UC Berkeley must prioritize community voices in future People’s Park housing plans

Carol Christ's housing agenda contrasted with People's Park concert
Samantha Patten/Staff

Fifty years after students and community members planted the seeds that transformed a plot of unused dirt into People’s Park, people who now call the green space their community and home face a looming displacement as a result of UC housing development plans. According to statements released by UC Berkeley, this plan will include not only student housing, but also about 75 to 125 supportive housing units for individuals who are unhoused.

A group of students had the opportunity to meet with UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ to learn more about the university’s development plans. In the meeting, we shared a handful of wide-ranging concerns from community members regarding development plans, which we collected through community feedback forms that we shared while conducting outreach at the park. After our meeting with the chancellor and after reading press releases from UC Berkeley, we are excited that the chancellor and the university have expressed their desire to take a justice-based approach to development.

The university’s stance is nicely summarized in ASUC Senator and Housing Commission member Amir Wright’s statement on the development: “We can’t responsibly and in good conscience develop People’s Park if we don’t consider (the people who frequent the park’s) needs. … We need to continue to meet or exceed the services currently offered.

We stand by this sentiment. The needs of those displaced must be paramount in development. UC Berkeley is a small community within a vibrant city community and therefore must consider the impact that its actions have on not only its students, but the larger Berkeley population. But UC Berkeley needs to be held accountable for first understanding and then providing for the needs of the community.

The university’s recent removal of trees from the park, which occurred Dec. 28 during the university’s winter break, raises some concerns about its ability to follow through on its justice-based approach. The removal came as a shock to community members. People shared that those trees are embedded into the history of the park — they stand as an homage to user development, a key philosophy in the park’s formation in the 1960s, as physical manifestations of what individuals can unite to build without institutional consent.

On Nov. 19, 2018, we shared our community feedback form after our meeting with the chancellor. About a month later, those very trees were uprooted. The destruction of the trees was part of routine maintenance; the need for maintenance is not the issue in question. Instead, to fulfill its moral imperative of helping folks affected by its actions, the university needs to try to find a solution to issues that is acceptable to all or at least some parties. In this case, that would entail a solution that preserves both public safety and the meaning and history of those trees.

If the university is going to live up to its justice-based approach, it must truly consider community voices. To “meet or exceed the services currently offered” will require consistent communication at the ground level as well as transparency on the university’s end regarding the development. This will require compromise and revision. After consulting with community members who frequent the park, it is clear that People’s Park is essential in fulfilling their needs.

For food security, nutritious meals are provided through Food Not Bombs Monday through Friday, as well as sporadic food donations from neighboring businesses. The park stands as one of the few refuges from Berkeley’s laws criminalizing homelessness — for example, a Berkeley law that requires belongings to be contained within 9 square feet of space on sidewalks and plazas — as well as a place folks can sleep during the day without being harassed. The stage also serves as a gathering ground for different groups and performances throughout the year as well as a key platform of free speech that the park was built on. Lastly, the park is a hub for social services such as the university-hired social worker who does outreach for the park, connecting folks to housing, supplies and other crucial services.

Although these concerns only represent only a small subset of opinions, they show how crucial People’s Park is to the park community. The park offers much more to people on a case-by-case basis, in both concrete and less tangible regards. To continue to meet or exceed the quality of the services currently offered, the university will need to work with the community to find creative solutions that implement each crucial aspect of the park space into the development.

While the effort by the chancellor to involve the campus in supporting the unhoused community with housing is commendable, the campus and student body need to consider the specific needs of people whose livelihoods are centered in the park, which are not necessarily the same as those of the greater homeless population. Housing provisions for one group do not justify the displacement of another. For the development to truly be based on justice, everyone who could be affected by the development must have a seat at the table.

People who spend their days at the park, services providers, students, construction workers and most definitely people in the unhoused community must all have the agency to shape the park’s future. Unlike in the recent tree removals, the voices of the people who will be displaced by the park’s development must be prioritized. This means welcoming them and their voices at each step of the process, from picking the nonprofit developer to deciding the structure of the green space and the services provided with the supportive housing to identifying other necessities that must be filled in the absence of the park.

To the student community: Go to the park. Speak with people. Learn what the park means to the individuals with various backgrounds there. Hear the lived experiences of community members who have been active in the park, some of whom spearheaded the People’s Park movement 50 years ago. Write to the chancellor and tell her what you have learned. Attend protests and demand that UC Berkeley be held accountable for the impact that its actions have on a larger body of individuals who deserve a voice.

Lived experience of those embedded in the park should be valued over academic and planning expertise. The university should be accountable for the justice-based approach that it has shared for designing the future of our park. And to do so, the campus needs to bring those voices to the table, and the students must hold them accountable in following through.

Michael Sullivan is a junior, Anika Grover is a sophomore, Lekha Patil is a senior and Marbrisa Flores is a junior at UC Berkeley, and they are members of the Suitcase Clinic Advocacy Task Force.