Eco City, San Francisco

June 1, 2005

Ecological concerns have been important tocity planners throughout the entire history ofthe discipline, but our culture’s understanding of these issues has changed radically over the decades. From the wood-shingled modernism of the Bay Region style of architecture to the latest LEED-certified green buildings; from the early modernists’ ideal of the tower in the park (actually constructed in public housing projects as well as the upscale Park Merced) to the Victorian “pleasure ground” of Golden Gate Park, intended as a retreat from urban ills; and from the solar panels on Moscone West to the restoration of Crissy Marsh, the people of San Francisco have made repeated, radical interventions into the urban fabric in order to create a more ecological city.


Paradigms of Eco-Urbanism

Since the industrial revolution, if not before, many of our culture’s greatest thinkers have been preoccupied with the question of how humanity and nature should relate. The problem of unsustainable social systems out of balance with the natural world did not begin with the industrial revolution; societies have destroyed their life support systems for thousands of years.1 But the breakdown of religious authority during the European Enlightenment, coupled with the breakdown of traditional social structures as capitalism emerged out of feudalism, created the conditions in which intellectuals could reflect on societies as “objects” capable of conscious, intentional intervention, and could perceive the relationship of human society to non-human nature as something historically conditioned and culturally specific.

Another, older, intellectual tradition has tried to imagine the ideal city. From the Italian Renaissance to the Utopian Socialists and on to our own time, people have debated what the perfect city would look like, and tried to create approximations of it in the real world.2

Joining the two questions of how humanity can be in balance with nature and what the ideal city would look like brings us to the core question we face today—what would an ecocity be like? How would a city that is in balance with nature look and feel and function?

This question has informed the relatively new discipline of city planning since its verybeginning at the turn of the last century. As city planning emerged out of the disciplines of architecture, landscape design, public health, and social work, it proposed changes to city-building practices that were informed by ecological concerns.These ranged from the attempts to design homesfor poor people that had access to light, air, andgreenery, to the attempts by architects to develop regionally specific building styles. Some of the city-building practices of the late 19th and early 20th century that today’s planners consider most crucial for ecological sustainability were simply long-standing patterns derived from the imperative to conserve energy—for example, mixed land uses, collective methods of transportation, and buildings that brought natural light into rooms.

Ecological urbanism is not a unified perspective on city building. It is, rather, a set of questions that have been answered in different ways by different generations. What follows is a brief, provisional listing of the major theoretical perspectives on ecological urbanism that we can draw on to inform our city-building practices today.


Landscape Naturalism

Inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted, this tradition has sought to provide the urban masses with an experience that would approximate wilderness or rural life. Golden Gate Park was SanFrancisco’s first landmark in this tradition. We can trace an evolution of thinking about what parks are for as we visit different parks in the city.

Landscape historian Galen Cranz, professor of architecture at U.C Berkeley, described the “pleasure ground” era of park design associated in this way in an article from the SPUR Newsletter:

Frederick Lam Olmsted, the designer of many ofthe great parks of this era, believed that the greatest counterpoint to urban form was pure wilderness, but this belief was tempered by his recognition of the impracticality of achieving the illusion of wilderness anywhere near a city. Consequently, he chose the pastoral landscape as the most pragmatic and appropriatewayto provide relief from the city. He manipulated masses of trees to create settings for picturesque elements. Olmsted disapproved of flowers in parks; he felt that flowers revealed the hand of man, which he park visitor saw all too much of in the city from which, presumably, they had just escaped.

Buildings were kept to a minimum in the pleasure garden. Pergolas and bandstands were light, airy structures, usually without walls. Sculpture, like buildings, was also restricted. Not only did it show the presence of civilization; it also was associated with European aristocratic formal gardens, a democratic anathema.

Circulation paths were probably one of the most distinctive elements of the pleasure garden. Because city streets were and laid at right angles, parkcarriage ways and footpaths were curved. In New York’s Central Park, Olmsted separated vehicular from pedestrian traffic so that a toddler could use the park without paying attention to cars. This separation of pedestrians and vehicles was an innovation that became a part of urban planning.

