From a Distance

Reflections on neighborhood planning

Urbanist Article July 1, 2003

June 12, 2003: SPUR has asked me to write something about neighborhoods and planning—how neighborhoods interact with the planning process now, and what I think the challenges and opportunities of neighborhood planning might be in the future. The request comes just as I am about to leave on vacation, and I’m a little hard-pressed. In the end I agree to do it, but I tell the newsletter editors that they will have to be satisfied with something anecdotal and impressionistic—no jeremiad (and no crystal ball either), just postcards from Paris. It’s the best I can do.

And anyway, it seems right somehow. Once I get over the jetlag I start thinking about how I learned these two cities together—I moved to San Francisco over twenty years ago, just after having spent six months abroad. Most of that time was spent in Paris, and it was Paris that sent me looking for someplace more like it—someplace with more people, more books and art, more tolerance, more choices in general. All through graduate school, I went back and forth, the two places playing off each other like a set of trick mirrors, their crossed perspectives giving me my images of urban sophistication—and urbanism.

Just as I am getting ready to leave, the Paris-San Francisco connection sparks controversy in my own backyard. A story about a women who buys a dream apartment in Paris that appeared in the Noe Valley Voice in April prompted a May letter to the editor from SPUR President Jim Chappell, reminding Noe Valley residents that lively Parisian neighborhoods and (relatively) affordable living spaces are a product of greater density and taller buildings on narrower streets—just the things that San Francisco’s neighborhood groups tend to fight. Jim’s letter sparked a tart June reply from Friends of Noe Valley Treasurer Jean Amos, reminding him that to compensate for greater density, Paris also built wide boulevards, well-kept parks and efficient transit, and that even these amenities came at a high price—the neighborhood clearance initiatives that characterized development patterns in nineteenth-century Paris. Jim and Jean are both great people, and I work with both of them on city planning issues. They are thoughtful, tireless advocates for the city of their dreams. But it’s clear that both see Paris and San Francisco differently. And I see the two cities differently yet again.

The emphasis on the first-person point of view is intentional; it’s a neighborhood perspective, after all. Neighbors speak from experience and tend to talk in concrete examples—of what they know works and what doesn’t on this particular street, in this particular park or next to this particular building. And this is why their input can be so rich in potential, valued by urbanists like Jane Jacobs, who liked to contrast the “pseudoscience of city planning, and its companion, the art of city design” to the more pragmatic and exhilarating work of “testing, bit by bit, true descriptions of reality drawn from…how it is.” Jonathan Raban called this real urban world the “soft city”—complicated, vibrant, and more or less something else again to everyone who lives there. But of course, there’s the rub—it’s where the soft city meets the hard city, where concrete representations of the present encounter abstract plans for the future, that neighborhood planning tends to breakdown.

June 14, 2003: It is easy to idealize other cities. Vancouver and Chicago are hot topics these days in planning circles. The Paris designed by Baron von Haussmann has long been an object lesson for American advocates of dense yet livable urban cores, Jim Chappell among them (although the Surrealist poet and man on the streets Louis Aragon would have sided to some degree with Jean Amos; quick to disavow what he saw as Haussmann’s purely administrative triumph, he claimed that even in the nineteenth century the passion for city planning was an unfortunate American import).

It’s harder to remember that all cities are works in progress. And all cities are cities for better and worse. The Paris city center is lively and dense; it is also thoroughly gentrified. The surfaces of its neighborhoods retain the markings of the tailors, bakers and even (one of my favorites) a small manufacturer of rubber erasers who once set up shop there. But the windows of the storefronts in the Marais are just as full of women’s clothing, jewelry, designer furniture and chain patisseries as they are on 24th Street or Chestnut Street. Then too, the streets of Paris, whether wide boulevards or narrow rues, are choked with cars (horns blaring), offleash dogs and, increasingly, the sans-abri (homeless), who represent a very different and depressingly contemporary phenomenon from the picturesque clochards of old Paris. My response tends to be not one of disdain but solidarity: part of the great urban family, I feel a small sense of relief at the apparent intractability of the problem when I spy a panhandler asking for spare euros on the onramp to the périphérique; I smile in secret camaraderie when someone lucks into a prime parking space beneath my balcony window; I read with glee a flyer posted by the neighborhood Association Quartier des Rosiers organizing residents to “refuse the double talk at City Hall” and demand completion of a long-promised new park. “Venez nombreux!” (“Come one, come all”), the affiche concludes. Damn right, I think. I hope they do.

