Stuart Cohen
Ashoka Fellow since 2010   |   United States

Stuart Cohen

Stuart Cohen is creating new tools to reverse the paradigm of growth away from sprawling big box development, and to instead revitalize our existing towns and cities by planning for people, not cars—a…
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This description of Stuart Cohen's work was prepared when Stuart Cohen was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.


Stuart Cohen is creating new tools to reverse the paradigm of growth away from sprawling big box development, and to instead revitalize our existing towns and cities by planning for people, not cars—a reversal that has tremendous potential to reduce global warming pollution and improve social outcomes as the country grows by 100 million by 2050.

The New Idea

Stuart sees that creating vibrant, healthy and affordable communities requires bringing together diverse stakeholders to achieve systematic change at many scales. His first victories were at a regional scale, leading efforts for a smart growth visioning and winning billions for public transportation. The smart growth vision pointed to a better way and was quickly replicated in other major regions of California. Stuart then built diverse campaigns and partnered with agencies to raise over $6 billion toward new public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and affordable homes near transit.

Stuart and his team are now creating new tools and incentives to align the needs of citizens and neighbors, city planners and developers. The first major effort is to make community voices a constructive heart of planning a neighborhood’s future, and help avoid the oppositional dynamics that blunt progress. Through the Great Communities Collaborative, tools, training, and technical assistance help neighbors identify not just what they want to preserve, but what they may want to make more complete communities, whether safer streets, parks, or more services like health or childcare facilities.

A more recent innovation is a third-party certification for buildings, called GreenTRIP, which supports cities and developers that plan for low-traffic, low-carbon developments. GreenTRIP certification is given to projects that are designed to cut traffic, with incentives like free transit passes or CarSharing on-site, instead of excessive parking. This certification helps foster community support to get the best developments approved while giving property owners a marketing edge. Having emerged from pilot projects in the Bay Area, Stuart’s team is now spreading the approach to other regions in California, where the policy environment is supportive, and then to other parts of the country.

The Problem

Over the last 50 years, poorly planned growth that assumed people would drive for every single trip has dominated in the United States; with devastating environmental, social and economic consequences. Supported with billions in highway subsidies we’ve been paving over farms, forests, and open space at an astonishing rate. Cars now cause 80 percent of the air pollution in many urban areas, and transportation is by far the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. . The long distances between home and destinations have left many people with grinding commutes, few transit options, and less time with friends or to engage in civic activities. But the impacts are most intense for low-income families. With so many jobs moved out to corporate parks, commuters that rely on transit can now access just 1/9th as many jobs as those that are able to drive. While owning one or more cars can improve access, average transportation costs for low-income families now amounts to 30 percent of income.

Fortunately, there is tremendous demand for a new way of growing. Walkable towns and villages with a mix of housing, shops, parks and community facilities have huge market demand. And growing this way could have a tremendous impact; with enough people easily able to get to transit stations we can make public transportation more frequent and affordable. In the Bay Area, people who live and work close to transit are ten times more likely to use it. And local foot traffic keeps local businesses bustling and neighborhoods thriving and vibrant.

Compact, infill development is being supported by improved policy environments throughout the country, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland (Oregon), and Denver. In California, pioneering legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—SB 375—requires that the state’s 18 major regions develop plans for more transit-oriented communities that can reduce how much people drive.

But locally, complicated zoning and incentives challenge even the most enlightened planner or city councilmember. Builders are often required to build two or more parking spaces per home or apartment unit, even though in transit-oriented areas or walkable communities, fewer are needed. With the cost of each parking space at $45,000 for land and construction, there is less space for homes and each one becomes more expensive. It also means less or no profit for the developer, and certainly no funding left for community amenities and benefits. While this means there is a focus on high-end units, there are few policies in place locally to prevent displacement of existing, lower-income residents or businesses.

