A Flip of the Lens: What's RIGHT with San Francisco?

BY JULIE KIM
February 5, 2010

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[Image: flickr user VancityAllie]

Slow buses. Skyrocketing housing costs. Preventable budget deficits. It's easy to rattle off the myriad things wrong with our city. In many ways, SPUR's very existence and mission are rooted in a practice of taking a hard look at our bad decisions, and accepting responsibility for them as a first step toward changing the city for the better.

But we are a little too good at being honest with ourselves, a little too quick to look elsewhere for answers: why can't we emulate New York's separated bike lanes, Shanghai's cosmopolitanism, Vancouver's high-rise housing and, basically, all of Europe?

When it comes to urban planning, why do we suffer from a collective "intellectual and imaginative constipation" (in the famous words of SPUR Deputy Director Sarah Karlinsky)? Live and work here too long and trying to answer these questions all the time can get to be a real downer.

But in this month's Urbanist, we chinny-chinned up. We flipped the lens 180 degrees, tapped into all the reasons we choose to live here (after all, most of us are transplants) and asked: what do we do well? What makes this city great? What's right with us?

The room was not silent. Quite the chatter session, in fact: it turns out we're damn good at a damn lot of things!

Cases in point: we have a public health care program, Healthy San Francisco, that provides low- and moderate-income households with access to affordable health care. Residents and businesses recycle a whopping 72 percent of their solid waste--the highest in the nation. We have a thriving downtown, amazing neighborhood shopping streets and a burgeoning movement of grassroots urbanists. We tore down freeways after Loma Prieta and, on the whole, made some pretty good decisions in shaping growth in the region. And come to think of it, even Muni has some best practices to boast of.

The fact of the matter is: San Francisco is an amazing place, much due to all of the amazing people who live and work here. "Learning from San Francisco" is a chance to showcase what we do best. We ought to feel proud.

(Now give yourself a little pat on the back, and get back to work!)