The San Francisco Urban Design Element

Urbanist Article August 1, 1999


“The Urban Design Element concerns the physical character and order of the city, and the relationship between people and their environment. San Francisco’s environment is magnificent, and the city is a great city, but the unique relationship of natural setting and man’s past creations are extremely fragile. There are constant pressures for change, some for growth, some for decay. The Urban Design Element is concerned both with development and with preservation. It is a concerted effort to recognize the positive attribute of the city, to enhance and conserve those attributes, and to improve the living environment where it is less than satisfactory. The Plan is a definition of quality, a definition based upon human needs.”

—The San Francisco Urban Design Element of the San Francisco General Plan



The San Francisco Urban Design Plan, adopted in 1972, was a groundbreaking and ambitious document.The culmination of five years of analysis and design development, the plan outlined a vision for the physical future of the city of San Francisco, a vision predicated on understanding the past, looking at the present, and anticipating the future.

The physical environment of San Francisco was under tremendous pressure, with much of the residential area of the city “built out,” the economy undergoing transformation, and the downtown area poised for significant expansion. Postulating that the city’s image is essential for the wellbeing of its residents, the Urban Design Element of the General Plan proactively merged a socially conscious agenda with the physical city. As such, it was a reflection of the social and political ethos of the late 1960’s, an era in which many in the design professions held hope for the impact of design on improving people’s lives.

The development pressures facing San Francisco (and American central cities in general) in 1999 are not as apparent or blatant as they were in the late l960’s. But while San Francisco might not be exploding, it is still changing. Maritime and industry have been supplanted by tourism, multi-media, and services; housing costs are prohibitive; and spatial patterns of live-work-play are no longer predictable. The question for urban design in this context is, what effect will these transformations have on the physical city and how might they be guided to sustain qualities that San Franciscans cherish? Do the assumptions,conclusions, and objectives of the 1972 Plan meet the challenges of 1999?

While urban designers, including those in the San Francisco Planning Department, maintain an assumption that their work improves the city, the work of the profession is often fragmented and marginalized. Despite the noble intentions of the Urban Design Plan, within the web of the city bureaucracy’s decision-making process, urban design as a component of human needs is frequently not even on the table. A variety of economic, social, and political pressures are viewed as separate from, and more important than, the frequently misunderstood non-quantifiable issues of urbandesign. These pressures have affected how the plan has been implemented. Although the plan was intended as a proactive document, it has rarely been used as such. At root is a fundamental difficulty for many urban design planning efforts — how does a plan bring about a physical environment when it is not actually building it?


The 1972 San Francisco Urban Design Plan

The 1972 Plan is beautiful in its simplicity. Five years of analysis and design development were distilled into four basic objectives, forty-five implementing policies and sixty-seven fundamental design principles. These objectives, policies, and principles are simultaneously broad and specific-they are intended to respond to, and provide guidance for, a foreseeable range of physical development questions that might face the city. The ultimate strength of the plan is that it posits a set of qualities that define the city on which all future decisions can be based. The plan tackles the difficult question of what is San Francisco and defines it in physical terms with corollary social effects.

The plan responds to issues of city pattern, conservation, major new development, and neighborhood environment. Conceptually, these four categories should address any form of physical development or change that might face the city, particularly given the general nature of most of the policies. The touchstone, city pattern, looks to the form of the city in general; conservation addresses historic preservation and the conservation of natural resources; major new development concerns large-scale new construction; and neighborhood environment outlines the elements that contribute to high quality residential places. Reflecting the dual roles of public sector urban design, within each category the plan specifies reactive and proactive policies; the plan provides both a set of guidelines for private development and proposals for public investment.

The glue that holds the plan together is the idea of city pattern. Each subsequent objective, policy, and principle is essentially oriented towards preserving and enhancing the perceived pattern. The plan defines the city pattern as consisting of water, hills and ridges, open spaces and landscaped areas, streets and roadways, and building and structures. It is the interplay of these elements which creates the city's unique pattern and makes San Francisco memorable for residents and visitors alike. San Francisco is indeed characterized by a truly stunning combination of natural setting and built environment, the congruence of which is often marked more by chance than by design. Therein lies a paradox for design, though – can chance be trusted to preserve that which it has created? Utilizing Kevin Lynch's city image methodology yields an important psychological component of city pattern as well. Lynch argues that a city with an "imageable" identity, at both the micro and macro scales, is a city that provides psychological sustenance to its inhabitants-a sense of ownership, belonging, and well-being. Preservation of the physical pattern is ultimately the promotion of human needs that are essential in the improvement of the urban community. Indeed, the urban design plan argues that city pattern:

"provides organization and measured relationships that give a sense of place and purpose and reduce the degree of stress in urban life. Outlooks upon a pleasant and varied pattern provide for an extension of individual consciousness and personality, and give a comforting sense of living with the environment."

