Model Places: Envisioning a Future Bay Area With Room and Opportunity for Everyone

Illustration by Danie Drankwalter

The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the world’s most innovative and progressive regions, but we face enormous challenges, from the cost of housing to the threat of sea level rise to racial and economic inequity.

Over the next 50 years, the region is expected to gain as many as 4 million people and 2 million jobs. In a place where a crushing housing shortage is already threatening quality of life, how can we welcome new residents and jobs without paving over our green spaces or pushing out long-time community members? To keep pace, and make the region more affordable, the Bay Area will need almost 2.2 million housing units by 2070, according to SPUR’s research.

As part of the SPUR Regional Strategy, we partnered with AECOM to investigate what it would take to house everyone who wants to live in the Bay Area. We’ve published our research in a new report, Model Places: Envisioning a Future Bay Area With Room and Opportunity for Everyone.

To determine where growth should go, we used land use data to assign every part of the nine-county Bay Area to one of 14 “place types” based on urban patterns that occur throughout the region — from open spaces and residential suburbs to industrial areas and dense downtowns.

Model Places envisions what six of these different place types could look like if they grew in ways that made them not just more equitable and more sustainable, but more livable and humanizing places to live and work.

Our analysis shows that the Bay Area has plenty of room to grow, but only if every urbanized part of the region is willing to accept their share of the change. The responsibility can’t rest solely with the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods that have seen the most growth in recent years. Affluent places also need to do their part to accommodate new housing and new jobs.

The good news for everyone is that new growth can make existing neighborhoods better places for people, supporting diversity and inclusion, public health, sustainability and community life while retaining many of their essential qualities and lowering our carbon-footprint. And if we do it right, we can grow without sprawl — protecting and restoring the Bay Area’s unique natural environment.

This vision represents a bold new direction for the Bay Area, so we invited five artists to help us bring it to life, lending their different sensibilities to imagine a region where every place does its part and everyone can thrive. You can see their work in the report.

A Call to Action

To realize this vision, the Bay Area must commit to collectively tackling the challenges of housing, transportation, equity and climate change. Getting there will require profound changes in policies, practices, laws and culture — recommendations SPUR will be making in upcoming Regional Strategy reports. Real transformation will require a series of changes at different levels of government over many decades. It’s never easy for communities to commit to massive change, especially when they can’t see ahead to the outcome. We hope Model Places gives a glimpse of what’s possible — and inspires a commitment to what’s needed.

Read the Model Places report


Benjamin Grant is SPUR’s Urban Design Policy Director.
Stephen Engblom is Global Director of AECOM Cities.