Shelves of books at the Central Library in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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Mayor Todd Gloria passionately laid out his vision for San Diego in his 2022 State of the City address. The mayor made a case for needed investments in infrastructure, policing and public safety, and tools to address homelessness and housing. He also itemized, with conviction, his administration’s top priorities for the coming year. I share the mayor’s vision that to be America’s Finest City and truly be great, we must all feel safe, have access to housing, and know that as our city grows, our roads, water, and other tangible assets are modern and capable of managing such growth.

However, conspicuously absent in this vision are investments in the types of services that, when well-funded and managed, create avenues to safety, health, and economic development. What was missing was a vision and plan to invest in what makes our communities great places to live – our neighborhood services.

City Council leaders recognize libraries and parks as critical infrastructure. But recent budgets do not reflect the increasing demands for services these departments provide. A recent city-commissioned report showed San Diego needs to invest a minimum of $200 million in its parks to meet basic health and safety standards. The Library Master Plan framework identified a $50 million library maintenance backlog. This figure does not even include the costs for bringing San Diego’s older facilities into code compliance or long-overdue needs to expand spaces to meet community needs. 

Beyond crippling maintenance needs, ongoing operating budget shortfalls have not allowed city libraries or parks to achieve their potential. For example, it is difficult for the library to fully impact reading, literacy, and educational achievement when its annual books and materials budget is among the lowest in the nation among metropolitan library systems, according to the Library Master Plan framework.

Lack of access to core educational services, economic and job development resources, and safe green spaces and recreation centers are cited time and time again as important contributing factors to crime and incarceration rates. These are precisely the critical services provided by our libraries and parks. Significant peer-reviewed evidence suggests that investment in these areas of social infrastructure is an effective and long-term strategy to reduce crime, boost school success, and create connections to jobs and economic sustainability.

Baltimore has turned to libraries to understand and stop the root causes of crime. Research from the Every Library Institute shows how libraries impact reading and literacy skills – and ultimately reduce crime. Libraries and librarians are more often on the frontlines of homeless support than they ever have been. A local partnership between San Diego Public Library and San Diego Workforce Partnership also provides resources, skills boosting, and connections to local job seekers.

It is time, perhaps long overdue, to recognize that a long-term, generational approach to social infrastructural funding will, in fact, lead to the kinds of results the mayor’s vision suggests. It does not benefit San Diegans to perennially present an either/or funding model for our city. Now is the time to recognize the long-term value, impact, and contribution to social well-being that meaningful investments in libraries and parks will have on our community.

I stand with Gloria’s vision of San Diego’s ability to become a truly great American city. To get there, we must recognize a holistic approach to funding core services. Academic, social, and cultural investments stem the flow of crime, create and promote economic activity, and frankly, make great communities.  

Just last year, the mayor presented his 2021 State of the City address from the San Ysidro Library. He noted that this newest branch became among the system’s busiest before COVID and how library staff responded during COVID with outdoor computer labs and other crucial services.

He noted that the San Ysidro Library “is a testament to what we can build together when we work together,” he added. “This library, and what it means to this community, is a symbol of who we should be as a city. It is a beautiful reminder of the importance of investing in traditionally underserved neighborhoods.”

The mayor is right. Significant investments in institutions such as libraries and parks make the kind of economic and social sense that will assist in making his vision a reality. I call on Gloria’s administration to make these investments in neighborhood services a priority for his administration in 2022.

Patrick Stewart

Patrick Stewart is the CEO of the San Diego Public Library Foundation.

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