Revisiting Oceano Action Plan
By James Chrasta and Simeon Johnson
MCRP team members in front of historic Oceano Train Depot
For two quarters, a team of 13 Cal Poly Master of City & Regional Planning (MCRP) students worked to develop an action plan for the small coastal community of Oceano. The planning studio, taught by CRP faculty member Kelly Main, focused on using outreach to create a plan that aligns with city residents’ most critical issues. A significant component of the community engagement process was a door-to-door survey conducted in English and Spanish. A sampling method of neighborhood blocks was utilized to ensure the survey results were representative of residents’ opinions with a 95 percent confidence interval and a six-point margin of error. The 275 surveys were gathered by the MCRP studio and seven other Spanish-speaking Cal Poly students, four of whom were also from the City and Regional Planning Department. After conducting the survey, the students used the results to inform the priorities outlined in the action plan, which they submitted to local agencies in June 2022.
These surveys were intended to reach all the demographics that account for the populace of Oceano. During the first quarter of the project, the team created a background report, gathering data from the U.S. Census and other government agencies to get a sense of the town’s makeup.
“Ultimately, the residents are the experts on their community,” says graduate student Olivia Salter. “We had the opportunity to actually go into the community and start doing door-to-door surveys, pop-up events, and focus groups.”
The student’s research showed a 48 percent Latinx population, which had been largely overlooked in previous plans for the area’s development. “It’s been challenging for previous plans to reach the Latinx community,” Main confirmed, citing language differences as one obstacle.
1. Door-to-door survey carried out following COVID-19 protocol 2. MCRP students at a survey booth in Oceano, ca
To reach this “unheard” population, the department included translators to assist the class in surveying Spanish-speaking community members. Graduate student Reyes Gonzalez said that speaking to residents in their native language encouraged their participation and improved the accuracy of the survey results. “About 95 percent of Spanish speakers would take the survey after seeing it presented in Spanish,” he noted.
Vyshnavi Shetty, one of the students coordinating the survey, acknowledged the difficulty in achieving this objective.
“Outreach to this extent was new to all of us students, and this meant that there was a need for a lot of coordination and flexibility,” she explained. “I came forward and made sure our team had the right tools and guidelines when they went out for outreach. I also helped conduct workshops, organize teams, review reports, and update survey maps to reflect the changing needs of the outreach better.”
During outreach, surveyors encountered closed properties or inaccessible spaces like RV parks, multi-family dwellings or rentals. Many of these inaccessible areas were difficult to identify in Google Maps, so a visit ahead of time was necessary to check conditions on the ground. The team also conducted multiple workshops in-class and on-site in Oceano about COVID-19 protocol and other surveying guidelines to ensure they effectively served the community and not put residents at risk.
Shetty expressed her appreciation for the team members’ hard work and highlighted the importance of strong coordination and communication to make the project possible.
“Our team can now testify that we worked along with the community to create an action plan for the community, and we are grateful to Dr. Main and the community at Oceano for giving us this opportunity,” she said.
Throughout the process, Shetty says she found the Oceano community very welcoming and passionate about the changes the students wanted to establish.
“One of the goals of planning should be to give agency to historically overlooked communities,” said Main. “It’s one of the reasons I left planning practice formally and became a professor.”
1. Oceano community members contribute to MCRP poll 2. Outreach incorporates visiting the Oceano community at various locations, including the Memorial Park Playground
After completing the surveys and analyzing the results, the team developed a set of recommended actions for the county, local agencies, and community members, ranging from low-cost initiatives that could be implemented quickly to more capital-intensive ones that could be considered in the community’s long-term planning. When developing the plan, the class split into four groups focusing on the following:
— Housing, economics, and food access.
— Complete neighborhoods and mobility.
— Environment and sustainability.
— Community committees.
Some of the top priorities they outlined include:
— Promoting the construction of multifamily developments and accessory dwelling units to combat the housing shortage.
— Upgrading streets to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, including access from the town to the dunes.
— Improving overall flood control measures.
They also recommended establishing a neighborhood watch program, a local parks and open space enhancement committee and partnering with nonprofit solar providers to provide the community with affordable green energy. After completing the report, it was submitted to local agencies:
— The Oceano Economic Development Council.
— The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
— The Oceano Advisory Council.
— The Vitality Advisory Council of Oceano.
Main defines the report as an action plan and adjacent policy document. “It lists actions that could be taken by the county, the community and other agencies to address the improvements that the community has asked for, as well as preserve the things in the community that they are concerned about preserving.”
“It’s a list of best practices,” Salter added. These recommendations were centered on public health, equity and sustainability, avoiding larger-scale planning issues like the debate surrounding whether the airport should be redeveloped. Salter’s focus was specifically on preserving the sense of culture in Oceano.
“Oceano has a very strong culture and a lot of good cuisines. I wanted to implement programs that would strengthen the sense of community that already exists there,” she said.
Salter also suggested adding art in public spaces to enhance the mental and emotional well-being of the residents. Main supported this initiative, reaffirming a strong relationship between planning and public health.
Once the plan has been submitted to the relevant agencies, it is out of the students’ hands. Whether it goes into effect depends on the county and state. The community’s budget and funding options will also determine which elements of the plan can be implemented and how long it will take for items to be completed.
Revisiting the Oceano Action Plan
According to the Oceano Advisory Council, Oceano’s situation remains unchanged. The council believes part of the issue is that Oceano was removed from its established county representation and could not vote this year because of the latest redistricting choice.
In January 2023, Jimmy Paulding, a Cal Poly city and regional planning alum, was sworn in as the new District 4 County Supervisor, effectively representing Oceano and replacing the previous supervisor, Lynn Compton.
“Supervisor Paulding reviewed the action plan developed by Dr. Main’s MCRP planning studio when it was created, and he deeply values the interest and efforts of Cal Poly, the students, and the community members who participated in its development,” said Paulding’s Legislative Assistant James Sofranko. “In the outreach portion of the project, community members expressed a wide range of projects and changes that they envision for their town, and Main’s studio worked to formalize these ideas into actionable measures.”
Working from various resources, including these recommendations, Paulding has selected initiatives he believes best encapsulate the community’s most pressing needs, the most feasible short-term goals, and the projects residents of Oceano can unite around.
The new administration’s top priorities include the following:
— Expanding the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program.
— Conducting flood control and drainage improvements.
— Promoting active transportation by increasing connectivity to the beach to make the community more pedestrian and bike friendly.
Paulding’s team will also collaborate with locals to implement community beautification projects, introduce a farmer’s market, and complete park improvements like replacing the Oceano Memorial Park playground with an improved American Disabilities Act-compliant facility that is inclusive for all ages and abilities.
While specific measures could take decades to implement fully, some of the significant initiatives outlined in the Oceano Action Plan could be completed in the next few years.
In the long term, projects like this are a valuable Learn by Doing experience, serve surrounding communities and improve the quality of life of San Luis Obispo County residents.
“Supervisor Paulding strongly believes widespread community engagement is paramount for revitalizing a community like Oceano. Student involvement, from MCRP and other programs, along with the existing volunteer efforts of local community groups, will continue to play a critical role in the future of Oceano revitalization and improvement projects,” Sofranko concluded.
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