Conceived in this way, urban design dovetails with the democratic ethos of the late 1960's, in direct contrast with the earlier slash and burn, top-down redevelopment programs. Urban design was not seen as a white knight that could cure social ills, but there was a belief that through the promotion and preservation of the imageable elements of city pattern, urban design could directly and understandably enhance the quality of life of individuals.

The plan is highly conscious of the social role of urban design as manifest in its attention to the "human needs" of each of its four primary headings. Thus for Conservation the plan states: "These features provide people with a feeling of continuity over time, and with a sense of relief from the crowding and stress of city life and modern times."

For major new development: "People in San Francisco are accustomed to a skyline and streetscape of buildings that harmonize in color, shape, and details. . . . By tradition in San Francisco, as in other great cities of the world, unusual building forms and monumental scale have been reserved for building with the greatest significant to the community [a direct attack on the Transamerica pyramid]. These buildings characterize the mood and institutions of the city, and by their quality and nature express the city's aspirations to the world at large."

The neighborhood environment section says: "The people of San Francisco are the city's reason for being and its hope for the future. Most residents live in areas that can be characterized as distinct neighborhoods, and the quality of these neighborhoods has a strong effect upon their personal outlook. Neighborhood quality is of overriding importance to the individual, since the most basic human needs must be satisfied."

In the face of skepticism about the role and efficacy of urban design (often predicated on a general misunderstanding of what it is) each of the objectives in the plan is an argument for the role of urban design in shaping the quality of everyday life.

An example of an illustration from the Urban Design Plan. 

The Effects of the 1972 Plan

The 1972 Urban Design Plan is essentially three documents. It is an articulation of an urban design philosophy; a compendium of urban design guidelines; and a proactive, strategic improvement plan. The philosophy sets a tone for urban design and establishes the Planning Department as a proponent of a singular urban design vision for the city. The design guidelines allow the department to regulate the private sector while ensuring that public development meets the goals of the plan. The strategic element, however, is the most provocative component. It posits the Planning Department as an advocate for a program of public interventions that would repair and improve the valued city pattern.

The Plan must also be read as an argument for the importance of urban design. Urban design is promoted as not merely a means of making a beautiful place, it is also essential to the quality of people's lives, on a very individual, psychological level. Good urban design addresses the physical and the emotional and is a human need.

Has this idea resonated through the city, and, more important, though the city bureaucracy? Is the plan used as an essential document for decision-making, and, more important, visioning for the future?

The answer is an equivocal yes and no, reflecting the dual nature of the plan. It is a regulatory document that, through its oversight functions, should assure continuity and preservation of the valued urban fabric, but it is also an implementation document that proactively develop solutions to correct perceived urban deficiencies. While the plan has been moderately successful with the former, it has rarely been implemented as the latter.

The 1972 Urban Design Plan is an element in the General Plan of the City and County of San Francisco, the legal planning document for the city. It is one of eleven elements, seven of which are required by the State of California. Urban Design is not one of those required. Nonetheless, in San Francisco the urban design element is on par with required elements such as housing, open space, commerce and industry, and community safety. The general plan is used by the department in a variety of ways including as a foundation for specific planning efforts and as a screening device with which the department can evaluate public and private projects. It is also one ostensible basis for the zoning code.

The general plan (and by extension the urban design element) is invoked for any project that would require planning department review whether because of its size, zoning, complexity, or variance request. In such cases, the project is subject to both a zoning code and master plan evaluation. The master plan is also the instrument for master plan referral evaluations which are required for any public works project, or any project that effects public property.

Evaluating the plan in this context, one could argue the plan has had some influence on the planning process of the city. It is used for day-to-day decisions and it has influenced subsequent planning efforts such as the oft-acclaimed Downtown Plan which is a manifestation of the urban design element on a micro scale. Despite the growth of the go-go eighties, the fabric of the city, the city pattern, has remained for the most part intact.

More important, though, is the changing nature of the planning department's role in the city decision-making process, and, as a result, the changing nature of how the urban design plan is used. Although the master plan is a screen for planning department review, increasingly there are many projects in the city that are beyond the department's jurisdiction.

Many major public works and planning decisions are made through political maneuvering (at both the local and state level) or citizen initiative (frequently promoted by nostalgia or fear of change), often in ignorance of the precepts of the plan. As a result, for example, much of the city is significantly down-zoned from the height and bulk recommendations of the plan. Indeed, one could argue that the political climate of the city is relatively non-conducive to many of the ideas of the plan regarding higher densities or using height and bulk to highlight elements of the city pattern.