Each element of the pleasure garden tradition emphasized the primary rationale underlying the design: people were supposed to experience a pastoral landscape that would take them out of the normal hard-surfaced busy urban center.3


Landscape naturalism embodies specific ideas about how to make cities look more “natural.” It highlights an aesthetic, or for some, a spiritual approach to the eco-city. Large ecological restoration projects, such as natural areas on San Francisco’s hilltop parks and the re-creation of Crissy Marsh illustrate the continued vitality of this approach.


The Hygienic City

The public health movement, one of the major sources of city planning in America, emerged to fight tuberculosis and other epidemics. Its most visible legacies are the sewer systems that every city now has. Beginning in the 1840s in England, cities began piping water to private homes to remove excrement and carry it to the nearest body of water. The resulting problem of water pollution was eventually solved by collecting the sewage and treating it before discharging it into the water.

Urban reformers viewed the lack of sanitation as much more than an aesthetic problem.It was the source of deadly epidemics, especially smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever. Public health professionals worked with engineers throughout the last half of the nineteenth century to get modern sewers built. The construction of these sewers helped to lay the groundwork for the Progressive-era belief in technocratic administrations and the pioneering of many techniques that would later be adopted by city planners.

In San Francisco, the system evolved by extending sewers piecemeal into the city’s creeks. Sewers to carry street runoff, as well as pipes from water closets were extended one by one to the closest body of moving water. When the reformers got into the act in the late 1800s, their primary focus was on putting the creeks, at that point daylighted sewers, underground. Many of the city’s largest creeks are today the city’s trunk sewer lines.

Generalizing the perspective of the “hygienic” city leads to the broader project of stopping pollution. In a literal and direct way, this paradigm of ecological urbanism prioritizes the importance of living free from water, air, and soil pollution—a goal that is far from complete. Even after landmark legislation like the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972) and the Clean Air Act (1990), we know that our economy is always one step ahead of our efforts to control its effects, continually inventing new forms of pollution that outstrip our knowledge of how to manage them. Here in the Bay Area, much of this work is carried out by environmental justice organizations such as Communities for A Better Environment.


The City of Light and Air

The anti-tenement movement, which included social workers, housers, Progressive reformers, and others, laid the groundwork for much of what we now think of as “planning,” from building codes to urban renewal. Social workers and housing reformers worked both to change the way poor people’s housing was built and sometimes to move poor people out of the city altogether. In reaction to conditions of overcrowding and poverty, the image of the ideal city that these reformers put forward can be described as a city filled with light, air, and green open space. These ideas were implemented most directly in the form of public housing; they can also be traced through the evolving series of “model codes,” usually developed in New York, but often copied around the country.

New York’s 1900 Tenement House Commission, with Lawrence Veiller acting as its secretary, wrote:

Unrestrained greed has gradually drawn togetherthe dimensions of these tenements, until they have become so narrowed that the family life has become dissolved, and the members have been thrust out and scattered. The father is in the saloon; the youth team in procession up and down the lighted streets past concert halls and licensed dens of infamy’; the boys rove in hordes in the alley, girls in the rear yards. The redemption of the tenement classes lies partly in the restoration of the family, the most conservative unit in civilization, to its proper share of space, natural light and air, and the cultivation of the domestic arts, one of which is personal cleanliness.4

The physical characteristics of “slums,” since that time, have been defined in two primary ways: overcrowding and lack of sunlight.

The San Francisco Housing Association, SPUR’s predecessor organization, was formed in 1910 to combat tenements that grew up after the 1906 earthquake. Its 1911 report defined slums as synonymous with too much lot coverage and not enough light:

Before the fire small lots, for the most part, carried two-story houses with yards back and front — a reasonably human use of such lots. To allow block after block of the narrow, shallow lots in any one section to be built up with three- or four-story apartments is bad enough, but to allow them to be built in such a way that they have no sufficient free space for air and light would be a crime. To protect the women and children who have to live in these flats, to preserve San Francisco slumless, to insure that she will be a city of workingman’s homes — homes owned by themselves, is the highest duty devolving on this community.5

Modernism built on this tradition of trying to bring light, air, and greenery into cities. Le Corbusier, the most influential modernist architect, talks endlessly about the reconciliation of man and nature in a city of towers in the park. In The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning he wrote, “We must increase the area of green and open spaces; this is the only way to ensure the necessary degree of health and peace to enable men to meet the anxieties of work occasioned by the new speed at which business is carried on,” and “the town would, in fact, be one immense park; 15 percent of it would be built over, and all the restplanted; yet it would have a density of population equal to that of the congested Paris of today.”

