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Making Cool ‘Cooler’: The Urban Sustainability Accelerator assists a community at a crossroads

By Victor Tran, Master of Urban and Regional Planning student

In the winter and spring of 2017, PSU’s Urban Sustainability Accelerator (USA) dispatched a small team of Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) students and USA staff to California's Gold Country. Fellow MURP Steve Rosen and I spent three months working to understand how to improve pedestrian safety and sense of place in the commercial center of Cool, California. Cool—yes, that’s its name!—is an unincorporated community at the junction of two highways in El Dorado County. It is one of several communities in the Sacramento region that received assistance from the USA program this year in implementing sustainability plans and policies.

Part of the Cool team: Judy Walton, Steve Rosen, and Victor Tran

Working with El Dorado County, El Dorado County Transportation Commission, and Caltrans as key partners, and with funding from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, we began the project with a series of in-depth phone interviews with local business owners, residents, and employees. Our project team identified a set of common concerns the community wished to address: improving parking and congestion during major recreational events, enhancing pedestrian safety, and creating a greater sense of place and connectivity in the commercial center, which is divided by the two highways.

The insights gained from the stakeholder interviews informed our research, and with guidance from USA director Robert Liberty and program administrator Judy Walton, we created a spectrum of design ideas and place-making strategies addressing the main concerns. Our “book of ideas” included connections designed with the pedestrian in mind, a traffic roundabout or a raised intersection to slow vehicles, an expanded commercial boardwalk to enhance the shopping experience and allow outdoor dining, and improved signage.

PSU architecture professors B.D. Wortham-Galvin and Jeffrey Schnabel (two of USA’s 115 Expert Advisors) generously offered their own professional suggestions, including a list of low-cost place-making ideas the community could begin implementing on their own. The project team also sent USA Expert Advisor and urban strategist/retail consultant Michele Reeves to Cool for a morning of consulting on how to improve the shopping experience in the commercial center and generate more customers.

The project team traveled to Cool in mid-March to meet and talk to the interviewees and project partners, and hold a well-attended open house that drew over 60 members of the community to the local church to hear our presentations, comment on design sketches and renderings, and draw their ideas on maps of the local area. The input gathered from these activities was taken back to Portland, where the project team is working on the final version of the report that will ultimately be handed off to El Dorado County.

Overall, it was a great learning experience for me because the research happened in the heart of Cool with direct involvement with its residents. We hope that Cool continues building on the valuable resources it has in moving towards a more sustainable future.

About the Urban Sustainability Accelerator

USA provides a year-long program of expert advice and assistance for participating cities in implementing an important sustainability project or program. Each city creates an "implementation team" with leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The implementation teams form a cohort for mutual learning and support. The year begins and ends with a convening of the teams in Portland.

Victor Tran presenting the USA team's ideas at the Cool community open house