The Imagined Bay Area of 2070: Affordable, Equitable, Prosperous

An opinion published recently by the San Francisco Chronicle offers a provocative thought exercise: How did the Bay Area of 2070 achieve affordability, equity, sustainability and adaptation in the face of climate change, and new levels of prosperity?

June 29, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


A sunny day in San Francisco, with a view of the city skyline with the Easy Bay Hills in the background.

Roschetzky Photography / Shutterstock

Sarah Karlinsky, senior advisor at SPUR, pens an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle [paywall] that lays out an ambitious vision for the San Francisco Bay Area. In a creative twist, Karlinsky imagines writing from the year 2070—when the Bay Area is thriving with sustainable transportation, affordable housing, and the demise of the systemic racism in the built environment.

According to Karlinsky's imagined future history, 2021 would prove a watershed moment for the Bay Area, emerging from the COVID pandemic with optimism but realizing that all was not well:

Housing was too expensive. It was obvious that only the wealthiest would soon able to afford to live anywhere near the coast. More people were falling into homelessness. Workers moved further and further away from job centers to find affordable housing, only to spend four hours a day in traffic getting to and from work. That is when they weren’t escaping from terrifying wildfires, which were on the verge of befouling the air for six months out of the year. Coastal cities were just beginning to realize the gravity of their battles with ever-rising seas. Inland cities were experiencing terrible heat waves. Drought was everywhere.

The process of change, according to Karlinsky, happened in 2022:

It began way back in 2022, when Californians passed state and local laws to build more apartments near transit and along commercial corridors. By 2037, taller apartment buildings with stores on the ground floor lined Bay Area streets next to BART and Caltrain routes and along commercial corridors like El Camino Real. Hundreds of thousands of families moved in. Now they catch trains or hop aboard electric buses to get where they need to go instead of driving.

Just reshaping areas near transit wasn’t enough, of course. In 2023, NIMBYs, YIMBYs and everyone in between finally agreed to set aside their differences and dismantle the structural racism that was driving so many bad land-use decisions. We agreed that the government unfairly helped white families purchase homes through federally backed mortgages in the 1940s and 1950s, while excluding Black families. These racist decisions were never remedied, and had dire consequences for public health and equitable wealth distribution, even in the 2020s.

The events of this invented history include additional legislation that loosened zoning restrictions of housing in suburban locations. "Small apartment buildings, granny flats and affordable housing became the new suburban norm," according to Karlinsky.

Other reforms and innovations that helped changed the course of California's evolution include property tax reform, expanded funding mechanisms, a streamlined permitting system, electric buses, restored wetlands, all electric buildings, a second Transbay tube, freeway removal (removed in 2027), and a "green necklace" of parks around the Bay Area as a buffer from wildfires.

The first step is the hardest, explains Karlinsky, but it's possible. "We can live in a region that is affordable, sustainable, racially just and easy to get around. But to get there, we have to believe such a future is possible and insist that our elected leaders make that vision a reality."

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 in San Francisco Chronicle

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