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5 Questions for Christopher Cabaldon

West Sacramento's popular mayor (he's held the post since 1998) sees age-friendliness as a way to take what his city has wanted to do "and make it real"

Portrait, Mayor, Smiling, Christopher Cabaldon, Interview, Livable Communities

Courtesy photo

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon

Christopher Cabaldon's relatively young city (incorporated in 1987) has been the benefactor of, among other "age-friendly" efforts, innovative urban infill projects; bicycle and walking trails along the Sacramento River; Raley Field (a sporting and event venue and home to the River Cats minor league baseball team); and the addition of a community college.

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For nearly two decades Cabaldon has been directly involved in West Sacramento's evolution from, as a local news outlet described, "a backwater, a community where residents complained it was hard to find a decent place to buy groceries" to a 2014 U.S. Conference of Mayors City Livability Award winner. He was first elected to the city council in 1996. Two years later, at age 33, the council chose him to be the city's mayor. In November 2004, Cabaldon became the first mayor directly elected by West Sacramento voters. In 2014, his most recent election for the position's two-year term, Cabaldon secured more than 80 percent of the vote.  

On June 25, West Sacramento (population about 50,000) became the second California city (San Francisco was first) to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities. Cabaldon says joining the network is helping empower constituents to think about, talk about and describe the type of community in which they want to live.

Cabaldon's work on transportation, land use, air quality and climate change, housing and economic development is regarded as a model for effective collaborative action. The region's major daily newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, says that "under his leadership, the city has become one of the municipal stars of the region." Cabaldon was chair of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments' groundbreaking "Preferred Blueprint Scenario," which targets sustainable growth across six counties through 2050. The blueprint is an award-winning, nationally recognized model for appropriate growth, infill development and regional collaboration.

When he isn’t working as mayor (for which he receives only a small stipend), Cabaldon serves as president of the Linked Learning Alliance, a Sacramento-based coalition of education, industry and community organizations dedicated to improving California's high schools and preparing students for success in college, careers and life.

1. West Sacramento joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities in June of this year. As you know, membership in the network requires a commitment by a community's elected leadership and involves continuous work. Why did you want West Sacramento to join the network — and how did you explain its benefits to your colleagues and constituents?

Our joining the network was coincident with, really, a mirror that we'd been putting on ourselves anyway to say, "How are we doing on age-friendliness in general terms?" We've been a city since 1987, and when we first incorporated our city's civic and political leadership was very attuned to issues around aging. But it was a different time, and so the real focus was mainly on the senior center and activities, and occasionally about senior housing, but back then "senior housing" meant a separate place for seniors to live.

As we recognized that the city and region needed to grow, we realized we were using a lot of old development standards. For instance, we were building super wide streets and neighborhoods with lots of cul-de-sacs. We've been thinking over the last couple of years about how to redesign our infrastructure and our policies around age-friendliness, and we've started to do that with some very high-profile projects in town. When we saw the AARP network, and the tool kit, and the resources, and the best practices, it was an easy call. Everyone in the city's leadership thought what a great opportunity it was to take what we've wanted to do and make it real.

2. One of the newest building sites that has gone up in the riverfront area is affordable housing. In most cities, affordable housing would be the last building put up, and yet it was the first. Was that a conscious choice?

It definitely was. In most places, affordable housing is an afterthought. We build the places that we want to live in, and then, oh, because there's some regulation, the city builds an affordable housing project. That's not our philosophy here, particularly in the new areas that we've been creating along the waterfront, which has the potential to turn into a very exclusive, wealthy enclave since it's so beautiful and has so many amenities around it.

We need to, from the very beginning, declare that the area is going to be a mixed-income community, with all kinds of people living in it. So let's start with the affordable housing. The other thing starting that way did was that it forced the property owners in the area to say, "We care about this affordable housing project looking good, and performing well, and being a great place to live, because that's going to be the very first thing people see."

We did that there, and we're doing it in the next new development area right next to our downtown. Actually, our downtown was started with an affordable senior project. It was the very first project that launched the revitalization of the core of our city.

While West Sacramento's infrastructure has bicycle and walking paths, a lot of that started off as being for environmental reasons. None of it was considered age-friendliness before. But people began to realize, "Hey, this is really a great way to live. The coffeehouse is right down the block. Everything I need, I can easily get to. I don't have to worry about traffic and parking all the time. I might still have a car, but I don't have to use it every second." Some of the most popular places in our region have been exactly those kinds of places.

All along part of the struggle has been, as we've tried to create places that are more intimate, that have more of a small town feel but also lots of activity and engagement, people would say, "Oh, but that's not what seniors want. Seniors want quiet, isolated places. It's fine to have those kinds of places with theaters and coffeehouses for the young people, but for seniors you need to be building this other kind of place."

The AARP age-friendly communities' agenda has been so powerful in flipping that whole argument on its head. As we're aging, what we want are more opportunities for engagement. We want to spend less time in our cars. We don't want to be isolated. It doesn't mean that I want to live on top of a dance club. It doesn't mean everything about urban life is everything you want as a senior either. There are nuances to it, but I do think that, for me, one of the most powerful impacts of the age-friendly communities' work that AARP and other organizations have been doing is to bring to the party all of us who are aging. Yes, it's about the environment. Yes, it's about the great quality of life, and the arts and everything else, yet it's also about aging in place.