Similarly, many areas in San Francisco are now within one of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency's (SFRA) project areas. Since the SFRA is a state-chartered agency, the planning department has limited review powers (a situation which has profound implications for both the urban design plan and the downtown plan). SFRA projects such as Yerba Buena Center undermine many principles of the urban design element through their rejection of the street, promulgation of unusual building forms, and ignorance of the ideas of the city pattern.

The question of effectiveness, though, is more profound than whether the plan is used for everyday decisions. Unfortunately, the plan is used as a static, regulatory device, rather than the visionary, proactive device that it might have become. Therefore, the plan has impacted the city more in what it has prevented, than what it has promoted. In general, it has been used to regulate or to block projects; it is not used to shape the city, to promote growth, or to further enhance the city pattern. Within such a regulatory context the philosophy of the plan assumes utmost importance since it is impossible to include policies for every conceivable issue that might face the City.

Fundamentally, the plan is not used as a catalyst for new planning efforts. Nor is the plan used to promote public investment as was suggested by the either the landscape and lighting plan or the environmental deficiencies plan. Most important, the plan itself no longer defines the urban design vision of the planning department. Instead, it is viewed as just one of the elements of the General plan, no longer the guiding light.

The Urban Design Element was (and is) more than just a collection of objectives, policies, and principles. At its core it was a philosophical statement about the city of San Francisco, how it had grown and was to grow. But the Plan, as a vision and philosophy for urban design in the City of San Francisco, does not resonate anymore, either with the public, the Department, or the Government as a whole. Could we take a different approach to urban design planning that might serve our needs better?

Urban Design in San Francisco

Too often in San Francisco, the ideas of city pattern are implicitly static, which contributes to the notably conservative climate of change with regards to the physical environment. A noteworthy city pattern that is perceived as under threat is not conducive to the accommodation of unknown or unforeseen elements. Too often changes in the pattern are seen as undermining the whole because the whole is conceived as a fixed entity, frozen in time. Questions of change are evaluated not against the pattern per se, but against a perceived existing environment which, in the end, devolves into questions of style that ultimately paralyzes any discussion with rampant subjectivity. At their core, these debates represent a confusion between the essential qualities of the city pattern and the specific elements that compose the micro scale. Nonetheless, this implicit conservatism towards the city is not presented pejoratively. Rather it exposes how the Urban Design Plan fosters a particularly fondness of an image of San Francisco that persists despite many indications to the contrary.

An obvious example of the persistence of certain images of San Francisco is the city's attitude towards its waterfront. At one time, San Francisco did have a thriving, dynamic waterfront. Indeed, maritime activities were the lifeblood of the city for over a century. However, a variety of technological changes in the nature of maritime activities compounded by the city's dearth of land and railroad isolation devastated the maritime industry as it was once known. The Port of Oakland has become the preeminent port in the Bay area, at the expense of San Francisco, and San Franciscans are left with romantic memories.

There is a certain amount of irony in the nature of these memories too for while the waterfront was active, the city turned away. The working waterfront character was industrial, loud, frenetic, and considered ugly. So much so that the architectural history of the waterfront area is one of hiding the industry (the bulkhead buildings), building a buffer and facing away (Levi's Plaza), or in the ultimate expression of priorities, cutting the waterfront off from the rest of the city (the Embarcadero freeway). The ultimate paradox of the waterfront now is that as the city turns to the waterfront, it romanticizes a vision of the past that it disliked at the time, at the expense of the future.

The prevailing desire to "preserve" of maritime uses and character is an attempt to preserve a particular pattern of San Francisco, one that provided both its reason for being and shaped its development. There is little doubt that this historical link could be cultivated and respected, and in this respect the idea of city pattern is an effective tool, for it allows us to identify the components the comprise the whole. The difficulty, though, lies in divorcing the components from the image as the city reinvents the waterfront physically and economically. One could even argue that the economic reinvention is dependent on the physical reinvention.

The key is the distinction between the idea of a physical palette from which the city is composed and the idea of an existing pattern (or image) as a fixed proscription. Our image of the city often diverges from the city as it exists. Moreover, as a city we become so enamored with our existing image that we are unable to entertain any changes in the fabric, regardless of the rationale. In this context, the challenge for the philosophy of city pattern is, should it be recombined or modified to accommodate new patterns, how can the pattern be modified, and how would these modifications be evaluated? How do we define the qualities that engender a good pattern? Is the city characterized by one pattern, or a number of patterns? There may be several new ways to approach the problem of urban design planning that can help answer these questions. 

