On the evening of January 29, 2013, roughly 150 people gathered in SPUR’s Urban Center to listen to San Francisco’s Planning Director speak about the city’s present state and future initiatives in an event contentiously titled “The Meanies and the War Mongers: Recent Planning Lessons from SF.” John Rahaim spoke in a direct manner that leveled with the audience, but his ideas were not nearly as in-your-face as the words in the event’s title.
This piece may already sound critical, but as Rahaim referenced a quote from a neighborhood activist whom he spoke to when he first took on this position, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Early on the speaker addressed San Francisco’s notorious reputation for extensively reviewing projects, which often halts new development. No, urban planners, developers and architects cannot please everyone, but there needs to be a process where neighborhood activists can voice their opinions while still allowing the professionals to do their jobs. Rahaim merely scratched the surface when addressing a solution.
Several interesting ideas were brought up:
- Open up the streets and make the urban space more livable;
- Architects need to design short, fat buildings (as opposed to tall and skinny) that are aesthetically pleasing;
- Think differently on how to manage the historic building stock.
For the future, Rahaim proposed 6 initiatives that should be taken:
- Change the forum for debate so we discuss things that actually matter;
- Change the role of the planning department so there is more focus on public outreach and education;
- Create a more rational preservation program;
- Expand the work environment and make streets more livable;
- Greater focus on neighborhood commercial districts;
- Greater focus on transportation planning.
Urban planning should be a democratic process that advocates for community engagement, as this forum demonstrated. But the leader must express bold enthusiasm and innovation in order to spark public interest. Hear the entire meeting here.
By playing it safe, Rahaim avoided two things: offending his audience and addressing the solutions to San Francisco's urban planning issues. Was this right, or should a city leader take a risk for the hope of greater progress in the future?
Credits: Photos copyright of Robert Poole. Data linked to sources.