Member Commentary: Twin Falls, ID vs. San Bruno, CA

As part of this year's Strongest Town Contest, we've invited Strong Towns members and activists to provide guest commentary on each of the towns in our first round based on Strong Towns principles. While these commentators have not had the chance to visit each town themselves, they read the town's application to the contest, as well as conducted additional background research on the community.

Today, we've got two commentaries on the contest's first match-up: Twin Falls, ID vs. San Bruno, CA. Visit this page to see each town's submission, then read on below to hear a Strong Towns member perspective on these communities. Contest voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 9.

Strong Towns member Kevin and his son, Clovis

Strong Towns member Kevin and his son, Clovis

Twin Falls, Idaho

Commentary by Kevin Ngo, a Strong Towns member from Chicago, IL.

Land Use and Transportation

A large part of the town seems to have been developed after the advent of the automobile and consists of large lot single family homes. On the southwest side, I see that the city has a part of town built in a manner pre-dating the automobile. Traditionally, developed parts of towns are a gift that not all cities have. Twin Falls seems to be making good use of this part of town by keeping it alive with restaurants and small businesses.

Another thing that I really like is that much of the land near the Snake River is left undeveloped. I have often seen natural areas have too much parking which ruins the natural surroundings. With a small bit of internet research it was easy to see that the city really takes care of its breathtaking scenery and natural features.

Of course the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. I would continue to emphasize bicycle infrastructure and walkability especially in ways to travel around town and not just for recreation. I would also expand the budding downtown. A pedestrian friendly city will help to foster strong citizens as well as make the city more financially productive.   

Currently, it doesn’t seem like the city has a robust transportation system. It seems to be very dependent on the automobile. However, it does seem that the city wishes to improve its biking and walking infrastructure. Also, I am glad that Twin Falls wishes to explore some vehicular public transportation. A small community shuttle may be appropriate for this community. It is refreshing to see that public transportation isn’t seen as something that only pertains to bigger cities. Twin Falls is at a crossroads and I see a bright future where driving doesn’t have to be the only option.

Economic Strength

Twin Falls seems to be working towards this on many fronts. As stated earlier, walking and biking is being highlighted. These are relatively low cost solutions that provide great returns. The initiatives by private citizens to build trails give me great hope. It shows that the people are taking the improvements of their city into their own hands instead of waiting for a federal grant to conduct a mega project.

The city does seem to have a local healthy economy. There seems to be a large variety of agricultural industries that make use of the resources around Twin Falls. Although, there are big box stores present it does not seem like the city is completely beholden to a few outside corporations to keep the city afloat.

Citizen Involvement

The citizens seem to greatly care for their community and the city’s natural assets. I am amazed that the people were able to privately raise so much money to improve their trail system. Many communities with more people and resources often struggle for years in order to make similar improvements to their communities.

Also, the citizens have shown they care about their town by making an effort to keep their traditional downtown from being neglected. I have passed through too many towns where main streets have been completely completely hollowed out in favor of a mall on the edge of town. It is great to see that this isn’t the case here.

This is what I am most hopeful for when it comes to Twin Falls: I see a community that can come together and raise money to make community improvements. Larger communities with a large amount of resources often struggle to do the same. I believe the examples of Twin Falls coming together in the past is one of the city’s great strengths.

Strong Towns member Arian

Strong Towns member Arian

San Bruno, California

Commentary by Arian Horbovetz, a Strong Towns member from Rochester, NY.

Home to over 42,000 residents, as well as major employers YouTube, Walmart eCommerce and a host of other growing tech companies, this 5.5 square-mile city packs a big punch in a small package.

Land Use and Transportation

San Bruno is roughly divided into two sides, a flat east side, featuring a small but bustling downtown, and a hilly, auto-oriented west side.  While you won’t find much in the way of skyscrapers, this city is no stranger to density at a robust 7,600 residents per square mile.  At first glance on the map, it looks like San Bruno might be dominated by highway, with Interstate 280, 380 and the 6-lane street level stroad, El Camino Real criss-crossing its interior.  A closer look, however, tells the story of city apart from the hustle and bustle of highway traffic, full of neighborhoods, a vibrant but approachable downtown, and a strong community spirit.

