This post continues “San Francisco reflections (part one)“.
San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, 26 Dec. 2008
I’d like to show a few of my photos of San Francisco, and to discuss some relevant points about city planning and public spaces.
Perhaps the first thing is a peculiar attitude among many Fairbanksans: that living in close proximity to others is somehow undignified. I say: Oh, nonsense. It is only undignified if your neighbors are brutish and rude, or if your self-image includes a large portion of misanthropy.
The population density of San Francisco (city only) is about 17,000 per square mile — about 17 times the density in the city of Fairbanks and 1,400 times the density of the Fairbanks North Star Borough. You can tell me that San Francisco has a tremendous homelessness problem, or that the cost of living is prohibitive for the middle class, or that its public schools stink. But you can’t tell me that the people who can live there are are suffering some indignity by simple virtue of having a lot of neighbors — not when they enjoy so much culture and civic beauty.
Grocery stores don't have to be in imposing boxes
Do you see the grocery store in this picture? No? There is a Safeway on the far corner (center of the photograph), surrounded by arcades and topped by apartments. It’s hard to see from a distance or when passing in a car, since it’s built on a human scale, for pedestrians to notice.
A grocery store — even a large, national chain — need not be an ugly, industrial box. I suspect that San Franciscans wouldn’t stand for such a structure in their city. It doesn’t even have to provide a parking lot, as long as it’s located within walking distance of enough residences to support it.
I have to admit, the arcades are not as nice as I wanted to imagine them: everything in there looks dark and hidden. This troubles me, since arcades are part of the Vision Fairbanks plan.
Alleys can be beautiful...
I saw a number of surprisingly attractive alleys in the city. They weren’t wide enough to park a car in, nor did they house dumpsters or garbage cans. But they were made functional and beautiful by a people for whom space was at a premium.
(This is not to say that every place I saw in San Francisco was either functional or beautiful. Not surprisingly, the only empty lots I saw — all ugly — were in an economically depressed area of town, as we approached the Tenderloin. What was the chain of cause and effect? Is it that the less privileged care less about the blight of ugly empty lots and parking lots? Surely that’s part of it: if you can barely pay the rent, you may not have the leisure to keep up with the affairs of your local planning board. Property owners and land speculators know this, which is why they won’t try to fob something ugly off on a well-to-do neighborhood. At the same time, putting too many empty lots or parking lots on a block is the pedestrian kiss of death: with no attractions at street level, people stop their meanders and turn around. Businesses have a hard time thriving with reduced pedestrian traffic, so they fail or downgrade. Any extra safety that was gained by having many eyes on the street is lost. As the area becomes less attractive, property values go down, and the only people who can afford to live there are the poor.)
Colorful houses on Telegraph Hill
One aspect of beautiful cities is their frequent use of vibrant color. While we enjoyed more daylight hours than we’d have seen in Alaska, San Francisco still has a reputation for foggy, gray weather. In that kind of environment, why in heaven’s name would you want your buildings to blend right in?
Fairbanks spends a great deal of the year in twilight or in darkness. To make our buildings gray — as dignified or as re-sellably neutral as owners may consider it — only makes our built environment bleaker. I remember being excited when the old Mary Lee Davis house (at 5th and Cowles) was being restored — then being heartbroken when the owners decided to cover up the former lively green with a burgundy-tinted gray.
San Francisco City Hall
San Francisco Public Library
San Francisco did sport too much gray in one important place: the civic center. As majestic and beautiful as City Hall is, it’s another gray building in a sea of gray buildings — the Supreme Court building, the Civic Auditorium, the Asian Art Museum, and others too dignified to rise above their native fog.
Fire station on Stockton at Greenwich
A couple of things are noteworthy about the fire truck and fire station shown here (SFPD Engine Co. 28). The first is the size and placement of the station. The building is not large, and it fits in pretty nicely with its surroundings. I take from this that fire stations do not have to be large, free-standing buildings. They do not need their own parking lots. They can be integrated parts of their neighborhoods. Contrast this with the new fire station in downtown Fairbanks (which, admittedly, is the headquarters).
The other thing I notice is the size of the truck. That thing is small. One of the arguments you’ll sometimes hear against narrow streets (which are advocated for both safety and aesthetics) is that fire trucks need room to turn around. Well, if the trucks are made shorter, that argument vaporizes.
One explanation I’ve heard for long fire trucks is that they need to be long to accommodate their crews — and that the crew size is dictated by the fire fighters’ union. There are probably less-sinister considerations I’m not aware of that inform our local fire truck length. If you know what they are, please tell.
Last, here is Union Square, one of San Francisco’s many public gathering spaces. By Fairbanks standards, this place is crowded — and it’s lively. I think this is what we want to shoot for in the new park square designated in Vision Fairbanks.
One catch may be the weather. It was about 50 degrees outside that day. Fairbanks enjoys an average high temperature of at least 50 from about April 20 to September 20 — five months. However, our low temperature is at freezing for a little less than that: May 10 to September 20. Those are absolutely mild temperatures for us — but what to do with the space the other seven months? I’m confident that it could be seasonally re-purposed — you may notice people ice skating in the background — but we’d have to have something like a hot dog stand or a hot chocolate vendor to keep people happy in the colder months.
San Francisco has plenty of imperfections, a few of which I’ve hinted at here. But it shows me — I hope it shows you — that cities don’t have to be ugly or undignified. They can be beautiful, rich, fulfilling places. Those of us who who earn our living from the city shouldn’t flee it, but embrace it. San Francisco points the way.
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