Catherine Bauer (later Catherine Bauer Wurster) in Modern Housing, summarized the minimum amenities that every good housing unit should have: “cross-ventilation, for one thing; sunlight, quiet and a pleasant outlook from every window; adequate privacy, space, and sanitary facilities; children’s play space adjacent.”6 Much of the European architecture she studied in the 1920s consisted of horizontal rows of housing that were oriented to maximize sunlight. She later went on to work with the San Francisco Planning and Housing Association, advocate for public housing in America, and help write the 1937 Wagner Housing Act, which initiated both public housing and urban renewal.

As urban renewal got going in the 1950s and 1960s, modernist planning was actually implemented on a large scale. The results are not pretty. But notice how “green” the urban renewal areas are! One can understand how a critic of urban renewal like Jane Jacobs felt compelled to refer to large parks as “creeping greenery.”

As part of the 1947 plan for urban renewal in the Fillmore, Jefferson Square at Laguna and Eddy Streets was conceived as one of the major large green spaces in the future “Jefferson Square Neighborhood:”

This new neighborhood in the formally blighted Western Addition District offers you the spaciousness that city rarely have the good fortune to enjoy in day-to-day living. The nearest apartment building is almost half a block from yours. Light, air, and sunshine are in abundance. This is urban living at its best — all the beauty and restfulness of the suburbs combined with all the advantages of “the City.”

For most of us today, this vision of the “green city” conjures up all the nightmares of urban renewal. It did not turn out the way they hoped. But the idea of high density living, set amid a park, continues to be a force in urban design and has been successfully implemented in the brownfield redevelopment areas in cities like Vancouver, British Columbia.


The Garden City

Ebenezer Howard is generally considered the “father of city planning.” In 1898 he published his foundational (and only) book, Garden Cities of which sketched out a proposal for a new city to be built outside of London that would comprise distinct towns, linked by rail, each with its own jobs, housing, and stores, and each separated from the others by an agricultural greenbelt. Howard devoted most of the book to working out a form of the land trust model of ownership. Howard went on to organize two demonstration projects, Letchworth and Welwyn.

In his book, Howard proposed that cities, after they reach a population of 32,000 people, should create a new, physically distinct city nearby, rather than continuing to spread outwards:

How shall it grow? How shall it provide for the needs of others who will be attracted by its numerous advantages? Shall it build on the zone of agricultural land which is around it, and thus for ever destroy its right to be called a “Garden City”? Surely not. This disastrous result would indeed take place if the land around the town were, as is the land around our present cities, owned by private individuals anxious to make a profit out of it. For then, as the town filled up, the agricultural land would become “ripe” for building purposes, and the beauty and healthfulness of the town would be quickly destroyed. But the land around Garden City is, fortunately, not in the hands of private individuals: it is in the hands of the people: and is to be administered, not in the supposed interests of the few, but in the real interests of the whole community.


Howard’s diagram of physically distinct towns, separated by greenbelts and linked by transit, has inspired planners and environmentalists for a century now. His ideas are best expressed at the scale of the region, in the form of density nodes around regional rail lines and the network of large regional parks. The New Urbanists and the anti-sprawl environmentalists carry on this tradition. Groups such as Greenbelt Alliance and the Transportation and Land Use Coalition are part of this tradition in the Bay Area. This version helped inspire the creation of SPUR and its predecessor organizations, which worked to build BART, to channel regional growth away from sprawl, and to set aside regional open space in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

This is a perspective on ecological urbanism that highlights the overall regional settlement pattern rather than the character of specific places.



