The Graphical Evolution of Urban Planning

An exhibit in San Francisco has diagrams that depict the history of urban design, including key steps toward urbanism.

With holiday trips into San Francisco in the plans for many in the North Bay, this seemed an appropriate time to mention an ongoing exhibit at the Urban Center Gallery of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). Curator Benjamin Grant has assembled maps, plans, renderings, and charts that depict key points of evolution in urban design.

Emily Badger in Atlantic Cities summarizes the key elements of exhibit, from a mid-18th century map of Rome through the visions of Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier that impacted so much of the U.S. experiment with drivable suburbia to the Mann hockey stick chart that put a spotlight on the threat of climate change.

John King in the San Francisco Chronicle takes a different perspective on the show, looking at the bigger picture of what the exhibits tell us about how cities emerge and evolve. King’s article effectively complements Badger’s.

Perhaps it’s my civil engineering background, but my favorite comment about the exhibit is when Badger notes that graphics can "seductively oversimplify the problems of cities."   Curator Grant concurs that "it can artificially simplify something that actually needs to be complex."

Exactly. I’ve seen too many designs that look great in plan view, but don’t result in an enjoyable experience for real people on the ground. I once worked in an office where the phrase "it’d look good from a balloon" was as shorthand for the same point.

For anyone who visits the exhibit, look particularly at the Le Corbsusier plan and try to visualize actually imposing a real daily life onto his vision. Had more folks done so in the 1930s, we might have avoided some serious public housing missteps in the 1950s.

Also, having mentioned the Mann hockey stick chart, I know that some will focus on that element of the exhibit to the exclusion of all else.  hich is a shame because that chart is only a small part of the story.  Nonetheless, I’ll acknowledge that some of the statistical methodologies used by Mann and his collaborators in 1999 have been called into question. But that doesn’t mean that the general finding has been discredited. Indeed, the charts prepared since 1999 with the statistical methods rectified show much the same result.

It’s unlikely that my wife and I will find time to visit the exhibit during our holiday visit to the City next week, but I will go there in January. The exhibit will run through February 25. The SPUR offices are at 654 Mission Street.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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Wire December 18, 2012 at 07:45 AM
Future Urban Planing - This 5 min video includes map and overview of Wildlands Project and how more and more land is converted to government ownership. "People are to live in islands of human habitat or sustainable communities " Describes "Urban boundary zones and villages" Development will only be allowed to occur in specified villages" - 5 min video http://sovereignty.net/Library/whose%20land%20is%20it.htm Additionally, part of the UN Agenda 21 implemented by the American Planner's Association and ICLEI is the "Wildlands" project which intends to use taxpayer funds or regulations to take over 50% of habitable land in the US and restrict it from human use.
Wire December 18, 2012 at 05:41 PM
www.bayarealiberty.com https://origin.library.constantcontact.com/doc201/1106769987922/doc/vXjBCGPgnNavP8tb.pdf Petaluma 2014 to 2022 needs 198 very low cost housing units Petaluma 2014 to 2022 needs 102 low cost housing units Petaluma 2014 tp 2022 needs 120 moderate housing units Petaluma 2014 to 2022 needs 482 above moderate housing units Santa Rosa 943 very low Santa Rosa 579 low Santa Rosa 756 moderate Santa Rosa 2,364 above moderate housing Region Sonoma County very low 46,680, low 28,940, moderate 3,420, above moderate 78,950
Dave Alden December 18, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Wire, I watched the video and am amazed at how Theodore Roosevelt's creation of national parks and efforts at increasing government efficiency are both used as evidence of ill intent. There's always going to be a balance point between private property and the public good. And different people will put that balance point in different places. But to condemn national parks and cost-efficient government services only interferes with rational debate. On Agenda 21, I'll repeat what I've written before. The underlying documents for what is now called Agenda 21 were adopted in the early 1990s. They speak of reasonable goals, but with little capacity to move toward those goals, so were mostly ignored for 15 years. But suddenly in late 2009, in the absence of any change in their content or implementation, they are suddenly condemned as a part of a vast global plot. What happened in 2009 that caused the changed perception?
Dave Alden December 18, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Yes, as our land uses have evolved in the past 30 years, there is a problem with housing lower-income folks. Government action has been taken to address the problem on the basis that there is a public good in having school teachers and firemen living in the communities they serve. Here is my hypothesis. The over-investment in unsustainable infrastructure as cited by StrongTowns has also had an impact on housing stock. If we begin to address the concerns noted by StrongTowns, housing will also fall back into balance. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen.


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