Year-in-Review 2019

Not until the first week of December or so did I realize that the change of the year also ushered in a change of decade. My ignorance must have been due to equal parts denial and distraction.

The arbitrary change of the tens digit means that I got to contribute to more than my usual top books of the year (for Planetizen) and top California planning stories of the year (for CP&DR). I got to write decadal versions of both: books of the 2010s and California in the 2010s

As I write in the introduction to the top planning stories of the decade, ten years is hardly a long time in urban planning — at least not in California. In China it would be a different story. And yet, California has plodded along. Plenty of aspects of urban life have improved — and plenty have not. 

2020 also marks ten years that I have written for and/or edited, in some capacity or another, the California Planning & Development Report. I thank publisher Bill Fulton for his support, collegiality, and patience.  

Herewith are some highlights from 2019…

The Urban Mystique: Notes on California, Los Angeles, and Beyond

If urban planning takes a long time, and writing a book takes a long time, imagine how long it takes to write a book about urban planning. I’ve been announcing my forthcoming collection of essays, reprinted largely from CP&DR, for at least two years. I worked hard on it last year, and this year it’s really happening. I have the uncorrected proof, and — so you know we mean business — we have a web page. Target publication date: April or thereabouts. 

Urban Planning

My editorial ramblings around California took me to, among other places, El CerritoSacramento, and the greater Bay Area. I got schooled in the impact of the housing crisis on education, and I got really wonky with California’s new metrics for measuring developments’ transportation impacts. The big policy debate surrounded Senate Bill 50 (concise summary here). I took a detour to Fort Worth too. 


After five years of construction delays and silent treatments from their PR people, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture finally opened. I happened to be in the Gulf region shortly thereafter. I believe I’m the first Western journalist to write about it in-person: Snohetta’s Saudi Arabian Wager. (Not an endorsement of the project or of Saudi Arabia – not by a long shot.)

Similarly far afield, I wrote about China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative. Closer to home, I ventured into Warriors territory to cover San Francisco’s new Chase Center. Down the Bay in San Jose, I think a monumental tower is a silly idea

Book Reviews

For reasons I still can’t fathom, Samuel Stein decided to lay the blame for gentrification at the feet of urban planners. Christopher Ketcham wrote a heroic takedown of the administration of federal lands in the West. As Paul Goldberger tells it, the history of cities and the history of baseball stadiums are inextricably, and fascinatingly, intertwined. Of my review, Goldberger himself tweeted, “Thanks @jrstephens310 for this wonderful piece, and for engaging so totally with the book. I’m very grateful.” Not bad, right?  


Independent stores are more than just places to buy things; I lost one of my favorites, Adventure 16. I went to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s annual journalists forum, in Phoenix this year, and came away with a greater appreciation of the Colorado River. A railroad is kind of like a river; we will see how a shortened high-speed rail system serves the cities of the Central Valley. I tried to make sense of the infinitely tortuous debates about gentrification, and I tried to make the case that a statewide commitment to density would make all of California better off. 

Assembly Bill 5

Finally, I can’t help but call attention to a dire threat facing journalism. As if declining readership and fire sales by private equity firms weren’t bad enough, California passed Assembly Bill 5 last year. You may know it as the “Uber Law,” designed to prevent exploitation of rideshare drivers. Naively, I wrote about it purely in that context. Unfortunately, the law covers all freelancers.

While some industries got exemptions, journalists — despite such trifles as First Amendment protection and a centuries-old tradition of freelancing — are severely restricted. It has the potential to be devastating to individual journalists and to the free press in California. Fortunately, reforms are apparently in the works. If you are so inclined, please call your local legislators and ask them to repeal, or at least amend, AB 5.

And please support your local journalists and publications.