Five comprehensive development plans provide service opportunities in the midst of budgetary woes

Partnership with Sage at SDSU put Lemon Grove on a path for growth


Mark Guarino


Jessica Barlow, Kristofer Patrón-Soberano, Mike James


City of Lemon Grove, California
Community Size
San Diego State University
The Sage Project
Case Type
Partnership Stories
School Size
20,000 - 40,000
Focus Areas
Democratic Governance, Environment Sustainability
Environment, Equity

Lemon Grove, California, has suffered a budget shortfall for many years.

Over 10 years ago, general fund reserves fell 19 percent and soon the city was slashing positions, merging its management personnel in the fire department with nearby cities, eliminating its recreation department, and reducing services like street sweeping and animal control. Things have not fared much better since; in July 2018, the city’s budget shortfall is projected at $1.5 million over the next five years. If things don’t improve, bankruptcy could be next.

“We are at the point where we really have to make some tough decisions to generate revenues,” Mayor Racquel Vasquez said.

As the city struggles to figure out how to confront big issues like shoring up tax revenue and delivering basic services, it found a partner to help keep its eye focused on important long-term priorities like sustainability and green spaces that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

Sage develops five areas of sustainability projects critical to Lemon Grove’s future

Enter the Sage Project. As part of the Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities Network (EPIC-N), the Sage Project specializes in providing learning opportunities through community-based projects. The Sage Project, as part of the university’s Center for Regional Sustainability, represents hundreds of students and faculty from a wide range of disciplines from campus including political science, civil engineering, and graphic design.

800% Return on investment for the City of Lemon Grove

In the 2016-2017 school year, Sage started working with Lemon Grove officials to establish comprehensive planning documents on five critical areas of development:

Climate, Health and Social Issues. Such as air quality, climate change planning, and homelessness.

Urban Planning and Development. For issues like street signage, downtown redevelopment, and alternative transportation.

Infrastructure. Handling drainage and parking issues.

Public Spaces. Installing community gardens and green spaces.

Public Art and Image Development. Finding ways to highlight and beautify areas through photography and murals

The partnership, which extended into the fall of 2017, gave the city planning and development resources it could not otherwise afford — things the city, at this critical juncture, says has been critical to its ongoing survival.

University Capital

Classes 30 Classes
Students 700+ Students
Hours 30,000+ Hours
Disciplines 13 Disciplines
Projects 7 Projects
Faculty Members 19 Faculty Members
Assistance / Internships 28 Assistance / Internships

“It’s a godsend to have the energy and the enthusiasm of students to work on projects.”

“Each student that’s partnering with us is able to help the city because we only have 52 employees and half of those are firefighters,” said Mike James, assistant city manager.

City Manager Lydia Romero called Sage’s involvement “a blessing.”

“They’re jump-starting a lot of programs that I don’t have the resources to allocate for … It’s a godsend to have the energy and the enthusiasm of students to work on projects,” she said.

Lemon Grove gets 800 percent ROI through the partnership

Sage provided the city with research, designs, solutions, connections to government resources, and important recommendations — all measures that gave Lemon Grove “a remarkable 800 percent return on the initial investment, according to James.

The programs planted deep seeds for Lemon Grove so it could one day regain control of its future. For example, among the benefits the city gained were:

  • An urban agriculture analysis showing feasibility in creating a healthier and more secure community for the city.
  • Expanding GIS mapping from a dated inventory of existing street signs.
  • The revitalization of two downtown locations through a development plan.
  • Reimagined ideas to solve the city’s growing homelessness problem.
  • New community gardens from plans created by Sage students.
  • Greater social media interaction due to a development plan by students to inform and engage residents about Lemon Grove.
  • Two brand-new murals and designs for welcome signs developed by students to brighten downtown and points of entry
  • First city in North America to work with a United Nations toolkit to address climate change.


Community Results

Community Satisfaction

“All the pieces are finally fitting together.”

Return on Investment

800% ROI for the City of Lemon Grove.

Sustainable Path Forward

Lemon Grove is now set to reduce 15 percent of greenhouse gases by 2020, plus has multiple plans to revitalize its downtown.

Prestige & Recognition

First North American city to use UN toolkit for climate change planning; gained positive coverage in San Diego media.

Social/Cultural Inclusion

The City installed two public murals in its downtown area designed by SDSU students through the partnership with the Sage Project.


In fact, Lemon Grove joined only Vilankulo, Mozambique, and Glasgow, Scotland, to adopt a United Nations toolkit which is intended to help cities with their climate action planning process. Through Sage’s intervention, Lemon Grove is now able to meet the state-mandated goal of reducing 15 percent of greenhouse gases by 2020, as well as achieve international accolades at climate change symposia around the world.

“Sage is giving us some basic building blocks by looking at how to incorporate those strategies as we move forward. All the pieces are finally fitting together.”

Translate »