San Franciscans, like residents of most big cities, are in a continuous process of reshaping public spaces. There are pilot programs for new ways to use Market Street, for pocket parks in areas covered with underutilized asphalt, for Sunday Streets closures, for opening sidewalks to “green sewers,” and even some tentative efforts to launch more public art and/or urban agriculture in empty lots. All of these experiments are welcome departures from the long-simmering biases favoring the total unquestioned domination of private automobiles over public space.
Behind most of the experiments are deeper ideas of an improved life, what some people are quick to dismiss as “utopian.” The anti-utopians apparently consider change impractical or threatening, or have accepted the close-minded meme of the past few decades that any kind of “social engineering,” or public planning to improve human interaction, is inherently totalitarian. This mentality is rooted in a presumption that the way things are is always good enough, or that even if they aren’t, humans are so inherently corrupt or power-mad that any effort to improve things can only make it worse. The dark chapters of mid-20th century totalitarianism (now being regularly conflated to the present by Murdoch’s pompous blowhards) are somehow supposed to be examples of why trying to make life better is impossible. The American Way of Life, with all its poverty, racism, militaristic imperialism, shallow materialism, et al, is somehow the best we can hope for, and anyone who doesn’t accept that at face value is at best a dupe of some future dictator.
For those of us concerned with transit planning, or urban planning more broadly, this politico-cultural baggage comes with the territory. It shapes the discussion before it starts, and so a lot of folks have learned to think small, so as not to fan the flames of fear.
Curiously, SPUR is hosting an exhibit right now called “49 Cities” in which a variety of utopian urban plans are revisited, from the works of Le Corbusier to Owenite cooperative colonies, to Levittown and Brasilia, and even a Buckminster Fuller plan to put a giant Dome over midtown Manhattan. One curiosity of the exhibit is its organization of a “Fear Timeline” which plots various utopian urban visions over a four-century long timeline. Clustered largely in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the visions were concocted to address the dominant “fears” of their era, whether it be military invasion by a foreign army, securing internal security against uprising masses, ensuring access to water or food, controlling disease, etc.
Given the overarching theme of utopia, I expected the exhibit to be more inspiring than it is. The authors of this study have chosen to flatten out the particularities of human culture, political movements, passion and visionary excitement, to instead present the studies as composites of specific statistical comparisons. The end result is a series of odd two-dimensional diagrams (like the one above) which allow plans from across time and space to be compared on total land areas, total housing, distribution of land-uses, population, green spaces in its variations, water use, etc.
Almost as an antidote to this numbing exhibit, Matt Hern came to town recently and gave a few talks. I caught him at the Studio for Urban Projects, an exciting new venue in the Mission on 17th Street near Guerrero. Hern is from Vancouver and has a new book out called Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. I haven’t had a chance to read it all yet, but his presentation was quite a refreshing alternative to the kind of dry, bureaucratic approaches to which most urban planners tend to succumb. Hern is a fully accredited Urban Studies Ph.D., but standing in front of us in a white t-shirt and jeans, his head shaved, talking about planting community gardens in his East Vancouver neighborhood, and defending the right of the local junkies to hang out in the neighborhood park, he came across as the neighbor you wish you had. (He has small children too, and still says he’d rather have the drug dealing going on in the open in the middle of the park than being busted and pushed into the alleys and doorways of the surrounding neighborhood. That way he can see it and work around it.)
His book refers back to Vancouver, but it’s written from a number of other locales around the world. He has chapters from Thessaloniki, Greece, Istanbul, Turkey, New York City, Diyarbakir, Kurdistan, Portland, Oregon, and others. He explained to us that however you think about your own city, once you go elsewhere, it always develops in interesting ways. The comparisons one can make when far from home are often surprising. Suddenly you notice a sensible bus shelter, or an open streetside marketplace, and realize that an analogous locale in your home city could learn a lot from this new perspective.
Hern is concerned with gentrification, like most of us that live in cities that are rapidly evicting long-time populations of poor and working class people. San Francisco is a quintessential example of this process. Here in the Mission where I live, the process of turning into a mini-Greenwich Village proceeds unabated. You wouldn’t know there’s an economic crisis going on here by glancing in to the many new, crowded, upscale restaurants.
As Hern says:
The market puts us in Faustian bargain: almost any attempts to beautify, improve, develop, or embolden a community inevitably means it will price its most vulnerable/valuable citizens out and undermine all that good work. Capitalism values selfishness and self-interest above all. Progressive planning and social policy try to mitigate this, but are always behind the curve and at a pronounced disadvantage… Cities CAN do something other than smooth the way for capital and/or clean up its messes. It is possible to articulate and develop genuinely democratic and inclusive strategies that are not self-defeating, that don’t reduce “community” to a commodity. There have to be ways to imagine sustainable community development that doesn’t price people out. I think we can carve huge areas out of this economy for non-market life.
I agree. The specific remedy for the housing crisis that is pricing ever more people out of life in San Francisco is the limited equity co-op based on a land trust. We have functioning co-ops here in town, the most forward looking being the San Francisco Community Land Trust. They’ve already managed to acquire one building on Columbus in North Beach where the former elderly Chinese tenants are now owners, paying only slightly more than they used to pay in rent. Removing properties from the market in perpetuity should be the goal of an aggressive social capital fund under democratic public control — not to make a revolution, but to start the process of wresting our lives from the vicissitudes of raw capitalism when it comes to home, community, and shelter.
Housing is only a small but important part of this larger agenda of radical change. To make San Francisco a city that connects with the needs of its residents requires a very different political structure and very different forms of power to emerge, ones that will allow for a wholly new kind of public planning to take place. The kind of transition to a low-energy, low-water, high quality-of-life future that we must begin to make will depend on a great deal of mutual aid and solidarity. Instead of building infrastructure that could facilitate a more robust common life, this city’s mayors have consistently put the interests of wealthy property owners and large corporations ahead of its working and middle class residents. The quasi-progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors since 2000 has done little to reverse this deep bias in city politics.
Utopian thinking is the only realistic way forward at this point. Leaving our fate in the hands of PG&E, Bechtel, Chevron, and the rest of that lot is to ensure our inability to face a future fraught with radical change.
Matt Hern sums it up nicely:
An ecological and an ethical city is one and the same thing—we can’t have a “green” city without reimagining our social institutions. And that can’t be made to happen by relying on politicians or planners or developers. They can’t lead, they have to get out of the way and allow the neighborhoods, communities, public spaces, and common spaces that make a great city to become the ongoing expression of a constant series of choices made by everyday citizens.
Fighting for our common spaces, our right to what we already DO have, is underway. This Saturday, March 27, from 10-5 all over town, take to the sidewalks. Sidewalks are for people! Use them! Many of us will gather at Castro and Market at 4 pm to dramatize our opposition to a mayor and police chief (and their political supporters) bent on destroying the fabric of San Francisco. Check it out online at www.standagainstsitlie.org.