Later today, I pick up a a copy of La Revue Durable, a political journal that covers issues of urbanism and ecological sustainability. The pages are full of discussions that would be familiar to most readers of the SPUR newsletter—articles about adaptive re-use of industrial buildings, about creating compact urban centers, about putting pedestrians and bicycles first. Neighbors too, I think, would mostly say that they want a sustainable city. Yet there’s a tendency in the neighborhoods to confuse sustainability with stasis, and to mistake planning a city that can renew itself, that uses its resources wisely and that balances private gain with public benefit, with protecting a city against change. Neighborhood stakeholders have some reason to regard forward-looking planning with skepticism—every city has its share of development boondoggles, transit deadends, and open spaces that refuse to “take.” But a retrospective focus on the mistakes of the past reinforces a neighborhood planning culture of protest in the present. And the often condescending (and sometimes punitive) responses to such neighborhood intransigence from “on high” merely reinforce negative patterns of interaction—precisely the patterns we don’t want to sustain.

June 17, 2003: Of course, breaking the habit of recycling old battles and planning instead for good change takes work. The first articles I ever wrote on planning matters in San Francisco appeared in the Noe Valley Voice in 2000. They were largely how-to pieces—how to prepare for discretionary review, how to approach planning commissioners, how to focus on specific modifications to project plans. The fact is, most neighbors (unlike most developers, architects, landuse attorneys, etc.) are infrequent clients at the Planning Commission and Planning Department. They face the challenge not merely of advocating for their position, but of forming relationships, and learning how things work, what the language is, what can be addressed through the planning process and what can’t.

Today I went to the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, the Paris museum of city planning and urban design. An inviting neon sign blinked the mysterious acronym “PLU” from an upstairs gallery. When I step into the space, I discover a display on the Plan local d’urbanisation (PLU)—the city master plan that is revised every twenty years. Maps displaying the topography and development patterns of the city as a whole are interspersed with video monitors offering a bird’s eye view into individual districts. Thick cahiers of data broken out by arrondissement are stacked on reading tables surrounded by comfortable chairs. A grid of maps placing each neighborhood “under a magnifying glass” outline specific challenges and goals. When I go to the bakery in the evening, I spy a poster inviting neighborhood residents to a hearing on the PLU at the local mairie (every Parisian arrondissement has its own town hall). The notice reminds them that it is their duty as Parisians to participate in planning for their future.

It may be a pie-in-the-sky optimism to hope that San Francisco’s newly forged Supervisorial districts will morph from electoral contrivances into authentic arrondissements. And I honestly don’t know whether the average vrai titi parisien is any happier with the PLU than the average West-of–Twin Peaker is happy with the newly revised Housing Element of San Francisco’s General Plan. But this is precisely where Supervisorial offices could serve their districts better, becoming not only places to go seeking redress, but places to gather and connect, to begin to think from the neighborhoods to City Hall. In turn, Supervisorial offices are well-situated to act as conduits from City departments to their constituents. After all, if you won a district election, you probably know your stakeholder groups fairly well. There may well be some neighborhood groups who will never be happy with any general plan that allows for growth. But there’s no excuse for the email I received yesterday, from a prominent neighborhood planning advocate who had just heard, at this late date, that the housing element was being revised and wanted to know what she should do about it.

June 21, 2003: There’s one more way in which I do think Paris does have something to teach us, and it’s more difficult to express. It’s not just institutions like the Pavillon de l’Arsenal or the local mairie that help make the city legible to the people who live there. Its view corridors, to take just one example, are not mere aesthetic amenities, but a way of drawing lines of connection, piercing through the soft city of everyday trajectories to glimpse the totality—even if that totality is only hinted at by a grand civic building shimmering in the distance. Paris has other, deeply intimate images of thenetworked, total city—the Metro map comes to mind. At an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo called Global Navigation System, the contemporary French artist Pierre Joseph is represented by a piece in which he recreated the Metro map by memory. It’s instantly recognizable and yet full of holes, careful and right about the places he frequents regularly, and blissfully hazy about the rest. This is how the soft city works its magic on the abstractions of city administration.

What are the ways in which our city tells us about the relationship of the parts to the whole, I wonder? How can we work to create a city that moves compassionately and justly, with vision and creativity, from hard plan to soft experience (and back again)? Because I want to have both and I want to find better ways for the people who call themselves “neighbors” (and by this they mean people with deep roots, strong ties, and great love for their communities) to play a part.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

Jeannene Przyblyski is president of Friends of Noe Valley and a member of the SPUR board of directors.

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