3. What about West Sacramento isn't yet age-friendly?

Our transportation system and network. We've improved it, we've added bike lanes and added more transit, but we're adding an extra one percent on top of the 100 percent of it that's from centuries of really poor planning. A major priority is mobility as we age. That means rethinking the way we handle paratransit services — so our core transit services do a better job of serving seniors so they don't have to rely on paratransit specifically.

It means doing a better job on basic things like street design. The street we're on right now, West Capitol Avenue, used to be a freeway. But once the actual freeway was built, do we really need West Capitol to still have six lanes of traffic that are almost impossible to cross on one walk signal?

A challenge for us — and I know we're not the only or even the first to deal with this — is how do we create the level of density and compactness in housing that we're looking for, yet don't create housing that involves stairs. In one sense, we know exactly how to deal with that by using elevators and lifts and other things, but those are expensive. How do we achieve those kinds of places given the restrictions?

We need a community where it's possible to stay. We don't want West Sacramento be the kind of place that's all cul-de-sacs and five bedroom homes, so if you go away to college or to the Air Force and come back you couldn't live in your community anymore. We don't want to be a place that only has hip artist lofts and no place to raise a family. We've tried to create a city, even though we're small, where there's a place that matches what a person's needs are, and where their hopes and inspirations are at each stage in their life.

Now it's not about staying in the same place from the time you're 18 until the time you're 80. It is about being able to stay in the same community. One of our big hopes out of this process is to make real that promise.

4. Are you finding that developers are open to doing the type of work that addresses the needs of people of all ages? How does West Sacramento encourage the creation of affordable age-friendly housing and transportation?

Some developers know how to do this already. We've got a couple in the region that are as advanced and progressive at it as we are. Others need to be educated, trained and supervised. A lot of our work is really focused on the developers in between, the ones who know how to do affordable housing but haven't really dealt with age-friendly projects before, or developers who are fully committed to senior housing in the old model, the one that says senior housing needs to be isolated and quiet and away from everything, fully self-contained.

So there's lots of DNA out there for us to try and put together something and support the developers who are getting it right. We have to reinvent affordable housing completely in California. We have an opportunity to do it in a way that's inspired and framed by the age-friendly agenda.

5. You've been on the city council or mayor of West Sacramento for nearly 20 years. As a veteran mayor, what advice would you give to a new mayor or elected leader about how to engage citizens in programs, in new initiatives and to think outside the box?

One piece of advice is to avoid the rear-view mirror. It's very easy to plan based on what you and your constituents think they already know. One example we already talked about: "We all know that seniors want isolated housing where there's no noise or anybody to bother them." We all know that already, and even if we don't know that for sure, we know that anybody who has said something other than that has gotten into trouble politically. So we all agree to maintain the anachronism. That's the path of least resistance, because nobody ever questions you if you do that. But you can't innovate if you're obsessed with what people used to think.

We should also be asking the big questions, like, "What's going to make you happy? What are the main things you're looking for?" What you want to do as a leader is expand people's horizons, expand the sense of possibility. The best way to do that is to focus on the outcomes and the results.

Instead, we essentially say to people, "We're going to make some cookies. How many eggs should we use?" What we should be asking them is, "Do you want chocolate chip, peanut butter or oatmeal cookies?"

The leader is the one who needs to take responsibility for the mechanics, the recipe. But we often don't do that. We say, "Okay, so you said you want to live in a place where the church is nearby and the theater that you've been going to for 20 years is walkable."

Then every week we ask you to come to a meeting, or we send you a survey asking, "Do you think the street should be this wide, or this wide?" And people respond, "Well, I don't like traffic, so the street should be this wide." When leaders ask the "egg questions," they get the wrong answers, and in the end no one gets any cookies.

I've learned it's really important to focus on the outcomes people want to see. Stop bothering them with the details of the recipe. That's my job — and the job of the traffic engineer and the housing person and the finance person. It's our job to put it all together so people can enjoy their cookies.

All this can be hard to achieve because so many of our government processes are oriented around the mechanics. You legally have to have a public hearing, but it requires real leadership to get folks engaged and get their buy-in about where they really want to be. Everyone in the community needs to buy into an age-friendly agenda, really understand what it means and break down the fear of aging. 

Bonus Question: West Sacramento had a City Commission on Aging that you replaced with something called the Parks, Recreation & Intergenerational Commission. Why?

Because of the original demographics of our city, our Commission on Aging was one of the very first commissions we set up. Its entire focus was on the senior center. When we did a senior housing project it would go to them and they would say, "It's about time. We need more places to live." But that's about it. They weren't engaged in much of the planning work.

When I first became mayor, I went to the commission and said, "What we really need you to do is look at everything in the city. You need to be looking at our street width requirements. You need to be looking at our transit plans. You need to look at our housing plans." They were interested, but most of the citizens who volunteered really wanted to work on the senior center issues. Also, the relationship between the commission as a leadership and guiding entity and the actual work that was happening at the staff level was pretty tenuous.

The aging commission was not at the front of the line in being consulted and when they had something to say, it had to filter back through three levels of staff and the staff didn't feel accountable to them. I realized that one commission all by itself alone, with no real connection to the policy levels, couldn't drive an agenda. So we eliminated the Commission on Aging and put aging in with parks and recreation. We did the same thing with the Youth Commission. The community service staff is accountable to the new commission.

The more fundamental change is that we wrote age-friendly work into every other commission's job descriptions. People can no longer say, "The Commission on Aging is responsible for that." The response from the Commission on Aging was, "Alleluia." There's now a real deep sense of buy-in that will be animating our partnership in the network.

Christina Clem is the associate state director of AARP California in Sacramento.