Reimagining Petaluma’s Community as a 15-Minute City

The passionate locals of Petaluma called upon us to help them achieve their goal of becoming a more accessible “15-minute city,” where every resident can access most of their daily necessities within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.
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Through the American Institute of Architects' (AIA) Communities by Design program, neighborhoods that struggle to grow equitably and sustainably are reimagined with a new purpose for their communities, such as improving accessibility, with the joint efforts of the AIA, member architects, and community leaders.

This year, I was honored to be selected by AIA’s Community by Design to be part of a DAT (Design Assistance Team) in Petaluma, California. I was joined by an elite multidisciplinary group of professionals working to create more resilient communities in their respective fields.

The passionate locals of Petaluma called upon us to help achieve their goal of becoming a “15-minute city” where every resident has access to most of their daily necessities within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. The Petalumans saw this concept as key to becoming a carbon-neutral city while meeting their climate resiliency, connectivity, safety, and equity goals. Situated on the outskirts of San Francisco in wine country, Petaluma is home to many regional commuters. It is bifurcated by an ever-widening busy interstate. The Petaluma River, an asset that has yet to reach its potential, also splits this city into the historic west side and the suburban sprawl of the east side.

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Photos of the city of Petaluma above.

Our team spent four days in Petaluma. The first day was spent gathering information, touring the city, mingling with locals, and asking pointed questions. By the end of the day, we had a good understanding of Petaluma’s assets, opportunities, and challenges.

At first glance, the city appears to be quite affluent, with big suburban houses and a vibrant downtown. However, as we peeled back the layers, we discovered the underlying issues that plagued the city. It was evident from the mapping data that much of the city was experiencing high temperatures and pollution due to low tree canopy cover and car-centric culture. This was further exacerbated by socioeconomic issues around housing cost burden, food scarcity, and overall social vulnerability – especially for Petaluma’s many undocumented residents. We noticed the underserved population was missing from the conversation and implored the locals to bring them to the table.

Petaluma Team
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We held meetings with the community and local stakeholders to hear their feedback and suggestions for improving the city.

We believed that transforming Petaluma into a 15-minute city would mitigate many of these issues. Our team leader, Bergmeyer's Mike Davis, FAIA, and I began by overlaying the 15-minute walking radii on the existing urban plan. We then identified what was missing from each of those neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods needed grocery stores and child care, while others needed retail and affordable housing. This would allow each node to be self-sufficient with pedestrian or bicycle access to all services, thereby reducing the need for people to use their cars.

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Photos of the DAT team hard at work, taking the feedback received from the community and producing a report that gives a roadmap for reimagining Petaluma as a 15-minute city.

While Mike and I drew sketches illustrating these new mixed-use nodes, Aida Curtis, ASLA (Miami), and Trung Vo, PE, AICP (Denver), our landscape architect and transportation planner, focused on creating connectivity and removing barriers. They showed how reallocating existing roadway widths would allow for the development of multi-purpose pathways and bioswales. They advocated for a pedestrian-friendly design that would transform paved expanses into healthy, walkable, bikeable, resource-rich diverse corridors. We proposed a 20-acre riverfront park as well as 26 acres of restored wetlands for flood protection around Petaluma River. This would provide a framework to implement multi-modal infrastructure for more accessible mobility.

Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres, the director of Sustainability for the City of Ithaca, provided a set of recommendations for decarbonization and climate justice strategies for Petaluma. These include electrification, energy-efficient transportation, improving electrical infrastructure to meet future loads, data collection, and developing a multi-regional approach to workforce development. Abe Farkas (Portland, OR), our expert in financing economic development, provided the framework to implement our recommendations by outlining an incremental city plan, identifying alternative funding sources, and recommending district-based strategies.

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The renderings and maps above are some of the work produced during the DAT session for Petaluma's report.

We left the citizens of Petaluma with a lot to think about! And a framework for their sustainable growth policy advocacy work for the next decade. View the full AIA Communities by Design report on our recommendations for Reimaging Petaluma below.

Interested in exploring how we can help reimagine your community? Reach out to our team and say hello! To learn more about Bergmeyer's commitment to serving the greater public good, read about our new social responsibility mission statement that reinforces giving forward as a core part of our design collaborative: B The Change.