Quality of life is largely defined by your opportunities, and in Palo Alto those opportunities largely flow from the residents. Sometimes it is the direct personal interaction. Although I know there are many talented and accomplished people in our community, I am often surprised at their achievements. For example, a Nobel Prize winner lives one block over from me and Academy Award winners a few blocks in the other direction. Another is a famous mountaineer.
Opportunities also exist because there is a critical mass of participants. For example, we have a community that not only cares deeply about its schools, but provides substantial enrichment, both from the adults and the children.
City Hall's biggest role in this is enabling or discouraging you from taking advantage of these opportunities, and that role can be small or crucial.
For example, it used to be that when your child had a play date with friends, you would park and at least briefly socialize with the other parents. But when all the parking is taken, as it is in some sections of town, you call ahead to have your child ready and honk when you arrive.
I used to be able to spontaneously go to the gym when I had gaps at my work. But with traffic congestion, I find myself scheduling those trips. By itself, this is a minor inconvenience, but for many of us there are so many of these that they become significant. But I have heard from some seniors that they have stopped going altogether to their morning exercise classes, even physical therapy, because the strain of the trip negates the benefits.
I hear from some seniors at my end of town that they have largely stopped going to lunch and activities at the Avenidas senior center because of traffic. They miss not only the activities themselves, but the friendships and the opportunities flowing from them.
Local stores are an important part of the public space. You bump into friends and neighbors there. Just seeing each other reinforces a sense of community. And casual interactions can lead to opportunities. The further away the store, the less likely these encounters. City Hall's policies have led to many of the places I shop no longer being in Palo Alto. Periodically, City Hall expresses deep concern about the well-known, highly predictable effects of its policies, but history indicates that this will be brief and have little impact.
Parks, community centers and other public facilities are also important places where people connect and community-building occurs. These facilities have not kept up with population growth. Palo Alto is a built-out city and increasing the capacity of these facilities will be very difficult and very expensive. City Hall's current policy is to allow developers to proceed with projects and pay impact fees on the speculation that City Hall will eventually find a way to provide those facilities at that price.
There are those who cite
a vibrant downtown as a key measure of quality of life here. They are talking about what is known as
café society—people who spend lots of time in restaurants and strolling. But that is a different world from mine. For me and most of the people I know, the downtown restaurants are for special occasions.
As a community organizer I have organized cultural events for my neighborhood (Barron Park) and civic activities city-wide (Emergency Preparedness). For newer and smaller groups than mine, dealing with City Hall can be daunting, and I look to improve that.
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