The bioregionalists emerged out of San Francisco and Northern California through journals such as the Coevolution Quarterly. This branch of the ecology movement is defined by its two-part belief that patterns of culture and civilization should develop in relation to specific geographic places and that the imperative of reconnecting culturally with the ecosystems in which we live calls on us to “re-localize” our economies and resource flows. Bioregionalism is put into practice through things like farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, regional architectural styles, and designs of the built environment that nurture an awareness of natural systems. One of the most important ideas of bioregionalism is simply that people need to understand where their food, energy, and water come from, and wheretheir wastes go — that making these resource flows invisible is inherently unecological.

Peter Berg, formerly of the Haight-Ashbury counter-cultural project The Diggers, became one of the most widely read proponents of bioregionalism. Said Berg in a 1983 essay:

Bioregions are geographic areas having common characteristics of soil, watersheds, climate, and native plants and animals that exist within the whole planetary biosphere as unique and intrinsic contributive parts… Prior to industrialism the reality of inhabitation in a unique life place was reflected in adaptive cultures that reciprocated with cycles and conditions of that place… Reinhabitation is a term for undertaking the practice of living-in-place, becoming part of a bioregion again.8

The core idea is that the built environment should be different in each region of the planet, in relation to the climate, landscape, plants and animals, and natural resources. Not just architectural styles, but infrastructure, manufacturing, and resource flows would all evolve to take on distinct regional identities. The problem to be overcome, according to Berg, is the homogeneous “monoculture” that ignores regional variety:


The strongest obstacle is the world view of Late Industrial society, the perspective of Global Monoculture. This vision of humanity and the planet offers a universal and only slightly varying set ofactivities and expectations, homogenized directory of standards for everything from diet and clothes to transportation and architecture. Global Monoculture dictates English lawns in the desert, business suits in Indonesia, orange juice in Siberia, and hamburgers in New Delhi. It overwhelms local cultures and “raises” them regardless of the effects on cultural coherency or capacities of local natural systems. Extended to the construction of whole new cities and habits of millions of people, Global Monoculture requires manipulation of natural resources on a scale that virtually forbids putting the continuity of the biosphere at the center of social or political considerations.9


As this applies to architectural criteria, bioregionalism asks simply, “Is this building designed appropriately for the physical, ecologically defined region in which it is placed?” First, the climate suggests certain problems that an appropriate building should solve: conserving or dissipating heat, providing shade or inviting the sun in, providing shelter from snow or rain. Second, the resource base of the region suggests materials: wood in a forested region, adobe in a region with clay deposits, stone from a nearby quarry. Third, the carrying capacity of the region suggests the need for resource conservation: water use is to be used especially carefully if one is designing for a dry climate and energy use should be tempered even more than usual if the region does not contain an abundance of renewable sources. What this adds up to is the premise that regionally appropriate buildings in one region would not look like buildings in another region — unless perhaps both regions have similar climates. Bioregionalists often identify regional architecture with “traditional” buildings, especially if built with local materials. However, it is also possible that traditional styles are not appropriate for its region in terms of external, climactic standards. Some places are blessed with an architectural heritage that is already designed in relation to the bioregion; others will have to invent a new architectural tradition. The Bay Area does, in fact, have a regional architectural style, although not one that has made more than a superficial response to the unique characteristics of the place. Lewis Mumford, in 21 1947 New Yorker column, coined the term “Bay Region Style” of architecture and saw in it cause for optimism about the evolution of modern architecture in general:

I look for the continued spread, to every part of our country, of that native and human form of modernism which one might call the Bay Region style, a free yet unobtrusive expression of the terrain, the climate, and the way of life on the Coast. That style took root about fifty years ago in Berkeley, California, in the early work of John Galen Howard and Maybeck, and by now, on the Coast, it is simply taken for granted; no one out there is foolish enough to imagine that there is any other proper way to build in our time. The change that is not going on in both Europe and America means only that modern architecture is part its adolescent period, with its quixotic purities, its awkward self-consciousness, its assertive dogmatism. The good young architects today are familiar enough with the machine and its products and processes to take them for granted, and so they are ready to relax and enjoy themselves a little.10