Compounding the problem is distrust among the various stakeholders. Neighbors often are left out of planning, do not trust city staff, and despise developers. They almost instinctively oppose change that seems thrust upon them from outside—gaining the moniker NIMBY—Not In My Back Yard. Unfortunately, this just leads cities and developers to craft ways to minimize their involvement. This oppositional paradigm leaves almost no room for uncovering ways to design projects or whole communities that can benefit everyone. These unhealthy dynamics block the enabling environment needed for cities to work swiftly to move policy into practice.

The Strategy

To achieve a real shift in how we plan for urban growth, Stuart sees that it will not be possible to change without a supportive policy environment, where regional and state policies reinvest in existing communities and in transportation alternatives. With early policy wins, including building coalitions that helped gain more than $6B for expanding public transportation and bike lanes in the Bay Area, Stuart and his team began to see that actual neighborhood level change would not just happen by itself or from some big regional mandate. He realized the Bay Area and other regions could only make positive change at the local level by changing incentives, deeply engaging residents in planning their communities. But more than engagement, they needed tools and resources that could bring residents, planners, and developers to explore and discover their common interests.

While there were certainly some great examples of smart planning with great outcomes, Stuart realized making just a few great communities may have some local benefits but would not garner the tremendous regional benefits of a whole region moving in that direction; benefits like greater job access, open space preservation and reduce air pollution. So in 2005 he co-founded the Great Communities Collaborative, a unique partnership of three Bay Area community foundations working in tandem with transportation, environmental, housing, and social equity groups.

By coordinating the work of experts and organizers at a regional scale they were able to work in 25 communities over three years, providing tools that help residents identify crucial needs early on, and then providing technical assistance and trainings so residents have a strong voice in shaping the future of their communities. But engagement itself is not enough. The Collaborative created a host of tools that demystified issues, for example using complex transportation models to show how growing in the right places, and doing it in a way that houses more people than cars (with reduced parking requirements) can actually reduce overall traffic, save families thousands of dollars in transportation costs, and reduce spending for cities, all while developers would be able to meet growing market demand for walkable communities.

Stuart and his colleagues have built the Collaborative to be a powerful anchor to shift policies into practice, and a participatory spirit through cross-sector resolve, aggregated resources, and an expansive shared vision. The Collaborative is now sharing this model with other regions in California and across the nation.

With the broader citizen-base mobilized and engaged on planning, Stuart and his team are taking on a critical roadblock: How to make specific developments (i.e. not just broader community plans) reinforce this more collaborative planning and support great projects. This is especially critical to break a vicious cycle where planners require vastly too much parking for new homes in walkable communities near transit. This reduces the space available for homes or community amentias. And with all that parking there is no incentive (or funding left) to promote the use of alternatives with free transit passes and so on. It also comes with an overprediction of car trips and traffic, which get the community up in arms.

But nobody trusts developers who want to do the right thing; asking for a variance from these codes opens them up to even more delay and litigation. And updating codes is not only cumbersome but can quickly get out of date.

So Stuart is helping spearhead an independent certification approach that specifically looks at new development through the a holistic lens of transportation and community impacts, addressing such questions as: Does this development maximally equip new residents with the tools, information, and opportunities they need to use public transit as an alternative to owning and using cars? Does this development make homes affordable?

This certification, called GreenTRIP, solves several problems at once, and aligns public and private interests that have been assumed to be oppositional. Essentially, the appeal of GreenTRIP to builders: Let us, a trusted third party be engaged from the design phase forward, and help you get quickly through the entitlement process by making sure the building works optimally for the community, for the environment, and for your bottom line. (To builders, every month of delay is costly, so the incentive is high to participate.) TransForm staff advise developers early in the process on what it takes to meet these standards, and help quantify the costs and benefits of various solutions. The appeal to residents is not just a much better development, but that the claims of benefits are coming from an outside community-based organization that is motivated by environmental and social outcomes, not profits.

