For students, by students
City enlists Chico State classes to improve south campus neighborhood
Back when he was a student at Chico State, Anthony Burgess commuted to school from his house on Pomona Avenue on a bicycle, crossing the tracks on Fifth Street, hanging a left on Orange and riding along rows of old houses in the south campus neighborhood.
He recognized the beauty of the student neighborhood’s old-growth heritage trees and historic homes, but as a civil engineering student, Burgess also knew how badly the area needed improvements to its pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Most of the roadways were cracked and crumbling; some areas, lacking adequate street lighting, fell into near-total darkness at night; and perhaps most relevant to safety, the trees and parked cars made it hard to see vehicle traffic coming around corners—even in daylight.
Not much has changed since Burgess graduated last December.
“The neighborhood is pretty rough,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It needs some simple fixes, and also some harder fixes.”
Burgess is one of hundreds of past and present Chico State students who have contributed to the South Campus Neighborhood Project, a comprehensive, three-year study coordinated by the university’s Resilient Cities Initiative and the city’s Department of Engineering.
Having previously assessed the state of the neighborhood’s historical character, urban forest, transportation, street lighting and crime, students recently completed the project’s second phase, which included pitching ideas for actual improvements. The goal is to present a final plan for approval from the Chico City Council in early 2019 and then potentially secure grant funding to turn the students’ ideas into reality.
According to Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s director of public works-engineering, the project represents a rare opportunity for students to help shape the neighborhood many of them live in.
“It’s a tangible thing they can see and understand rather than some theoretical homework assignment,” he said. “They can walk down the street and understand what the project is all about.”
The south campus neighborhood is a six-by-seven-square-block area adjacent to both downtown and the university. Originally laid out by Chico’s founder, John Bidwell, in the 1860s, it is the city’s oldest neighborhood—and it needs significant safety upgrades.
That point was driven home in 2015 by the deaths of Chico State students Nickolas Klein, 21, and Nicholas Castellanos, 18, both of whom were fatally struck by vehicles near campus. That spring, a petition for stop signs to replace yield signs in all residential areas of downtown gathered 1,200 student signatures, and a separate petition calling for more street lights gathered 500 more. In response, the City Council fast-tracked replacing several yield signs with stop signs and approved a long-term study of traffic in the south campus neighborhood. The panel also directed city staff to enlist the help of Chico State classes to collect data.
The city-university partnership is based on the University of Oregon’s Sustainable Cities Initiative, a think tank aimed at cross-disciplinary approaches to solving community sustainability issues that has been replicated by dozens of universities across the country. Using that model, the South Campus Neighborhood Project has put more than 500 Chico State students to work across eight academic departments and four colleges.
Burgess, for instance, was in charge of collecting data on pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the student neighborhood, which involved setting up infrared counters and laying down pneumatic air tubes to detect cyclists.
“The greatest aspect for the student population is that any major can get involved,” he said. “Many student populations get to give a piece to a greater whole.”
The students have focused on improving public rights-of-way and “complete streets”—those that are friendly not only to motorists, but also to bicyclists, pedestrians and disabled people of all ages.
Fletcher Alexander oversees the South Campus Neighborhood Project as Chico State’s sustainability programs manager. He says some of the ideas are pretty far out—like solar roadways at a cost of $1 million per block—and others are more basic, such as cutting back foliage to increase streetlight visibility and turning Third and Fourth streets into one-ways, as they are downtown, to cut down on traffic conflicts. And a number of improvements have already been made due to increased attention on the area, Alexander said, including striped bike lanes on Ivy Street, stoplights where Ivy crosses Eighth and Ninth streets and new LED streetlamps installed by PG&E throughout the neighborhood.
That’s progress, but the neighborhood needs many more streetlights to ensure that students aren’t walking home in the dark, Alexander said: “Certainly, people would feel safer, and hopefully would be safer.”
Whether the city lands grant funding to complete the project remains to be seen, but any such proposal may have a competitive edge because the plan is the result of a student-driven movement, Ottoboni said.
“Any time it’s a community-led effort, that helps your project,” he said.
After graduation, Burgess got a job as an engineering technician for the city of Poulsbo, Wash. He says when it comes to Chico, he’s proud of what he and his fellow students have already accomplished.
“It gave us a sense of ownership; you knew that you were benefiting future generations of students,” he said. “It’s a neat thing to be able to put your finger on that project and say, ‘Yeah, I did that.’ There aren’t a lot of school projects like that with real-world impacts.”