The real MVP of San Bruno is San Mateo Avenue, a stretch of lively small businesses and a diverse array of restaurants in an extremely welcoming, walkable downtown.  Whether your pallet enjoys abundant flavors from Mexico, China, Japan, The Pacific Islands, Hawaii, Italy or Korea, you can have it all in an area that boasts one of the most vibrant and diverse cuisine collections in the Bay Area and beyond.  With all of this, San Mateo doesn’t pretend to woo residents and visitors with bright lights and shiny signs… instead it remains humble and approachable, letting its shops and eateries do all the talking.

If you’re looking for connectivity, San Bruno has it, with downtown Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and CalTrain stations connecting residents, commuters and visitors to just about anywhere in the region.  If you’re looking to go a bit farther, San Francisco International Airport is just to the east of San Bruno’s city limits.  While so many cities across the country struggle with connectivity by means other than the automobile, this small city is firmly connected to the region and beyond by thriving veins of transit.

Economic Strength

The Bay Area is host to one of the world’s most renowned technology hubs, and San Bruno is no exception.  As stated above, the online video and streaming giant YouTube, and retail superstore Walmart’s eCommerce center are the major employers here, complimented by a plethora of other tech startups and mainstays.  The region is one of the few places in our great country where livable-wage jobs are somewhat abundant.  San Bruno’s unemployment rate is below 3% with an annual household income of almost $100,000. Furthermore, with connectivity to functional transit, residents have equal access to opportunities in the entire Bay Area.  

As we all know, financial solvency isn’t just about making money, it’s about a smart approach to spending it.  San Bruno takes a conservative stance on spending, with a fully-funded financial reserve to weather any unforeseen natural disaster, maintenance project or economic downturn.  In contrast to cities all over the country living “paycheck to paycheck,” San Bruno has made it a priority to prepare their economy for any contingency.  They have also taken a cautious approach to development as well as the hiring of city employees, keeping San Bruno lean and light on its metaphorical “feet.” 

For the next generation, Skyline College, a community college on the western edge of the city, is the secondary educational center of choice for over 17,000 students.  To have a college of this magnitude in such a small area really gives San Bruno the whole package as a robust center for employment, a dense but comfortable living environment, a lean, fiscally conservative city government with a college that is closely connected to the community.  Skyline also created the Bay Area Entrepreneur Center, which provides startup guidance, business coaching, networking opportunities and more, feeding into a local economy that is already thriving.

Want more?  San Bruno is one of the few cities in the country that has its own profitable internet service provider.  This gives residents more control over their internet infrastructure, with strong community support for city-wide fiber in the near future.

Citizen Involvement

Finally, nothing tells the story of a city like its citizens.  After a horrible gas pipeline accident in 2010, the entire community came together to discuss how to spend the settlement.  Overwhelmingly, residents agreed to build a new community recreation center, as well as to create the San Bruno Community Foundation in an effort to fund local scholarships and community organizations.

The citizens of San Bruno, aware of the fact that more highway lanes leads to more traffic and congestion, successfully fought against a highway expansion project on the edge of town, also saving the city tax dollars in the process.  Furthermore, concerned residents have also fought to make streets safer, especially with regard to El Camino Real, the aforementioned 6-lane “strode” that bisects the city.  While progress has been small, the city has a new proposal for the California Department of Transportation that they hope will allow for future safety improvements.  

While San Bruno doesn’t currently feature much in the way of cycling infrastructure, 2016 saw the city council approve the city’s first Cycling and Pedestrian Master Plan, which was drafted with extensive input from the community.  The San Bruno also secured a grant to build a protected bike lane in the half-mile between their BART station and CalTrain station, improving multi-modal transit connectivity for residents and visitors.

San Bruno is a small community with a big impact.  It blends density with livability, and lean government that has the right priorities to support long-term sustainability and prosperity.  Strong connectivity to transit options, a bevy of major employers and a surging community college in just 5.5 square miles make it an attractive place for the citizen and the commuter alike.  A downtown that explodes with culture and international flavor, but features a humble, walbable, down-to-earth feel makes this a wonderful place destination for the curious visitor and the hungry resident.  Like so many cities in our nation, highways abound and corridors of congestion are present, but the city and the community are beginning to change the conversation and redesign elements of San Bruno to prioritize people over cars.

With responsible government, strong employment and educational possibilities, an attractive, transit-connected downtown and people who are committed to their city, the city of San Bruno must be considered one of our Strongest Towns! 

Voting is now closed.