Humphrey the Whale. Illustration courtesy of Nick Gaston
In 1985 and then again in 1990, Humphrey the Humpback Whale, deviated from his Pacific Ocean migration path and found himself 60 miles inland of the coast of San Francisco near the city of Rio Vista. Because his wayward journeys (and the ensuing successful rescues) made national headlines, you may have heard of this place: population 7,563.
Do not be deceived by the modest number of citizens: this small Delta community is mighty. Very recently, a group of citizens rallied to rise above predicaments such as a near-municipal fiscal collapse in 2009, by composing a well-written application (Rio Vision). They were awarded the help of a Regional Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT). R/UDATs are sought out by the communities themselves. They can help assist with responding to issues such as unfocused growth, gridlock, crime, loss of identity.
The primary purpose of the R/UDAT process is to essentially help communities become more livable. Since 1967, these teams have assisted more than 150 areas by coming in, assessing the problems and providing solutions in the form of executive summaries—summaries which do not read as instruction manuals, but rather a list of recommendations with detailed analytics as to why. Rio Vista is the latest community to receive one such summary.
Direct issues were discussed, analyzed and faced. Take Rio Vista’s waterfront and downtown for example. According to Rio Vision’s request : “The downtown has a 1950’s undisturbed look and feel … buildings have facades that obscure the charming brickwork … some buildings look dated. Storefronts have little curb appeal.” Also, the community has “a charming but lackluster core city and waterfront.” In direct answer to this, the R/UDAT explicitly stated the downtown and waterfront should not be considered two different areas but rather the “Waterfront will catalyze down town through downtown expansion, restaurants that help provide access to the river, dense housing to build downtown’s critical mass, built around public space.” (p. 2)
Because Rio Vista was armed and prepared with an already established vision, the process went that much smoother. “Rio Vista had a lot of enthusiasm built up, so we hit the ground running. This was a very ideal case for us,” said Erin Simmons, Director of the AIA Center for Communities by Design.
Architect and member of the Rio Vision steering committee, Mark McTeer, AIA, was skeptical upon entry of this project as momentum on situations such as these do have a tendency to fade. But that was not the case. “I could hardly believe what they were achieving and for the first time in almost a decade, people were starting to talk and dream again. Everything seemed rooted in optimism.”
The R/UDAT team consisted of nine professionals from across the country. 10 college students from the San Francisco and Sacramento area also joined in. Consumnes River College student Daniel Christman, AIAS, (and AIACC’s Student Director North), happened to be one. “It was a great opportunity to observe how design professionals analyze a community in need.” But the attendees and participants were not limited to the experts. 50 community members attended the targeted focus groups and 350 citizens attended a Town Hall meeting. Once assembled, several action-packed days (and nights) were spent coming up with suggestions and solutions. There were short-term goals set, (p.77), as well as long-term. Some basic ideas and objectives: calm Highway 12; (see the “road diet” section, p. 9 -31), and to build a viable business community in the downtown area by revitalizing and creating a stronger identity.
According to McTeer, there are now more volunteers and potential projects and Rio Vision is planning on accommodating them. Simmons said about the experience, “This is what a project can be.”
The fire was ignited, but the passion to start this adaptation of the community was already in place. McTeer articulately wrote of the value of the process coupled with the value of the people: “… The change in attitude oddly reminds me of a scene from The Wizard of Oz. Nine professionals flew in and drew back the curtains and with a little faith and encouragement, granted a struggling community something they had all along: brains, courage, and heart.”
Brains, Heart, Courage. Illustration courtesy of Nick Gaston
Maybe Humphrey knew something we didn’t. Perhaps he felt the spirit of this place and its people and wanted to take a swim in some freshwater to check it out. Let’s hope, for his sake, he doesn’t return again. But humans from all locales are absolutely welcome to visit. For communities in need some insight and assistance, may Rio Vision serve as inspiration.
Read the full report here. If anyone is interested in a live, first-person account, they may want to consider attending AIA East Bay’s event Wed., Apr. 30. Three members from the Rio Vision steering committee will be presenting. Visit the AIA East Bay website for information and registration.