Rahaim audio

  • John Rahaim
Age: 52
Position: Director
Organization: San Francisco Planning Department
FYI: Rahaim, who previously served in a similar capacity in Seattle, has degrees in architecture from the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

    Credit: Anne Hamersky

    John Rahaim Age: 52 Position: Director Organization: San Francisco Planning Department FYI: Rahaim, who previously served in a similar capacity in Seattle, has degrees in architecture from the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

What are the challenges in San Francisco?

San Francisco is a city where planning and development and land use issues make the city tick. There is enormous public engagement and a huge public awareness of the technicalities. I've been amazed at the level of public knowledge of the code, zoning, and development issues. The challenge is to embrace that public involvement in a way that is constructive.

How do you deal with the public?

It's an education process that goes both ways. The public can learn from us, in terms of what the larger planning policy and issues are for the city, but we need to learn from the public what the issues are at a local level. It is impossible for us to understand every block of the city. That's where the value of public engagement is apparent.

What are the critical issues facing urban planning?

One of the primary responses to climate change that we should have is reinvestment in our cities, a refocusing on city life, encouraging pedestrians and the use of transit. Another challenge is that we are getting denser. We need to address the public amenities that make the density work. We need to pay close attention to our open spaces, to the quality of life on the streets, to public safety. The design of the built environment is a crucial part of that.

Is there any single initiative that you're looking at for San Francisco?

I'm proposing a dialogue about growth management. One of the primary bases for the San Francisco General Plan is enhancing the existing character of the city. But it doesn't say a whole lot about how to manage growth. The city's growing and will grow whether we plan for it or not. There needs to be a larger dialogue about what the city should be in 50 years.

You're dealing with a finite set of land, and when you're growing, going skyward has always been the answer ...

It's about density and where density is appropriate. There are plenty of ways to achieve density, but high-rises have their place. San Francisco is looking at a district to allow thousand-foot buildings, and we're looking at high-rises in other parts of the city. Even though we're in a confined area?San Francisco is 49 square miles?there are several thousand acres that are being redeveloped, former industrial and Navy sites that are basically unused. It's an amazing opportunity.

What's the role of New Urbanism?

New Urbanism was conceived as an alternative way of doing suburban development, andit has helped to do greenfield development differently. New Urbanism was never intended to be about infill development in central cities, but the new urbanist movement has helped the dialogue, reinforcing the importance of urbanism in our growth.

Twenty-five years ago in many cities, there was a desire for the city to become more suburban. That dialogue has shifted dramatically, and I thank the new urbanists for part of that.

What do architects and planners need to know about one another to work better together?

Architects need to understand the physical context as well as the political and social context. I believe strongly in contemporary architecture. Architecture should be of our time. Many architects still haven't cracked the nut of how to make truly contemporary buildings work in a city.

Conversely, I think planners need to understand the development process and the individual work of architects. Many planners believe that the only type of building that works in a city is a traditional building. That's a struggle I've had with some planners. Getting planners to embrace contemporary architecture is an important thing.