Can the Reluctant Metropolis Embrace Enthusiasm for the Future?
November 5, 2018

On October 30, 2018, outgoing SPUR CEO and President Gabriel Metcalf gave his final public address at the Silver SPUR Awards, our annual celebration of civic achievement. A shortened version of this speech appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

I want to share some reflections about where the Bay Area has been and where we are now and where we’re going as a region. To sketch out where we’ve been, I looked up what was happening in 1997, the year I started at SPUR. It was the year that the first Harry Potter book was published, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, Bill Clinton was in his fifth year as president and Willie Brown was in his second year as mayor of San Francisco. We were on the cusp of a lot of big changes then, but the way history works, you don’t always know what’s right around the corner. 

We didn’t know that same-sex marriage would soon be legal or that Burning Man would still be going 20 years later. We didn’t know we were in the middle of something that would later be called the dot-com boom, closely followed by the dot-com bust. We told ourselves, “This city has always been a place of boom and bust, maybe things will go back to normal,” and we went back to worrying about the future of our economy.

But underneath the drama of the up-and-down of the business cycle, the economy of San Francisco and the economy of Silicon Valley were merging. The Bay Area was becoming a single integrated economic unit, and, in one of history’s great ironies, this most anti-capitalist of U.S. cities would become a true center of capitalism. 

It soon became clear that the contrast between this growing, increasingly integrated regional economy and the hyper-localized, hyper-fragmented system for planning and governance was going to cause serious problems. We’ve been the reluctant metropolis.

Today, the Bay Area is the most important center of economic innovation in the world — and yet this is a place that has been very ambivalent about growing. It’s a place that has not been willing to add housing or transit in proportion to the jobs it’s added. As we’ve scaled up the economy, we have not scaled up the urbanism to match — and that divergence is the essence of our planning problem.

On the housing side, we have had a hard time welcoming new people to be here. That is the dark side of Bay Area liberalism: We believe in immigration in theory, but in practice we are not willing to allow new buildings in our communities so that actual people have an actual place to live. Because of the choices we have made to protect neighborhood character, every person who comes here pushes out someone who was here already. 

The same story plays out with transit. The Bay Area has grown too big to function with so many people driving, but we have not been willing to invest in new transit at anywhere near the necessary levels.

So it’s no mystery why housing costs so much, no mystery why it’s hard to get around. Those are the choices we have made.

The only way out of this is to stop being the reluctant metropolis and to become the enthusiastic metropolis — to move with energy and commitment to scale up the urban systems of the Bay Area. I’m not saying this is our only problem, but all the other things we need to do in the domains of economic inclusion and governance and culture are going to be so much more possible if we become the enthusiastic metropolis.

This is why SPUR has put so much emphasis on helping people to imagine what this future metropolis could look like:

A place that will have room for the people who are here now as well as for immigrants.

A place with economic opportunity for everyone, no matter where they started out.

A place that is not just diverse — because that is simply a fact about the Bay Area — but a place that is putting its creative energy and wealth into the problem of how to build a truly inclusive society.

Such a place will have a truly great transit system, like some of us experience when we go to London or Paris or Tokyo, and roadways that offer livability by making it safe to bicycle everywhere, like we see in the great European cities. 

We have taken some steps toward such a place. Over the last 20 years, SPUR has done some things of which I am quite proud:

We’ve worked on transit expansions.

We’ve gone under the hood to improve the inner workings of public agencies.

We’ve worked to upgrade buildings to survive earthquakes and re-planned our shorelines to survive climate change.

We’ve promoted ballot measures in public and mediated conflicts in private. 

But what matters even more is that on some of the biggest issues we’ve changed the way people think. We’ve helped people imagine how an urbanized region could work, how it could succeed at solving the problems we face.

These days it’s easy to tell stories about the future that are apocalyptic, whether about climate change or about our country. It’s harder to tell stories that show how things could work out the right way. But that’s what we need to do: We need to be able to tell stories that show a path from where we are to where we want to be.

We are going to be tested in the time ahead, the way certain generations before us were tested. As I read my American history, I have sometimes wondered what role I would have played in the struggles, in the inflection points of our past:

Before the Civil War, would I have had the courage to be an abolitionist?

During the Depression would I have had the courage to be a labor organizer?

In the 1950s and 1960s, would I have had the courage to be part of the civil rights movement?

Well, we are all getting our chance to find out what role we want to play in this inflection point. We will be tested.

So many of the conversations we are having with our friends, with our families, have to do with the question of hope: how to be hopeful while still being realistic in a time like this. We know the opposite — falling into despair or being naïve about what’s happening with the world — are not good. But it’s so hard to find a way to authentically hold both the hope and the realism.

The answer is that from any one moment in time there are different paths that are possible, different futures that could emerge.

What we’re called on to do right now is to be realistic about what is happening today, to see the multiple possibilities for the future and at the same time to call on America to live up to its ideals. That’s how we can hold on to a hopeful vision no matter what is happening in the short run.

What has motivated me during my time in this role is that I believe that San Francisco and the Bay Area have a mission within the United States. For me, the story of this region and the story of our country are very connected. The Bay Area’s role is to be:

A haven for people fleeing oppression

A place of opportunity for people seeking to better their economic condition

A model that helps America rediscover the lost art of city-building

In short, the Bay Area is supposed to help America become its best self. The work we do here — the work that you all will continue — matters for us and for the story of our country. 

Serving as the head of SPUR has been the greatest honor of my life. Thank you for making everything we have done possible and for staying with this amazing organization as it leads the Bay Area into the future.

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