Can we “slow” the growth of San Francisco’s metropolitan region without stopping it? By Slow, we refer to the Slow Food movement and its CittaSlow offshoot, especially in their emphasis on the value and pleasures of regional difference. “Without stopping it” is to acknowledge the region’s projected growth. Our title’s smart refers to smart growth—livable is another favored adjective, both endorsing density without always asking what it means in practice. Like the Buddha, we seek a middle way between Slow and smart that aims at enjoyment and conviviality. Like the Californians we’ve both become, we want to have our cake and eat it, too.

The Problem Space

Between 2007 and 2030, the nine counties that make up the Bay Region will grow in population from 7.2 million to 8.7 million people, a net gain of about 1.5 million people.[1] Will these newcomers be housed within the 700,000 acres of currently developed land, about 15.5% of the region’s total land area of 4.5 million acres? Or will they continue to erode the undeveloped balance, reducing still further the land available for farming, recreation, wildlife, and the maintenance of the region’s ecosystem? (No small matter, as it includes much of the river delta that supplies many California cities with water—an area for which substantial low-density residential development has been proposed.[2]
This is half of the problem; the other half has to do with the density of development required within the region’s already developed areas simply to maintain their current boundaries. (Ideally, it would be possible to pull them in, especially where low-density sprawl has penetrated mindlessly into farmland or the ecosystem.) Greenbelt Alliance and others have tried to determine what density would be required, but this analysis does not fully consider the qualitative side of the problem: what increases in density would actually mean for a neighborhood in human, experiential terms.[3]

So the “problem space” that the region poses is how to accommodate future growth in ways that preserve and even reclaim open space, yet do so in ways that are not just “sound” in terms of current planning dogma (e.g., “dense, compact, and transit-served”), but also create appropriate settings for a humane and enjoyable life as this is broadly understood by those who live and work in its towns and cities. In framing it in this way, we want to emphasize that the future of the region must be thought of holistically, seeing open space preservation and fine-grained development as connected ideas, both of which point to the pleasure and prosperity that the region can offer its residents.

Greenbelt Alliance’s Prescription

Focused on preserving open land, Greenbelt Alliance has formulated a program that is widely accepted by other policy-shaping organizations in the region. Here is the gist:

Growth boundaries: cities, towns, and other communities in the region should agree to establish inviolable boundaries for development. Lands falling outside them (but within their jurisdiction) are to be left as open space, whether under private or public ownership. Walkable urbanism: to accommodate future growth, cities and towns should require a higher density of development, especially around transit (train and light rail stations) and transit corridors (arterials served by buses). Even when transit is not yet in place, patterns of development should anticipate it by favoring compactness and higher density.

Opposition to this program came initially (and predictably) from some owners of large land parcels that fell outside of the growth boundaries established on the urban edge. Elections in these communities often feature ballot measures aimed at creating exceptions for specific parcels. Opposition is also coming from some of the affected urban neighborhoods. The Association of Bay Area Governments sets goals for housing development in the region that, if disregarded, can theoretically impact a city’s ability to tap regional grants for affordable housing and other purposes. In Berkeley, for example, meeting the goal would require the construction of 14 16-story housing towers in its downtown core, according to the city’s planning staff. The state has also mandated development “bonuses” that increase multiunit housing density in a way that overrides local zoning.

Density and its Enemies

So density is emerging as a major point of contention in the region. In the urban core, it is focused on absolute density—height and bulk—and how it contributes to or detracts from the community around it. In urban neighborhoods, the question of impact is heightened. Style, use, ownership, and a desire to preserve the existing fabric figure in the debates about each and every project. In the newer suburbs, intensification of established areas to preserve greenspace vies with efforts to carve out new territory for office campuses and large single-family home developments.

Especially in the city and the older suburbs, the debate about density comes down to two positions: that it’s good because it provides affordable housing and prevents sprawl; or that it’s bad because it undermines a community’s existing character (and, by implication, its property values: Berkeley was extensively down-zoned in the 1970s by residential real estate interests, representing middle- and upper-middle-class owners). In recent years, these positions have hardened, with each side refusing to acknowledge the other. Density is “entirely good” and preservationists “almost always wrong” (about the historic merits of what they try to preserve) and vice versa. This deadlocked situation has created a vacuum that developers and politicians have not failed to fill and exploit.

Fear of overdevelopment has led to constant skirmishes in Berkeley around the issues of growth and density. Measure P, put on the ballot by petition, sought to limit the height of new construction in the city. A more recent measure sought to maintain the current, restrictive Landmarks ordinance. Both measures failed, but the second lost by a much smaller margin.