At a micro level, what does success look like from these combined efforts? Let’s look at San Leandro, south of Oakland. Through the Great Communities Collaborative, TransForm garnered broad citizen engagement and the zoning for their downtown was changed to allow 3,500 instead of 500 homes. The final plan included community requests for an affordable childcare center, and safer streets—identified early in the process. Bolstered by tremendous citizen support for this plan, though much more “density” was now allowed a local landowner, designed ground on a 300-home development that is certified transit-friendly. By cutting its parking in half, the development offers 100 affordable units instead of the required 60, more profit for the developer, and free space on the ground floor (i.e. initially sketched as a parking lot) for the childcare center the community wanted. To get a GreenTRIP certification they have separated the cost of the parking from the rent and offer tremendous discounts on transit passes, allowing families to save more money while creating an incentive to own fewer vehicles and drive less. And the local government helps meet climate change targets. The proposal garnered huge community support, and by finding efficiencies and reducing cost, it is one of the only developments of its kind ready to break ground in the Bay Area during the financial downturn.

Begun in 2009, GreenTRIP is moving out of its pilot, having certified five buildings in San Jose and several other Bay Area locations. The developments to date are varied in size and all are residential, ranging from 100 to 800 housing units. Stuart and his team are moving to the second round, incorporating feedback from all sides. They expect to certify 10 to 12 developments in the Bay Area, then create a business plan for expanding to enthusiastic partners in Sacramento and San Diego. Stuart is already finding that a certification program may be able to nurture whole markets to innovate trip reduction measures. For example, areas whose transit agencies do not offer bulk passes, or that do not have carsharing, are trying to bring them in so that developments there can get GreenTRIP certified. And as new ideas like bikesharing take hold these can be quickly incorporated into the standards.

After, Stuart and his team will move the idea out nationally, so that GreenTRIP becomes an established norm (similar to LEED). In the first pilot, TransForm did not charge developers; but a fee-based system to cover most or all costs is being formulated. Stuart feels it is imperative for TransForm not to profit from GreenTRIP financially, or it can damage the independence and trust from the community.

TransForm is now setting up another program, TravelChoice, to provide “travel concierge” services to existing transit-oriented buildings; working with management to introduce commuter incentives and educating residents about ways to cut their car and commute costs. This has the potential to spin-off as a consulting service and supply a revenue stream to TransForm, and other transportation advocacy groups that may do it in their regions.

The Person

Stuart grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, where sprawling development made driving to every activity the norm, but hiking and skiing with his family, he gained an appreciation for the natural world. At age 17, with almost no prior exposure to social change, he saw the film Gandhi and was overcome by the powerful story of one person orchestrating an entire civil movement and redirecting the course of a nation through peaceful protest—this was his introduction to the idea that people can shape and lead positive, transformative change at a large-scale.

During college, Stuart began to apply Gandhian sensibilities about change to his passion for environmental preservation. He started a Greenpeace chapter, and engaged students in civil disobedience at proposed nuclear plants and toxic incinerators. A student of social anthropology, he also wanted to explore the world and learn from others. In 1990 Stuart traveled to Indonesia to organize the only Earth Day in that country during the event’s 20th anniversary. He also learned Nepalese and as a volunteer with the Annapurna Conservation Area Project set up a self-sustaining cultural and environmental information center in Pokhara, Nepal.

Stuart’s interest in land use began in earnest at age 24, when he moved from a cycling-friendly college town to New York City, and witnessed how cyclists had to risk their lives in a place that could be tailor made for short bike trips. He began to notice how the design of cities directs everyday choices for transportation, for housing, for social interactions, and the quality and cost of living. While pursuing a master’s in public policy at UC Berkeley, with a focus on planning, he saw that no Bay Area group was trying to impact transportation and land use at a regional level. While working with others to start a regional advocacy effort, he secured $25,000 to be able to work full-time upon graduating in 1997. Another small grant helped sustain him for 20 months working from his home, at which point multiple foundations started giving and he hired his first colleague, Jeff Hobson (who continues as TransForm’s Deputy Director). Stuart’s staff has grown to foster these collaborative and innovative programs, and now stands at 32 in three offices.

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