Santa Barbara needs our love, care, and attention. Our city has been buffeted by a tempest of fire and debris, of environmental and economic frailty, and by the ravages of COVID-19. I believe our city can emerge stronger and more resilient, if we take the time to deliberately set our course. Robust civic engagement and public discourse are fundamental components in this process.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought previous tensions straining our community to a breaking point. In earthquake seismology, we describe rupture in terms of ductile versus brittle strain. When pressure builds over a long enough period, the earth has time to accommodate the stress and have a ductile adaptive response. If the forces of pressure are too intense, or applied to an area that has already been strained, the earth will rupture catastrophically, sending reverberations of the brittle response in all directions. In a large enough earthquake, the earth rings like a bell. We are experiencing such a shock.
Prior to COVID, our community was in a state of increasing tensions and stress, but we were still able to absorb and adapt. The cumulative stress building from the natural disasters of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Debris Flow, from handling the effects of climate change and extreme drought, from a changing local economy, and a growing housing crisis left us brittle. When COVID hit us hard, the added pressures came too focused and too sustained, and like a sudden earthquake, it forced our brittle community to the point of rupture. Santa Barbara is a strong, resilient community. We will rise and rebound past this tectonic shift in our trajectory; however, we do not yet know the full measure of how far we are offset.
Now is the time we must reimagine and set our compass for what we want for the future of our city. I first came to Santa Barbara in the ’80s, when Piccadilly Square was the place to be, when Paseo Nuevo was an open paseo and not a mall, and there was still a stoplight on the freeway. I will admit to a certain nostalgia, but as a Santa Barbara City Councilmember, I also share an excitement for the possibility of reaching Santa Barbara’s full potential.
Our response requires a comprehensive vision: encouraging a diversified economy, creating policy for affordable housing, incentivizing adaptive reuse of office or retail space to housing, reducing homelessness, acknowledging and celebrating our diverse cultural history, promoting public safety and disaster resilience, enhancing our environmental legacy, and articulating the sense of place that is Santa Barbara.
In an initial response to the COVID crisis, the city has taken measures to bolster the economy downtown. We have made major, but temporary changes to State Street and its adjacent streets by creating a pedestrian promenade, allowing parklets, and encouraging outdoor dining experiences. The community response has been very favorable, with many requests to make these changes permanent.
We know what we want: a walkable and livable downtown with open spaces, paseos, and parks; affordable housing downtown; a distinct arts and culture identity; a thriving local business economy; and revitalization of public spaces at the library and De la Guerra Plaza, all accomplished with a plan for sustainability enacting measures to mitigate against the effects of climate change.
The overarching questions remain: How do these projects fit into a comprehensive Downtown Vision? How do we want to experience downtown and the waterfront? What is our identity?
These questions are not new, but they have reached a new sense of urgency. We need to plan now for what we want our community to be, well beyond the current crisis. A proactive vision, beyond the reactive designs that are pulling us through at the moment, is imperative. This is the time to set our course.
Santa Barbara’s downtown needs to reflect and be a place of welcoming for our whole community. That means you! We need to integrate input from residents, the arts community, business community, education community, the Chumash community, underrepresented communities, our neighbors experiencing homelessness, the Farmers Market community, historic preservation community, architects, the environmental community, public safety, artisans and entertainers, from the younger and the older and the inbetweener, and from those who want to live in a vibrant, inviting, inclusive, connected, and thriving downtown. A collective vision for downtown is more than a question of creating a pedestrian mall.
It is time to boldly envision and embrace all that we can be. It is time for your City Council to invite your input, to listen, and to act. I want to hear your ideas. Please contact your City Council to request a public input process.
Kristen W. Sneddon sits on the City of Santa Barbara’s Council as mayor pro tem, and she is a professor in the Earth Science department at Santa Barbara City College. You can contact her at COVIDRecovery@SantaBarbaraCA.gov.