Approach # 1: City Pattern Modified by District Pattern

Accepting the proposition that San Francisco contains a number of pattern combinations is the starting point for a district-based definition of city pattern. Such an approach utilizes the existing language of the city pattern elements including streets, hills, water, and built form, but it uses this language to create finer-grained descriptions of the city. The comprehensive plan would establish the citywide goals and objectives, while the fine-grained, district understandings would yield policies that reflect the design character and needs of the district within the context of the larger plan.

The various Area Plans that have been developed by the Planning Department and incorporated into the general plan are general models for this district-based approach. The new approach would be the relationship between the urban design element and the area plans. Currently each of the area plans is akin to a comprehensive, stand-alone document and each was developed through an extensive, and extremely time-consuming planning process. As a result, area plans do not exist for every city district. They are related to the urban design element in that they conform to the general principles of the general plan, but they are not specifically drawn from the urban design element. In contrast, a district-based urban design plan would contain an explicit connection between the general plan and the area plans. It would outline a language and a process for developing the district plans, one that would facilitate more streamlined planning efforts for all city districts.

This approach embodies one of the philosophical tenets of the existing plan in that it considers urban design as a strategic tool for improving the city, both physically and psychologically. It makes similar assumptions that a sense of ownership is imbued by understanding one's relationship to both the larger city and one's own neighborhood. It veers from the existing plan in that it would outline an approach for connecting district-based planning efforts with the larger whole, as opposed to having the larger whole define the districts.

There is a rather vexing paradox that holds true for any comprehensive urban design effort: if a plan is too general, its broad brush can create policies that are either not applicable or subject to opposing interpretations; if the a plan is too specific, its policies can again be inapplicable or they might even be absent from an issue at hand. The challenge is to develop policies that address issues that might be of concern while acknowledging that not all situations can be, or should be, addressed.

Approach # 2: Performance Zoning

Using city pattern as a starting point, one might develop a design plan that establishes a series of norms against which interventions are evaluated. These norms would include physical qualities as well as social qualities that are deemed important. The plan would establish baseline conditions without prescribing solutions, thereby enabling creative and evolving answers.

Facilitating this approach would require a clear conception of urban design goals which would have to be limited in their scope. Within the physical realm, the values could be translated into simple performance zoning standards such as "new structures cannot block major view corridors, cause excessive noise, or cast shadows on public open space." Within the social realm, performance standards might articulate programs, environmental dispersion, or civic goals. An example might be a requirement that new construction not contribute to the "environmental degradation" of an area. Specific uses or structures would not be prohibited; rather they would have to be mitigated within.

This type of plan, which is essentially performance zoning, is not unique. The city of San Francisco actually has an existing zoning standard for the preservation of sunlight in city parks, one that is relatively easy to quantify, easy to apply, and clearly connected to an understandable urban design goal, unlike much of the zoning code. Similarly, the city of Seattle has promulgated performance zoning standards instead of traditional zoning restrictions. The attractiveness of this approach is that it is clear from both an urban design and zoning perspective. The urban design plan would outline essential qualities and goals without detailing specific solutions (somewhat akin to the existing plan), while the simplified zoning code becomes a clear implementation tool. This approach is potentially very flexible tool for nothing is specifically prohibited. As a result, the plan would promote the qualities of the city, as opposed to a specific image of the city. This last point is especially important, for one goal of an urban design plan should be that it escapes stylistic boundaries that freeze a city in time.

Of course, this approach would require an acceptance of new solutions, some of which seem uncomfortable or unattractive. Achieving such a radical reorientation of the city's general phobia of anything that changes the existing image is no simple task because it implies an acceptance of unknown stylistic and physical transformations. However, the argument would remain that as long as the basic qualities of the city are preserved, these unknown (even unknowable) interventions would not undermine the whole.

Approach # 3: Designing From our Shared Mythologies

The mythological approach implies that the city is essentially a collection of stories that are either known, being known, or to be known. Each place and neighborhood has its own story that emerges from its history, its people, and from its everyday life. These stories are constantly evolving as both social and physical fabric changes, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. A mythological approach taps the existing stories as the basis thinking about the future and imagining the place. Instead of merely envisioning a physical future for the city-the size, shape, and appearance of buildings, locations of open space, etc.-the task would be to first envision the story that describes the future and envision the physical elements that would support it.