The first generation of Bay Area architects, starting in the 1890s, included A. Page Brown, Ernest Coxhead, A. C. Schweinfurt, Willis Polk, John Galen Howard, Louis C. Mullgardt, and Bernard Maybeck.11 A second generation of Bay Area architects emerged in the 1930s and 1940s and included William Wurster, Gardner Dailey, John Funk, and Francis Joseph McCarthy. The “third Bay Area school” includes Charles W. Moore, William Turnbell, Donlyn Lyndon, Richard Peters, Joseph Esherick, George Homsey, Dimitri Vendensky, and Daniel Solomon. Critics have argued that the Bay Regionstyle in fact mirrored more universal directions of modern architecture, and that the practitioners who are lumped into the category don’t have very much in common with one another — which are undoubtedly valid criticisms. More importantly, eco-city thinkers such as Richard Register have argued that it is more important to designin response to the moment in history that we are living in, characterized by declining oil supplies, global warming, and continued sprawl — suggesting that ecologically sound buildings will be made of materials that support much higher densities than current patterns of urbanization, for example.12

Bioregionalism takes the side that buildings do need to respond to geographic place, but it locates this debate within a larger project of creating regionally distinctive ways of life. This perspective highlights the need to design cities in ways that support city dwellers to develop an ecological consciousness, not just to live in ways that are ecologically sustainable in practice. Organizations such as the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which runs the farmer’s market at the Ferry Building, and the Coevolution Institute, which promotes local stewardship of biodiversity, along with many other organizations, carry on the of reconnecting us with our bio-region.


Ecological Footprint

As developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, footprint theory attempts to put our resource use in terms of acres of land needed to support it by measuring and analyzing “the resource consumption and waste assimilation requirements of a defined human population or economy in terms of a corresponding productive land area.”13 The activities of the human economy — flows of labor and capital, innovations and wealth creation — all have an ecological dimension to them, externalities that are not always captured by monetary prices. The various activities we undertake can draw down or build up the ongoing productive capacity of the earth; footprint theory is a framework for thinking about these relationships in terms of land usage:

Local populations are so influenced by culture, trade and technological factors that any relationship to local biophysical limits is obscured. Hong Kong, for example, is densely populated and wildly prosperous yet has very little natural carrying capacity, while many African countries with much larger biophysical capacities suffer from famine. The Ecological Footprint gets around this analytic problem by measuring the population’s total load rather than the number of people. This recognizes that people have an impact somewhere even if it is obscured by trade and technology. Indeed, to the extent that trade seems to increase local carrying capacity, it reduces it somewhere else.14

Ecological-footprint perspective highlights the critical importance of resource flows for ecological urbanism. From a planning perspective, resource flows are a subset of the topic of infrastructure, which typically includes roads, transit, airports, electricity, sewers, water supply, telecommunications, and other networks of investment that support human settlements. Infrastructure changes over time—in the past it included such things as telegraphs, coal delivery, removal of horse manure from streets, and gas lights. The evolution of these systems both responds to and contributes to changes in urban form. The general trend has been to turn cities into machines that import natural resources and export pollution, and it is this throughput process that ecological footprint analysis directs us to change. A WorldWatch Institute paper on recycling organic waste framed the issue this way:


In 1876, a chemist studying the agricultural history of North Africa became increasingly troubled over the fate of that region and its implications for his day. In the first century AD, North Africa’s fertile fields were supplying two thirds of the grain consumed in Rome. But the nutrients and organic matter in that food were not returned to the farms where they originated: instead, they were flushed into the Mediterranean. By the middle of the third century, the one-way flow of nutrients out of Africa’s grainland soils, along with declining levels of organic matter, had contributed to the region’s tumble into environmental and economic decline.

