No urban planning backseat drivers could have predicted San Francisco

Every now and then, it crops up again: A longread proclaiming that San Francisco’s urban planning is hopelessly broken, why didn’t the city plan ahead, affordable housing is at a shortage, and so on, usually with an air that the ‘journalist’ has just discovered some piece of new and exciting news. Most of these pieces come from outside San Francisco, and are immediately roundly mocked at SFist, because they’re usually wrong, with the writers really having no idea what they’re talking about, though that certainly has never stopped people from opening their mouths before.

Here’s the thing: It’s entirely reasonable and in fact necessary for people who aren’t from a region to write about it, to bring new and interesting perspectives, but San Francisco’s urban planning situation is complicated, bizarre, and internecine, and many of these stories are highly superficial, often based on assumptions framed around urban planning decisions in other US cities. They don’t successfully overmap to San Francisco, no matter how hard people want to try.

San Francisco has an incredibly large number of people concentrated onto a relatively small landmass. That number of people is growing exponentially, at a rate that few other cities are experiencing, and a rate that planners were totally unable to predict. Everyone expects some degree of urban growth, but not like this, and not with the added layer brought about through money, because lots and lots of money has come with these people, who have certain expectations of the City by the Bay that are profoundly influencing policy and development.

No one is going to claim that San Francisco doesn’t have a huge housing problem. The city has a huge affordable housing shortage that’s forcing people further out every year. It’s constantly being forced to revise the definition of ‘affordable’ housing because even people with moderate incomes cannot afford to live there. Both the rental and the real estate market are incredibly tight. Everyone wants to live there, and a large number of the new residents are in the tech or auxiliary industries, working for major tech firms and the companies that serve them. As in the dot com bubble, this could be another bubble primed for a catastrophic burst.

San Francisco cannot build housing fast enough, even with fast-tracked planning commission approval. Developers are scrambling to take advantage of the market and they’re focusing on high-value high-rise construction, even with mandates from the city to provide affordable units or pay offset fees. When affordable housing hits the market, the waiting list is formidable.

Armchair quarterbacks love to complain about how San Francisco should have predicted this problem and acted on it sooner — the same problem that routinely comes up in critiques of BART. 10 years ago, 15, 20, this situation was unimaginable. Even five years ago the city didn’t fully understand how intense the battle over housing was going to become. That’s not a failure on the part of the city, but a simple reality: Cities rely on complicated tools to make projections, and sometimes those tools are wrong.

Once the city began to realise that it had a problem on its hands, it did its best to act quickly, but by then, the wheels were already in motion. It was attempting to catch up with something that was already out of control, hindered by attitudes that made it hard to approve new development, address issues like gentrification, and take proactive steps to protect the city’s heritage while making way for a new generation of residents. Did San Francisco act quickly enough? Maybe, maybe not, depending on who you ask and which issue is of particular concern.

Did the city fall asleep at the wheel, though, as many people like to contend in their bombastic thinkpieces about everything that’s wrong with San Francisco and how readers should all shake their heads and mock city planners? No, it didn’t. It’s been faced with an unprecedented and totally unexpected housing challenge that other cities simply haven’t experienced — imagine if Atlanta suddenly became the hub of a new growth industry overnight, attracting thousands of workers and billions of dollars in a very short period of time. Think about what would happen if an industry blew up in or around Manhattan, with everyone wanting a slice of the incredibly hot real estate next to their offices. Think about how we never know when and where these things will happen — should every city add thousands of housing units to the market just in case, even if they end up sitting vacant and decaying? Should every city spend millions or billions on installing new transit systems on the off chance that their ridership will increase by an order of magnitude in an incredibly short period of time?

San Francisco is struggling, and it’s worth exploring why and how to fix it. But it’s unfair to blame the city entirely — as while lots of city officials including members of the planning commission do of course make terrible decisions — and ignoring the faceted complexities of San Francisco’s case makes it impossible to get at the thrust of the thing. San Francisco’s explosive growth is an unexpected, fascinating, monstrous beast that’s risen from the deep to devour the city, and the next few years will determine whether it can evade those gnashing teeth. People can complain that the city didn’t predict a random monster emerging from beneath it, or they could note that the monster is there, and talk about how to fight it now that it’s arrived.

Image: San Francisco, Anh Dinh, Flickr