Despite Palo Alto's recent efforts to promote social justice, the percentage of residents who believe the city is doing a good job in welcoming people with diverse backgrounds is at its lowest point in nearly two decades, a newly released survey shows.
The downward trend was among the findings in the National Citizens Survey, an annual measurement of residents' feelings about city government, community services and their overall satisfaction with life in Palo Alto. The city has conducted the annual survey in partnership with a national polling firm since 2003, though City Manager Ed Shikada is proposing in his new budget a switch to a biennial schedule.
In many areas, Palo Alto continued to receive high marks from residents, who took the survey by Polco/National Research Center between late December and early February. According to the survey, many residents think Palo Alto is an enjoyable place to visit (70% gave the city a "good" or "excellent" mark in this category), a pretty good place to work (82%), a great place to live (88%) and a more-or-less-decent place to retire (52%). And much like in prior years, most respondents gave their immediate environs stellar marks, with 89% calling their particular neighborhood "good" or "excellent."
There was some variation, however, among different parts of the city. Whereas residents in downtown and Old Palo Alto were almost unanimous in praising their neighborhood, with 97% giving it top ratings, the number dipped to 85% in Midtown and 83% in Barron Park and Ventura. Overall, 93% of respondents from north Palo Alto gave their neighborhoods top ratings, compared to 85% of those in south Palo Alto.
Yet the survey — coming at the end of a year in which residents took to the streets to protest racial injustice after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer — also pointed to growing concerns among residents about the city's record on diversity and inclusion. When respondents were asked about Palo Alto's "openness and acceptance of the community toward people of diverse backgrounds," 59% gave the city "good" or "excellent" marks, down from 72% who did so in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The proportion who thought the city did well in this category was in fact the lowest since the city began the annual survey in 2003.
Police services continue to receive generally positive ratings from residents, but the number of residents who rated them as "good" or "excellent" dipped, going from 93% in 2017 and 89% in 2018 to 78% last year, according to the survey.
The survey was conducted just as the council was advancing a broad "race and equity" initiative that includes the revision of police policies, review of City Hall hiring practices and the facilitation of community conversations about race. Since the June protests, the council has commissioned public art to support the Black Lives Matter movement, worked with the Police Department to revise its use-of-force policies and asked its Human Relations Commission to create a history of Black and brown residents in Palo Alto.
The city's record on police accountability, however, has been spotty over the last several years. Since December 2019, the council had reduced the scope of the independent police auditor to exclude probes of internal complaints — a move that kept the auditor from releasing a report pertaining to a racist comment that a white police supervisor made to a Black officer in 2014. (Since the survey was conducted, council members agreed to expand the auditor's scope to include more types of use-of-force incidents. They are now also considering restoring the auditor's power to review internal complaints).
The city has also faced three lawsuits over the past two years over use of force by police officers, one of which it had settled in November 2019 for $572,500.
And in another blow to transparency and accountability, the Police Department abruptly switched in January its police radio transmission to an encrypted frequency, effectively barring the public, including the media, from using scanners to monitor police activity.
Earlier this year, the council signaled its commitment to continuing its efforts on racial equality and police accountability when it named "social justice" as one of its official priorities for 2021.
"We moved the needle a bit in 2020 thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, but we can't forget that those problems continue to exist and we can't forget that we need to continue to reevaluate our changes and look at best practices going forward to see if we can continue to move that needle forward," council member Greer Stone said at the priority-setting retreat.
Much like in the past, the vast majority of residents surveyed reported that they feel safe in Palo Alto, with 86% giving the city either an "excellent" or "good" rating in this category.
Despite respondents' general feeling of safety, however, residents were also more likely in 2020 than in years past to have reported a crime to the police department, according to the survey. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents said they had not reported a crime in the prior 12 months, while in the prior five years, the percentage ranged from 85% to 87%. (The survey did not speculate about how the pandemic had affected the level of crime in the city, although some respondents claimed that it was increasing.)
The feelings of safety also varied by neighborhood. According to the survey's geographic breakdown, the proportion of those who had reported a crime in the preceding 12 months was markedly higher in Midtown (26%) and in the survey area that includes College Terrace and Evergreen Park (24%) neighborhoods than in Crescent Park and Duveneck/St. Francis (13%).
The survey also indicated that most residents aren't particularly optimistic about the "overall direction Palo Alto is taking," with only 4% giving the city "excellent" marks and 30% rating it as "good," while 34% said "fair" and 17% marked "poor." On this question, Palo Alto's ranked 293rd out of the 332 jurisdictions that were surveyed across the nation.
The percentage of people who raved about the "quality of services" that the city provides has also dipped, with 73% giving Palo Alto high marks, down from 86% in 2017 and 82% in 2018. At the same time, residents gave the city a higher grade than in past years when asked about traffic enforcement, street repair and street cleaning. And when asked about traffic signal timing, the percentage of residents who gave Palo Alto a high ranking jumped from 45% in 2018 to 59% in 2021.
Housing, a perennial area of concern for residents and city leaders alike, remained so in 2020, according to the survey. The percentage of respondents who gave the city positive reviews in the category of "variety of housing options" went up from 13% in 2018 to 27%. However, just 9% of those surveyed gave Palo Alto high marks in the perennially problematic category "availability of affordable quality housing."
And when residents were asked to name one change that the city could make that would make them happier, housing topped the list for 19% of the respondents, with many urging the city in open-ended responses to "build more housing," while others called for more "affordable housing" and still other suggested that the city limit development ("Stop allowing for mega homes to invade neighborhoods").
Residents also indicated that they aren't particularly thrilled about the quality of new developments, with only 38% giving the city positive reviews in this category last year, down from 50% in 2018.
When it comes to the "built environment," a category that includes buildings, parks and transportation facilities, attitudes diverged across the neighborhoods. While 83% of the respondents from downtown and Old Palo Alto gave the city the top grades in this category, only 67% of those from Barron Park and Ventura did so, a percentage that may reflect Ventura's status as the city's nucleus of construction over the past three years.
After housing, the most popular topics of concern raised by residents were traffic and general government operations, which garnered 11% and 7% of the responses, respectively. Some residents urged the city to coordinate traffic signals or improve street conditions. Others requested better fiscal responsibility, shorter council meetings and speedier action on crucial decisions.
The council is scheduled to discuss the survey results on May 17.