San Francisco's 1971 Urban Design Plan Echoes Today's Concerns

A 1971 effort to quantify the city's values and design goals reflects many of the same priorities that planners and residents face today.

Read Time: 2 minutes

January 13, 2022, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


San Francisco Skyline

CC0 Creative Commons / Pixabay

In 1971, San Francisco published its Urban Design Plan, a blueprint for preserving the character of the city and addressing growing concerns about building height and density. John King describes the plan, which warned against "unstructured and unabated growth" and the "jarring disharmony" caused by 'unusual' buildings like the Transamerica Pyramid, approved for construction in 1969.

The plan also acknowledged the role of high-rises in the growing city, "a necessary and expressive form for much of the city’s office, apartment, hotel and institutional development," and encourages 'respectful' new development that fits into the city's unique environment.

The plan includes a wealth of photos, sketches, and maps that illustrate the planners' ideas about creating a pleasant urban environment and their design best-practices.

Notably, the plan calls for reducing traffic in residential areas through what we now call traffic calming measures such as narrowed streets, landscaping, and traffic diversion. Planners in 1971 also suggested "close by and visible" parks, pointing to the city's waterfront as an underused recreational space. As King notes, "This was written 20 years before the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down, and 30 years before Crissy Field opened in the Presidio." 

The conclusion we can draw from the plan more broadly, writes King, is the idea that the city's fractious population can come to some agreement on what they value in their built environment—and that San Franciscans love their city enough to fight for it.

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