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

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