As in other US cities, San Francisco and Berkeley have politicized development so that almost every project of any size has to be reviewed in a way that stretches out the entitlements process inordinately and makes the owner or developer liable to a variety of political pressures. The time and money involved favor politically-connected developers with the “deep pockets” needed to get through it. This creates a “duopoly” that links their interests with their political gatekeepers. It produces projects of a scale and nature at odds with their surroundings and even with the city itself as a place with a unique character—oversized and overly prepackaged. Prewar developers left room for demotic content in their projects, not just in the retail mix, but also in the ways that “communal” open space was provided and used. In the grip of the duopoly, we have lost this art. Our cities fail to encourage ordinary people to participate in their reshaping over time. There’s no flux, and no real life.

Slow in the Bay Region

The Slow Movement has tremendous resonance in the Bay Area, where a love of good food and wine has led to a renaissance in local organic farms catering to food halls and farmers’ markets. The wineries started this, moving from purely domestic mass products to high-end “appellation” wines that compete globally for prizes and buyers. Chefs like Alice Waters, now one of Slow Food’s international vice-presidents, extended this to a cuisine based on the availability of locally grown, “seasonal” ingredients. Even the Berkeley public schools have embraced it, with the chef Ann Cooper running its kitchens.

The Slow Movement can seem like something from The Theory of the Leisure Class, yet its manifesto has a commonsensical truth. Whether we are thinking of food or city life, the pleasures of living well are worth defending in the face of external forces, not least our own ignorance and negligence.

A metropolis like ours would benefit from Slow thinking—but not too slow. Efforts to apply the Slow Food perspective to urban life began in small towns in Tuscany, worried about the impact of tourism and development. The CittaSlow (CitySlow) offshoot that resulted limits itself to “cities” of no more than 50,000 residents. This places it below the threshold even of Berkeley, which has about 110,000 residents. It also ignores the fact that cities like San Francisco are made up of districts and neighborhoods that are not so different in size or in the pressures they face from the Italian hill towns whose citizens first penned Cittaslow’s manifesto 18 years ago.

Resisting the forces of Fast

Preserving the quality of urban life means accommodating growth in sustainable ways. This is the other side of Slow. In urging local producers to find global markets, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini acknowledged that growth can be positive, an indication of quality and urbanity. This is a crucial distinction. Folco Portinari’s Slow Food manifesto, written in 1989, attacked speed rather than growth as the enemy of “a better future.” The 20th century, he wrote, that “began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model.” He asserted that “real culture is about developing taste rather than demeaning it,” arguing for “ a firm defense of material pleasure” as “the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life” that “in the name of productivity has changed our way of being and threatens our environment.”[4]

The forces arrayed against the quality of our urban life are also Fast, and “smart” development is too often part of it—as in our willingness to accept bad design if it hits a density target. And no-growth is smart growth’s inevitable twin, locked in a battle that produces mediocrity and sameness. Just as we oppose Fast in this sense, we oppose a Slow that clings without reflection to what exists. Slow is not the same as No. Growth is desirable if it enables a region to remain “alive,” and to “rediscover the flavors and savors” (quoting Portinari) that make it what it is. That this also requires pruning and paring has to be faced as part of this active cultivation.

There are signs of change. Politically-connected architects who regularly secured commissions in San Francisco based on their ability to push projects through the entitlements process are finding that they’ve lost their touch. Much better architects are showing that pleasure is affordable, and that not every new building has to cater to empty-nest baby boomers returning from the suburbs. If a proper balance can be restored between the city as a looser framework for development and its citizens as more active city makers, then life will be more pleasurable and the region will be better protected.“ —Richard Bender and John Parman

1. At Risk: The Bay Area Greenbelt, 2006 edition, Greenbelt Alliance, 2006, pp. 2-3.
2. See Jane Wolff, Delta Primer, William Stout, 2003.
3. Smart Infill, Greenbelt Alliance, 2008.
4. The quotes are from Fabio Parasecoli, “Postrevolutionary Chowhounds,” Gastronomica. Summer 2003. Cittaslow’s founding charter is in English on the Cittaslow UK website. Also see Paul L. Knox, “Creating Ordinary Places: Slow Cities in a Fast World,” Journal of Urban Design, February 2005.


Photo of the Civic Center Victory Garden by James Monday.

Copyright: 2009 John J. Parman (unless otherwise noted)



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