The urban areas of the United States are facing severe problems. In the most extreme immediate cases, as in Houston, they are in danger of succumbing to environmental problems that threaten their very existence. In other cases—such as in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—a combination of climate change, social inequity, a dearth of investment in infrastructure, changing production and consumption systems, and a lack of vision are conspiring to threaten the cities’ future inclusivity and prosperity. To address these problems, we look to urban planners, who should be able to provide solutions based on an analysis of how these physical, economic, and political issues play out in real time and place. In reality, however, the complexities of all these forces are such that nobody can provide true solutions, and the very notion of planning itself is threatened not just by that complexity, but by the speed of the changes confronting us.
In the Bay Area, at least, SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association) is trying to come up with some useful ideas—unlike in Houston where, more than a year after Hurricane Harvey, very little appears to have been done. SPUR is sensible enough to propose not plans that aim to solve problems, but scenarios that suggest how our complex reality might develop: four different ways in which the region’s future could play out, based upon our collective reaction to the challenges facing us. This is already a large step beyond traditional planning, which had thought that it knew what all the issues were and imposed solutions in zones and grids that looked nice but worked only from high up in the sky looking down.
Like all outputs, however, SPUR’s quartet of possibilities is limited by the inputs the authors put into their August 2018 “briefing paper,” Four Future Scenarios for the San Francisco Bay Area. Specifically, the authors focus on only two issues, which they blame for all of the Bay Area’s woes: the lack of affordable housing and the sorry state of transportation infrastructure. As they write: “While some parts of the United States have struggled to find their footing in the face of deindustrialization, the Bay Area has become an economic superpower. But the region has not been able to add enough new housing or create a functional transportation system in parallel with the economy’s expansion.”
It is without a doubt that these problems are central and pressing, but they make issues such as land planning, tax policies, and the provision of social and health services subservient to shelter and automated movement. The problem is that “solving” either one of these problems will not create a utopia in the Bay Area. First of all, the report does not address the quality of that housing and infrastructure. If we were to build Type 5 rental bunkers (three to four stories of wood-framed apartment buildings constructed over cement block parking garages) from here to eternity, we would only be condemning people to live in soulless and imprisoning conditions, while fouling our landscape and using up natural resources. If we were to create public transportation that demeans those who use it, or force them to depend on privatized systems that only the haves can afford or have access to, we continue to create separation. If we do not provide free and high-quality education, culture, and healthcare, we have not created communities worth living in.
While the SPUR authors point out that “many other factors contribute to the problem,” they then go on to put too much emphasis, in my opinion, on those who “desire to preserve neighborhoods from physical change” and the “state’s environmental legislation.” They only make note of the “other factors” like the influence of socio-economic forces, tax policies, and the very logic of capitalism, which exploits both people and landscapes ruthlessly. Throughout the report, you sense the authors’ irritation that communities won’t just let planners get on with building roads, bridges, and massive housing blocks. NIMBYism is indeed the bane of the Bay Area, but there is a logic behind it that the report barely addresses.
Moreover, SPUR’s four scenarios for how the Bay Area could develop, though highly believable, are too generalized. There’s “Gated Utopia,” in which all of the Bay Area will become a luxury enclave, perhaps surrounded by a liberal version of President Trump’s wall. Next is “Bunker Bay Area,” in which that utopia occurs only in isolated pockets, while most of the territory turns into a desolate war zone. Then there’s “Rust Belt West,” which posits that the area’s inability to address its problems will lead to a mass exodus of jobs and opportunities. And finally the white paper presents the alternative the authors clearly prefer, a social democratic “New Social Compact,” in which the Bay Area looks like Denmark with a more dramatic landscape.
Do we really think that all of the Bay Area will look like one of those four future scenes? Is it not much more probable that the real result will be some mixture of all or some of them, and that the different variations will happen in various locations at various times around a region that ranges from the mansion-dotted hills of San Francisco to the sprawl invading the agricultural flats of the Central Valley?
The future is hard to predict, but we need to have some basis for acting today to build resources and opportunities for the future. To do so, we must look at trends through a much finer lens. We have to consider all of the policies, laws, resources, and cultural aspects that go into making good communities. We also have to look at quality as well as quantity. The authors cite the Netherlands and Denmark as models for social housing, rather than Asian countries where massive housing blocks create the kind of urban environment that make most Americans shudder, but then fail to understand that it is how and what kind of housing you build that is as important as sheer amounts.
What we need, in other words, is serious research and analysis that digs deeper and ranges wider than SPUR has, of the sort that is actually practiced in the social democracies that the authors seem to yearn to see replicated in the Bay Area. We also need visions, both big and small, of what kind of places we want our cities to be, and those visions need to be compelling, seductive, and believable enough to get us there. Twenty-five years ago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collected a history of such visions in the 1990 exhibition Visionary San Francisco, and then asked teams of architects, writers, and artists to imagine new scenarios. Curated by Paolo Polledri, the exhibition ranged from elegiac essays on living in a time of AIDS by Lars Lerup and Richard Rodriguez, to a part-dystopian, part-utopian vision of the Bay Bridge turned into a self-built community imagined by Hodgetts + Fung and William Gibson. These scenarios were infinitely more compelling and believable than what SPUR has produced. They are also they kind of ideas that all of our cities need, coupled with the kind of data crunching we know the FAANG companies are capable of, if we are going to truly imagine a better urban life for ourselves.