Of course, it is impossible to know what San Francisco will look like in the future, and it would not be feasible to create a master blueprint for The City that is inflexible. The reasoning lies in the past. The planners of yesterday leaned heavily on the post-World War II car culture. Had that trajectory held, there likely would still be a highway along our waterfront, through the middle of The City and, possibly, in many other areas.
That same lesson can now be applied to the housing of the future, especially as The City heads toward a population of 1 million — by far the highest that it has ever been. For comparison, that would be roughly double the number of residents that lived here in 1920 — a time before most of the West of Twin Peaks neighborhoods were built out.
A recent San Francisco Examiner series that explored the challenges The City faces as its population heads toward 1 million produced varied reactions, ranging from calls to build the necessary housing for whomever can afford it to totally stopping construction. Neither of those polarized options likely is best for San Francisco, but it’s just as clear that The City cannot continue on the same track it is on now, and that the short-term solutions being proposed are not enough to significantly change the course.
What has also been clear is that the system The City has currently is not really a system, but rather a series of patches that have been erected around roadblocks thrown into the system that did exist before — many that were rightly put into place and others that are more dubious. What has resulted is a more pro-growth side that is often blocked by anti-development opponents, and an anti-development side that is constantly moving to block projects, often in piecemeal fashion, that they oppose. Instead of finding any consistent middle ground — the same place both sides often end up anyway on many projects — the polarized fighting starts anew with each development.
It is a system in which no one wins.
Look at San Francisco now, where many of the more anti-development people are the same ones talking about people moving here and displacing current residents. And some of the more pro-growth people are decrying the affordable housing that they are being asked to build to avoid the displacement of low- and middle-income residents who may have lived here for years or decades.
When people talk about why they want to live in San Francisco it is often for the culture — the nightlife, arts, music and overall counterculture feel that has persisted since the Beat generation, though one could argue that it goes all the way back to the Barbary Coast days too.
Now is the perfect time for people on all sides of the debate to start thinking about the San Francisco they want at present and what kind of San Francisco they want to leave for the generations to come. There is a way that this city can grow and continue to be affordable for everyone. While that will be challenging for the next few years, it will be extremely difficult as San Francisco’s population gets closer and closer to 1 million.
Setting The City on a sustainable course for the far future is difficult, since it means investing in infrastructure not just for our lifetimes but for decades after — a long view that can be obscured by the large dollar signs right in front of our faces. And it can also mean plotting out land-use strategies that make sense as much for future populations as for our own, which are tough decisions since The City will have to grow in everyone’s backyards.
The alternative, of course, is to do nothing and continue bickering, winning little battles while the whole war is lost. That will ensure this generation a place in the history books — the generation that did nothing for the future of San Francisco.