The chemist, Justus von Leibig, worried that Europe’s rapidly expanding cities also depended too heavily on one-way nutrient flows, with consequences that would eventually undermine both urban and agricultural areas. To solve the problem, he invented chemical fertilizer, essentially a mixture of condensed and easily transportable nutrients that made it possible to escape dependence on recycling organic matter. The new fertilizer revived the fertility of nutrient-depleted farmland. And because a ton of this plant food could pack as many nutrients as dozens of tons of organic matter, it could be shipped cheaply over great distances. Cities could now expand, and food could be imported from great distances, without concern for returning urban garbage and sewage to farmlands. Thus, garbage and sewage became waste products to be discarded, rather than soil builders to be reused.14

Ecological footprint theory reminds us of the need to transform systems for energy, food, solid waste, drinking water, wastewater, and other resource flows into and out of cities.

The Traditional City

Today we see a widespread idea in planning that the 19th century, pre-automobile city is the most sustainable and humane form of urbanism. Jane Jacobs is perhaps the most famous proponent of this idea. In The Death and Life American Cities, she wrote:

[P]eople gathered in concentrations of city size and density can be considered a positive good, in the faith that they are desirable because they are the source of immense vitality, and because they do represent, in small geographic compass, a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities, many of these differences unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.

The task is to promote the city life of city people, housed, let us hope, in concentrations both dense enough and diverse enough to offer them a decent chance at developing city life.16

This perspective draws its strength in part from the continuing reaction against the brutality of urban renewal. Its emphasis on walkability and transit also relates it to many of the other eco-city paradigms. But in addition to the traditional urban design for pedestrians, this tradition also has rediscovered the energy efficiencies of pre-WWII skyscrapers, which relied on natural light and natural ventilation, and hasdrawn inspiration for contemporary green buildings from these traditional patterns. Finally, this approach to ecological urbanism lends support to historic preservation by highlighting the waste of energy and materials that occurs when buildings are made to be “disposable,” and suggesting that buildings be re-used whenever possible.

Compared with newer suburbs, the traditional city was walkable. Compared with new office buildings, the pre-war skyscrapers were energy efficient. This approach to ecological urbanism is conservative, and in this sense it is attractive to many people in San Francisco. Instead of trying to imagine a city that is better than the one we live in today, or better than any city on earth has ever been, this approach suggests that we try to undo the damage of the car-oriented city by returning to an earlier model, and hopefully healing the damage that has been done over the past half century.


A More Ecological Approach

SPUR has drawn inspiration from all of these traditions of ecological thinking. In many ways, our approach has evolved in parallel with the broader discipline of city planning, and, in fact, broader changes in our culture. Our core goals—extensive transit networks, prioritization of the pedestrian realm, the creation of high-quality public space, dramatic increases to housing supply, protection of regional open space, excellence in building design, and preservation of the city’s architectural heritage, along with others—flow from an ecologically urbanist sensibility. And to these longstanding priorities we have added other goals in recent years, including a focus on resource flows of energy, water, food, and solid waste; a focuson green-building practices; and a growing sense of the urgency of planning for climate change.

Our contributions to the city-building process that all of us who live in San Francisco are part of will continue to come from a perspective that is urbanist and ecologically informed. We promise to continue to deepen our understanding of both of these concepts.



1.     Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005).

2.     Ruth Eaton, Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)Built Environment (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002).

3.     Galen Cranz, “Changing Role of Urban Parks: From Pleasure Garden to Open Space,” SPUR Newsletter (June 2000).

4.     Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1988) 37.

5.     San Francisco Housing Association, First Report (San Francisco, CA: November, 1911) 8.

6.     Catherine Bauer, Modern Housing (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934) xv.

7.     Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965) 140.

8.     Peter Berg, “Bioregions,” Resurgence 98 (May/June 1983): 19.

9.     Peter Berg, “Devolving Beyond Global Monoculture,” Coevolution Quarterly (Winter 1981): 25.

10.  Lewis Mumford, “The Skyline,” The New Yorker 23 Oct. 1947: 94-99.

11.  David Gephard, et al. A Guide to Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California, Second Edition (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1973).

12.  Richard Register, Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature (Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Hills Books, 2002).

13.  Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Enlightened Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1996) 9.

14.  Ibid. 52.

15.  Gary Gardner, “Recycling Organic Waste: From Urban Pollutant to Farm Resource,” Worldwatch Paper 35 (1997): 5.

16.  Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961): 120-121.


About the Authors: 

Gabriel Metcalf is deputy director of SPUR.