The Work Ahead — for 2019 and Beyond

By Gabriel Metcalf
Urbanist Article December 17, 2018


Gabriel Metcalf has served as SPUR’s president and CEO for 13 years. At the end of this month, he will leave SPUR to run Committee for Sydney in Sydney, Australia.

This was an especially big year in urbanism: A host of new housing measures passed, new forms of mobility exploded as scooters and e-bikes hit the streets, California took a bold lead in climate change initiatives and Democrats regained a supermajority in California and retook the U.S. House of Representatives. And it was a big year for me, because 2018 marks the end of my time at SPUR. I’d like to share a few parting thoughts on this amazing place we call home and the work ahead for Bay Area urbanists of all kinds.

Once, our problem was abandonment of cities. That was a long, long time ago.

Throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, SPUR fought against the big forces of postwar suburbanization: highway building, farmland conversion to tract homes and the concentration of low-income people inside urban areas with a shrinking tax base. San Francisco lost residents from 1950 to 1980, as did many older cities. As we well know, the trends have since reversed. Today, there’s an overwhelming demand to live in cities, which creates a host of challenges, especially with affordability. And we still have to deal with the consequences of the sprawling, suburbanized region we built. The Bay Area has had almost 40 years to adjust to the challenges of growth, but our planning tools and governing frameworks largely date from an earlier era and are designed to solve problems we no longer have. We still spend years studying the “negative environmental impacts” of infill housing and bus lanes. We still outlaw apartments from the vast majority of the Bay Area. But laws and institutions are made by people — so people can change them.

We can solve the problem of affordable housing.

It does not take a leap of science fiction utopianism to imagine a region with less expensive housing. Many cities all over the world have strong economies but are not as expensive. The people of the Bay Area need a new social compact that answers the question: What is asked of all of us to allow people of all means to live here? I’d suggest it’s basically two things: 1. we need to raise taxes on ourselves so we can build more affordable housing; and 2. we need to allow tall buildings next to short buildings — instead of insisting that all buildings match in scale — so we can overcome the shortage of housing. Solving this problem asks something of us, but it’s something we can afford to give.

Poverty is harder to solve — but the Bay Area has every advantage.

The Bay Area is blessed with perhaps the most successful innovation economy the world has ever known. It won’t last forever — nothing does — but for now, this coming together of companies, talent, financing, culture and supportive institutions means that this is a very good place to start and grow companies of many kinds. But let’s not forget: Many, many people are excluded from that prosperity. In most of America, anti-poverty work grapples with the fundamental challenge of how to create more jobs within the area — and often communities take desperate measures to attract jobs of any kind. But here we have the great luxury of being able to take that for granted so we can focus on the second part: ensuring that everyone has the skills and networks to access those jobs. The Bay Area will most likely continue to be a place of inequality in the sense of having a broad range of household incomes. But we can do much better at building ladders of opportunity so all people can be a part of and benefit from the Bay Area’s prosperity.

The generation after World War II built BART. What will this generation do?

The heroic age of regionalism in the 1960s and early 1970s left us with an incredible legacy. That generation saved the Marin Headlands, saved the Bay and built BART. If we had kept conserving land and building transit at that pace, we would live in a fundamentally different and better region today. Instead — in reaction to the great planning disasters of “slum” clearance and freeway building, which the heroic generation also wrought —the Bay Area got good at stopping bad things from happening. Somewhere along the way, we lost touch with our ability to make good things happen. The Bay Area needs to once again become capable of ambition — of making new, transformative, region-shaping investments that will make life here better.

We must become capable of acting more quickly.

Democracy is inherently messy, and big societal changes take a long time. At SPUR we have been proud of our ability to stay with issues through business cycles and terms in office of mayors and governors. But today we face the ticking clock of climate change. The latest data show we have less than 10 years to reduce our global emissions to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Meanwhile, it’s taking cities decades to complete small neighborhood plans and build bus rapid transit lines down existing streets. This pace of action will appear morally unconscionable to future generations. It’s up to us to prove that our democratic process is capable of facing the reality of climate change and making changes fast enough to match the urgency of the problem.

The Bay Area has a special mission.

The Bay Area has an important role to play in the story of our country. We are building a working prototype of a metropolis that is prosperous, ecologically sustainable and socially inclusive: 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, a demonstration of how to welcome different kinds of people and find a way to get along with one another. Yes, we have fallen short on several fronts, and yes, the Bay Area has work to do. It will always be an unfinished project. But it is a truly amazing place — a reminder to the entire world what America can be like when it lives up to its potential.

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