creative people,” she divulges, “from different business owners to local artists who are looking forward to displaying their art in a public space.”  

The Experiment Weekend is her brainchild, which she admits proudly and humbly.  “At first I didn’t see it evolving this way,” she says. “We’re writing the instruction manual. We will be doing survey work and documenting the whole experience.”  

Eventually, a permanent project will occupy the underpass, which currently has four lanes of traffic with a wide median. The pedestrian walkways will be widened by 2020.

Nina has worked in City Hall for the past two decades. She actually started as an intern in 1995, working for the planning division under Dave Davis. During graduate school for urban planning at UCLA, she did an economic analysis of downtown Santa Barbara as her final project.

“I thought Santa Barbara would be a great place to learn about urban planning,” she says. “I love the design of the city and the architecture. Part of my Masters was studying the downtown area when the Earthling Bookstore was still here and Borders and Barnes & Noble were coming in.” She’s been in her current position for the past 14 years, jumping from priority project to priority project.

Nina was born in a small town in Illinois and attended Drake University in Iowa to study public administration. She moved to California to be close to relatives in Los Angeles, and because, she explains, “I wouldn’t have to scrape ice off my windshield anymore.”

But she’s always pursued her initial dream. “I always wanted to run a city,” she confesses. “I love systems, all the different parts of the city that come together. There are so many directions to go to: urban planning and understanding design issues, environmental issues, economic development, social issues and planning, land-use and transportation. I am able to focus on all of them.“    

Despite State Street’s recent challenges and record number of vacancies, Nina remains hopeful. “We have a lot of creative and passionate people here in Santa Barbara who are ready to create a new exciting experience,” she says as our lunch finishes.

Nina Johnson answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your most marked characteristic? 

Perseverance in solving problems and getting things done. I don’t give up easily and have a lot of faith in finding solutions. I see creative potential in others.

What is your most treasured possession?

My mind. It’s important for me to learn new things and develop my mind. I was raised as a Buddhist and spent my early adult years focused on the teachings and even went on a pilgrimage in India. I did a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Sri Lanka a few years ago and it was a long lesson in awareness and how my mind works. Now, I’m more focused on yoga and developing a more regular practice.

What is your motto?

Actions speak louder than words. 

What is your current state of mind?

Curious. I try to remain in a curious mindset as much as possible. It helps me listen to others, observe carefully, and learn what people are experiencing. Listening is the first part of the creative process to understand what’s happening in the community, where do we go next, and how can I help facilitate that. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Knowing from an early age that I wanted to be a public servant and staying true to that path. It required believing in myself, trusting my instincts, and having the resilience to get through difficult situations. We all face hardship and difficulty so knowing how to get unstuck and have faith that you can overcome obstacles is key to achieving anything else.

Who do you most admire?

Thoughtful, creative, forward-thinking people who roll up their sleeves to get things done and speak up for the issues they care about.

What do you like most about your job?

Working on a wide variety of issues affecting the community, especially over 20 years as strategic priorities for the organization have changed. It’s an honor to serve the community and I give my best energy to the work I do. I love my job and working with the Santa Barbara community. 

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

To get by with less sleep. Time is the currency of life.

What do you most value in friends?

I’m very focused and serious most of the time so I enjoy being around people who are easygoing and appreciate the present moment. I surround myself with friends who have unique insights and perspectives that I can learn from and help me keep an open mind to new possibilities. They have a positive and uplifting mindset.

What is the quality you most like in people? 

Willingness to share their talent, skill, and personal time for the greater good. It’s powerful and inspiring to me. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Unscheduled time. On most days, I’m racing against the clock for deadlines, meetings, phone calls, and even getting to an exercise class. Days with breathing room make me happy and I come up with my best ideas in that unscheduled space of time. Throw in any combination of yoga, running, a bike ride, nature, symphony or ballet, lecture, art exhibit, and time with friends will add joy to my day.

What is your greatest fear?

Mediocrity and contributing in any way to mediocrity around me.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Travel. It’s essential to my life and strengthens my fire. I love to see how different cities function and how much we share in common.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Dishonesty. It’s difficult to rebuild trust once it has been lost.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 

Revitalization, particularly for our downtown area. It means something different to everyone. I think of energy channels in Chinese medicine and how we can rebalance our chi in an urban environment. We don’t have a vocabulary to describe good design, flow, whimsy, and a sense of wonder but we know it when we see it and feel it.

Which talent would you most like to have?

To speak a language other than English. I speak some French but not enough to be fluent. It’s one of my regrets in life that I haven’t devoted enough time to communicating in other languages.

Where would you most like to live?

Anywhere with a focus on a healthy lifestyle, natural environment, cultural richness, and creative energy. I think of Spain, Indonesia, New Zealand, and British Columbia. Santa Barbara is a good fit.

Who makes you laugh the most? 

I find humor in a lot of settings, especially in mundane daily activities and work assignments. We need moments of levity wherever possible.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has earned her place in history. I identify with her work ethic, bold action, and quiet strength.

On what occasion do you lie?

Poker for sure.


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