What Is a City?

Fourteen San Franciscans offer their views on what makes a good city

Urbanist Article March 1, 2001

As we at SPUR struggle with the issues that face San Francisco today, the question often comes up, “What is a city in the 21st century?” The way we address the problems of the day — how we increase accessibility for all of us, what we do about the high costs of housing, how we meet the challenges of a rapidly growing economy—in part depends on what kind of place this thing called San Francisco is. What is or can or should our city be now and in the future?

After the discovery of gold 150 years ago, the economy and image of the city were inextricably connected with the port and the industrial uses that followed. Then, after World War II, as industries were abandoning central cities all over the world and as the port of San Francisco Bay moved to Oakland (just as the port of Los Angeles moved to Long Beach and the port of New York moved to New Jersey), San Francisco did what so many older American cities failed to do: it reinvented itself, this time as a headquarters city, and converted its major employment base from industry to services.

And then again, after the recession of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, after San Francisco lost half its Fortune 500 company headquarters and 40,000 jobs in a year, the economy of the city gained a new lease on life with the growth of the new digital industries.

So what is the purpose of San Francisco today, if it’s not a military center or a port or manufacturing center, or any of those other things that have always been nuclei of cities?

I would submit that the purpose of a city today is exactly what a primary purpose of cities has always been: to maximize the number of human interactions among strangers and to minimize travel. These strangers might be the new digital workers, university students, shoppers at Union Square, or museum and concert- goers; they might be the very young and the very old as well as those in the middle. San Francisco will thrive to the degree with which we reinforce its roles as a center of education, the arts, entertainment, culture, health care, specialized businesses and cross-cultural interactions. These concentrations of interactions are precisely what has attracted and sustained the new knowledge- based digital industries in San Francisco. Using the criterion of maximizing human interactions for making planning decisions for San Francisco, I have come up with a long and somewhat random list of elements San Francisco could and should have.

To name a few:

• first class public transit
• mixed-income neighborhoods with houses and flats and apartments and in-laws
• replacement of underutilized and unused, derelict workplaces with new places to live and work and play
• neighborhood centers, bringing together open space, schools, libraries, police stations, meeting rooms, and group housing
• dense concentrations of office workers and housing on trunk transit lines
• lively downtown and neighborhood commercial districts with sidewalk cafes and street vendors
• well-designed and maintained public parks and plazas
• quality public schools
• close-by ballparks, stadiums and arenas
• mixed-use restaurant/retail/theater/ office and residential projects
• neighborhoods with old buildings and new buildings, and the natural mix of users and incomes that implies
• widen sidewalks and a comprehensive bike network.

Maximizing human interactions and minimizing travel also suggests some things we should not be pursuing:

• over-reliance on the single passenger automobile for the trip to work
• increased congestion and frequent curb cuts caused by new commuter parking for downtown office buildings
• low-density developments downtown and on major transit corridors
• removal of curbside parking or narrowing of sidewalks.

Perhaps another way of saying this is that we need to celebrate the things that make San Francisco a city, and not try to make it a suburb. We are not low density, we cannot provide unlimited parking at every origin and destination, we need to concentrate around transit hubs, and we want to provide the maximum opportunities to rub shoulders not only with those to whom we are naturally attracted, but to all San Franciscans and our visitors.

I believe that one reason all communities, and especially San Francisco, have conflicts over planning and zoning issues is that there is not agreement about what things make a city, about the characteristics we want to reinforce and those that we don’t.

This is, of course, just one opinion of what a city is. SPUR has also asked a number of noted community members to tell us what the city is, can or should be the year 2001 and beyond. What follows are the thoughts of 13 of them. We will be following up in future newsletters with others when we address the topics of public space and plazas.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

Jim Chappell is an urban planner by training and president of SPUR.

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