Implicit in this approach is an argument that the city can be "read," that it is essentially composed of a series of elements that people can see and from which they can draw meaning. The fabric of the city is composed of the sentences that create the story in the form of symbols that convey messages. An urban design plan is thus a manipulation of these images to engender a particular meaning. One need only look to Italy in 1930s and the work of Albert Speer, not to mention almost any medieval town, to see that there are some inherent pitfalls with such an understanding in that symbols can be manipulated in a variety of ways. In our current context, a non-critical or authoritative approach to symbol manipulation is equally suspect.

One could argue that the mythological approach is employed by the new-urbanists. They develop new townscapes (based on old townscapes) that embody an attitude towards the physical environment that emerges from a vision of "small-town America." The physical elements of porches and town squares are the components of this nostalgic mythology, one which invokes cultural memories that are appealing in the midst of our modern maelstrom. Ultimately, the new urbanists are marketing a story with their plans and architecture. It is a story of "civicness," "ecology," and a "better way of living," and it certainly resonates in some quarters.

A mythological approach to urban design in San Francisco would posit stories that resonate in the city. These stories would then be translated into corollary design standards that would manifest the vision. The key is to transform the discussion from a phobia of particular elements and hot-button issues, to one of the type of neighborhood or city people envision for the future. Potential densities, building projects, or land uses would not be presented as abstracted urban design prescriptions as in "high density is good" or "multi-use development is desired" or "taller buildings on corners highlight the city pattern." Rather, the plan would postulate the relationship between the urban design goal and the concrete vision of the future city.

The appeal of this approach is that it is an opportunity to develop urban design goals that are couched in the language of the city. San Francisco is rife with mythologies about its past, its present, and its future. These range from the Barbary Coast of the late 19th century to the Multimedia Gulch of the 21st. Each invokes certain images and physical forms that are connected to a collective sense of what San Francisco is, and they are embedded in the fabric of the city. The challenge is tap into these existing mythologies while projecting new stories for the future.

For example, a mythological plan for the waterfront in San Francisco would address the area's history while confronting the fear of particular developments. Currently, there are very specific land use and urban design controls for the waterfront, many of which arise from the aforementioned nostalgia compounded by a fear of gentrification and certain types of economic development. Specifically, hotels and residential development are not permitted as pierside uses, primarily because they are seen as "privatizing" the waterfront. The mythological methodology would begin not with what is prohibited but with what is desired-in this case public access to the waterfront. Given its current condition in which many parts are inaccessible due to their decaying state, the question of public access become, how do we increase access in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. In this context, one could imagine that the land use specifics might become irrelevant as long as the public access goal is factored into new development.

The 1972 plan employed a certain mythology about what makes the city, based on the idea of human needs modulated by an understanding of the city image. Such a notion seems inherently abstracted because it does not capture the qualities that compose particular neighborhoods or areas in the city. These qualities are created by the interaction of the physical pattern, as well as the social and cultural factors which combine to define our understanding of both the city as a whole and our place within it.

Conclusion: The Role of Urban Design in San Francisco

The goal of this exploration of urban design methodologies is to develop an understandable and effective tool with which the city of San Francisco can plan for its future. A city with as profound a fear of change as San Francisco is threatened with stagnation. The urban design element must postulate an understanding of the city that makes people comfortable with idea of the changing city and one that retains its fundamental qualities.

The aforementioned problems in thinking about the waterfront are emblematic of the larger question of change in the city. For example, San Francisco's number one industry is tourism, a fact which much of the city has been reluctant to accept; current trends towards lofts and home-office run counter to prevailing notions of single-use residential neighborhoods, and the perceived qualities that define them; and, questions of environmental sustainability within the regional context argue for changes in density and transportation within the city and beyond.

The issues that San Francisco faces are intriguing and complex, ranging far beyond traditional questions of form and scale. At issue is a broader conception of the role of urban design, one that assumes that the entire range of questions of how we live in the city are necessarily within the purview of the Urban Design Plan. Urban design is concerned with affecting the space in which we live, and this space is affected by physical and non-physical factors. For example, tourism as a primary industry has an effect on how we preserve some elements of the city (the postcard) while changing others. As a result, the philosophy of the plan is of utmost importance. The existing plan does indeed embody a strong philosophy, but it is one that is embedded within the physical environment as it currently exists. A revised plan might not address every issue, but it must take a position on what defines the city, both physically and socially. Moreover, it must embody a conception of the city that is inherently flexible and not fixed on a particular image.


About the Authors: 

Evan Rose is an associate at Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein & Moris, architects and planners and on the board of directors of the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter. He was formerly urban designer with the San Francisco Department of City Planning.

Get The Urbanist

Join SPUR and get our magazine in your mailbox

Become a member