What Mistaken Urban Design Assumptions Can Teach Us

When writing city plans, past planners in San Francisco got some things just right—and some very wrong.

2 minute read

January 25, 2022, 7:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

City by the Bay

mandritoiu / Shutterstock

Our readers don't need to be told that city planning is a complicated endeavor. As John King writes, the history of San Francisco's urban plans provides an illuminating example of how assumptions about urban growth can be short-sighted or naive.

King gives five examples of policies that have not panned out in the way the city expected. For example, the elevated pedestrian walkways designed in the 1960s to help pedestrians cross streets more safely have proven to deaden street life, falling out of favor with contemporary planners. Meanwhile, a law that restricted building heights near freeways in order to preserve "views" for drivers has become obsolete as planners now view high-rise towers as an appropriate way to increase density and put more housing near economic centers and transit.

As King notes, the city's 1985 Downtown Plan called for buildings that maintained the "complex architectural qualities of older San Francisco buildings," but today's planners see modern design as a potential boon to historic neighborhoods.

San Francisco plans in the 1990s also emphasized the importance of the ground floor, mandating first-floor residential units and retail. While ground-floor retail remains an important cornerstone of walkable urbanism, competition from big-box stores, high rents, and hostility from landlords mean that many of these spaces remain vacant, failing to bring the "eyes on the street" that planners desire.

Ultimately, King's observations show that urban design and planning are living, evolving fields, and planning documents should reflect a consistent reevaluation of interventions and their real-world results.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022 in San Francisco Chronicle

Black and white Rideshare Pick-Up Zone sign

The Slow Death of Ride Sharing

From the beginning, TNCs like Lyft and Uber touted shared rides as their key product. Now, Lyft is ending the practice.

June 1, 2023 - Human Transit

Amtrak train with large curved windows passing through scenic Rocky Mountain red rock canyon

Amtrak Calls for Expansion, Citing Close to 100 Requests for New Lines

The agency told a House committee it has received more than 90 applications for new intercity rail lines from cities around the country.

June 8, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

Urban sidewalk shaded by large mature trees

Cool Walkability Planning

Shadeways (covered sidewalks) and pedways (enclosed, climate controlled walkways) can provide comfortable walkability in hot climates. The Cool Walkshed Index can help plan these facilities.

June 1, 2023 - Todd Litman

Dallas Freeways

Federal Infrastructure Dollars Funding Road Expansions

Far from kickstarting a transformative change in transportation policy, the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law continues to fund traditional road-building projects.

June 9 - Climatewire

An aerial view of a park and the streets and high-rises of Downtown Omaha.

Downtown Omaha Planning for its Post-One-Way-Streets Era

The Omaha City Council has decided to reverse the transportation model adopted in the city in the 1950s, for the benefit of traffic safety and local retail activity.

June 9 - KETV

A red sun appears on the horizon, as obscured by haze from wildfire smoke.

Planning for Proximity, for the Climate’s Sake

A new global platform will help the world identify and encourage opportunities for more proximity in the built environment—development patterns that can help reduce sources of greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution if built well.

June 9 - C40 Cities

Assistant/Associate Planner

Bossier City - Parish MPC

Principal Planner – Advanced Plans

Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department

Planning Officer

City of Bangor

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.