What can our urban landscape reveal about San Francisco? In Reimagining the City, speakers looked at different approaches to Bay Area planning, exploring historical power structures and their impact on San Francisco today.
The program opened with a presentation by Gray Brechin, a historical geographer and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “To know how a city operates, you need to know who owns what,” Brechin said, as he showed slides of familiar-looking maps of downtown San Francisco. “These maps don’t give you much information because they don’t tell you who controls the real estate depicted,” he explained. Understanding who owns which land and buildings in San Francisco reveals a lot about how the city functions.
Brechin is the founding scholar of the Living New Deal, an initiative to document the legacy of the New Deal and make that information widely accessible. He is also the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (1999), which chronicles how San Francisco was shaped by prominent wealthy families. In his talk, Brechin described how these wealthy families—namely the de Youngs, who owned the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Hearsts, who owned the San Francisco Examiner—built a media monoculture that effectively controlled public information. In the mid-1900s there were four major newspapers. By 1989 there was just one, when the Chronicle was sold to the Hearst family, who had made their fortune in mining.
Families like these can be considered “thought-shapers.” By controlling the media, they control what the public knows. This is most detrimental, Brechin explained, where money and power cross over into public issues and public space, especially since urban density has disproportionately benefited landlords. In the case of the Chronicle, that has translated into scant reporting on land ownership issues, which often involved the paper’s owners. In the case of mainstream media in general, according to Brechin, there is often a lack of reporting on the intimate connections between poverty and its flip side, great wealth.
Brechin also introduced the concept of “building cities on denial,” a reference to irresponsible real estate development patterns in cities like Venice and London, where the landscapes continue to be dramatically altered by the environmental impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise. In San Francisco, where the threat of earthquakes looms large, appropriate safety concerns should be at the center of any architectural plan for new construction projects.
In April 2018 the New York Times published the expose “San Francisco’s Big Seismic Gamble,” reporting that San Francisco building codes—including those that applied to the construction of the 1,070-foot Salesforce tower—protect neither buildings nor their surroundings and inhabitants from earthquakes and other environmental threats. Regulations for a five-story building are the same as for a fifty-story building. Brechin noted that this level of in-depth reporting on environmental and safety concerns in construction rarely appears in California newspapers like the Chronicle.
“This is what public knowledge should be about,” said Brechin. “It’s reality vs. realty. We have both of them, but the second should not bend to the first.” In response to an audience member’s question about how to leverage the wealth in this city for civic good, Brechin responded, “We need leadership.” He added that strong leadership has been lacking for decades, as have been fundamental decency and kindness in addressing public concerns.
The next presenter was Robin Abad Ocubillo, a senior planner at the San Francisco Planning Department and adjunct professor of Architecture at California College of the Arts. In contrast to Brechin’s exploration of the disparate historical power imbalances that factor into the city’s contemporary landscape, Abad Ocubillo presented ways that the city’s varied constituencies are working together to transform public spaces.
The public realm—the physical space in which we enact our social contract and practice democracy—is encoded with meaning, Abad Ocubillo said. He described a practice of “placemaking,” an ever-evolving mode of civic engagement in the production of public space, and he acknowledged this way of working has been the subject of heavy critique. He has focused on finding ways to reformulate governmental structures to engage communities in reimagining the public realm.
To illustrate San Francisco’s unique expressions of placemaking, Abad Ocubillo drew on influential local precedents that took on aspects of civil disobedience, such as artist Bonnie Ora Sherk’s Portable Parks—a series of park installations adjacent to a freeway that were funded through SFMOMA with a SECA grant in 1970—and a 2005 installation by the art and design studio Rebar that served as the inspiration for the annual worldwide celebration called Parking Day. Those installations, he said, are local antecedents of the open space typology now known around the world as the “parklet.” Parklets are small parks reclaimed from car parking spaces and are now a commonplace “part of the vernacular landscape” of San Francisco and in cities across the United States. Abad Ocubillo called parklets “revolutionary” gestures that helped to propel an international approach to placemaking called “tactical urbanism”: rapidly implemented, experimental changes to the built urban environment, often issuing from the grassroots and other public interest groups. He cited a number of Bay Area organizations, including art institutions, that have been instrumental in expanding placemaking practise through tactical urbanism.
Parklets and other examples of placemaking rely on private funding and local sponsorship, a brand of civic boosterism that raises important questions: Who is doing the imagining, the redesigning, and the reclaiming of public space? For whom is it done? How does it change the cultural life of the city?
Abad Ocubillo described current trends in the transformation of public space as heuristic urbanism, characterized by open experimentation, iteration, and progressive restructuring in government, public policy, and regulatory mechanisms of cities through a feedback loop between government and projects undertaken by everyday citizens. His examples included street spaces recovered as playgrounds, pedestrian plazas, and public parks, and pop-ups in vacant lots for a range of activities curated by neighborhood groups. What makes these methods of transformation unique in history is the convergence of strategies employed by the state with tactics of reclamation by activists and advocates, Abad Ocubillo said. This necessitates community engagement, including the education and empowerment of people to transform public spaces.
In 2016 San Francisco passed the “Places for People” ordinance, the first ever placemaking ordinance in an American city. The legislation provided a legal framework for testing new modes of placemaking, and included measures to lower barriers on participation in the production and stewardship of public space. According to Abad Ocubillo, the city’s lead policy planner for the effort, the ordinance serves to empower communities to create places that they want and need and to advance equity goals across the city.
During the group discussion, the topic of wealth in San Francisco—one of the most unequal cities in the United States today—was raised repeatedly. The Great Depression is still in effect, Brechin said, but now we have “glittering opulence side by side with poverty.” For Brechin, “this obscene gulf between the enormous wealth and consumption and the people who are living on the streets” makes clear the Depression is not a thing of the past. He also claimed the spaces that Lawrence Halprin built along Market Street in the late twentieth century, such as the United Nations Plaza at Civic Center, “were designed for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.”
One audience member asked how people on the margins can reimagine and contribute to rebuilding their environments, and another posed a question about accountability and responsibility in wealth management and its application in the public sphere. Abad Ocubillo acknowledged this gap, noting that wealth created here is not always shared, and that addressing inequity is foremost in the minds of city leadership. This is where civic engagement through the production and stewardship of public space can be a powerful practice, creating empathy across social divides and shared senses of civic identity and ownership.
“These seemingly small projects actually have a huge impact,” Abad Ocubillo said. “Each tiny parklet can involve twenty-four or thirty-six months of community coordination and interaction between neighbors who might have never worked together before. Although they cannot address the huge issues facing the city, the grassroots projects enabled by government facilitation do cultivate social fabric and neighborhood resilience that leads to meaningful, long-lasting change.”