La Vida En Rosa: A More Liveable San Francisco, Inspired by Paris
Before I returned to Seattle, I lived in San Francisco for a bit. SF and the French capital of Paris are sister cities that seem to share a lot in common. One of SF’s nicknames is “Paris of the West,” and there are most definitely aspects of truth to the moniker as it is a fairly dense city ripe with culture, great views, and delicious food in every neighborhood you come across. Still, the city gets in its own way when it comes to becoming a global city with the same grandeur of Paris. For all the great things about SF that other US cities can learn from, such as its leadership on environmental sustainability and extensive transit system, it is an extremely unaffordable place to live and a majority of its limited space is still reserved for cars. While living in SF I attended the Night of Ideas, an event started in France as an intellectual marathon with discussions around pressing issues of our time. Given the pressing issues of climate change and housing affordability affecting all of us, here are six steps that San Francisco can take to becoming a world-class city for all of its residents.
Raising the maximum height across the city to 80 feet and allow for wood construction of up to six stories
If you look at the image above, you will see a large swath of land that represents the area of the city capped at a maximum height of 40 feet. This is one of the reasons why you can look at films of San Francisco from 40-50 years ago and see the exact same buildings across the entire city despite the increase in population and demand since then. Allowing for more height means more homes for more individuals, which can even take inspiration from Paris or (more closely related) Madrid.
2. Plant more trees and create more linear parks by removing public parking
Paris famously removed cars from traveling along the Seine and currently aiming to cover half the city with trees by 2030. San Francisco does extremely well in proximity of residents to parks, but lags behind even LA in terms of providing a solid amount park space for residents. Given a potential increase in residents in the city, an ingenious way of creating more parks would be to remove public parking and convert it into linear parks, particularly in commercial areas. This would allow for more trees to be planted as well as create new spaces for gathering that could create a nice synergy with nearby cafes and restaurants. Ideally this would be an expansion of the existing Pavement to Parks program by the city, with the goal to take over larger portions of the right-of-way than the current system.
3. Parking Maximums for New Construction
In a city as compact as San Francisco (the famed “7x7” square), and with a transit agency as robust as the SF Muni, there are incentives to limiting the number of cars allowed in the city. Paris has car-free days once a month in the city, which I think is a great step but SF can do one better. In addition to reducing the city’s carbon footprint, it could allow Muni to hit its goal of on-time performance set by the City Charter. For residential projects this could look something like no more than one space per unit of housing and general maximums based on the size of a lot developed.
4. Re-Map the Muni Metro
Getting around Paris is straightforward because of the ease it takes in riding the Metro. I didn’t live in SF for that long, but I can tell you that I lost hours in time simply sitting in the Market Subway waiting for another line to pass by many times. The system needs to be reconfigured in order to become faster, more frequent, and more reliable. I can’t propose anything better than this M-Market Plan, which reserves the Market tunnel for one line and creates extensions of existing Muni lines to cover more area.
5. Assistance Program for Low-Income Homeowners
Given the unique tax system created through Proposition 13 in California, there are many reasons as to why a homeowner in the city would not be interested in moving or selling their home. There should be programs that allow low-income homeowners in the city of San Francisco to choose to move without the risk of being unable to afford a new home, particularly elderly citizens who will need additional services and help and may be on a fixed income. Without this, the SF will have challenges in permitting any change to occur.
6. Affordable Housing for Low-Income Renters
San Francisco is a city that has all the makings and potential of a truly global city on par with locales like Paris, but until it addresses its critical issues it will simply continue down a path of becoming a playground for the rich and solely a place to work for many others. Furthermore, SF has an extremely skilled design community, strong activist culture, and rich history that can ensure the future Paris of the West lives up to its nickname in all aspects that make a city great and inclusive for all to be able to live, work, play, and truly thrive.