Post-Coronavirus We Need a New Way to Plan Cities

San Francisco's Planning Needs to be Visionary
Planning needs to be visionary
Photo Credit
All Illustrations by Frederick Noland


This is the first in a series of essays with illustrations by the brilliantly talented Frederick Noland. This is work that grows out of our 2019 animated feature, Priced Out: Why You Can’t Afford to Live in San Francisco.

In a just society, something as fundamental as housing- shelter- should be accessible and affordable for everyone, but we’ve deviated dangerously far from that ideal. Priced Out speaks to every person who has suffered from high housing costs or instability. Regardless whether you live in San Francisco or Reykjavik, the story is sadly the same.

Unfortunately, there is a political economy at work that drives not just the price of housing, but also escalates the death toll from the COVID-19 coronavirus. Protecting privilege depends on subjugation of those with less means through racism, exploitation, classism and theft of resources. The system destroys as it creates surplus value and excesses, which reinforce privilege.

We publish this as we grieve the recent killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo at the hands of police, and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. We also mourn the more than 110,000 disproportionately Black, Latino and Native American deaths in the U.S. from the COVID-19 coronavirus. 

This series will describe the problems, explore a range of solutions and present some strategies for how we can progress from being in the midst of this crisis to building a new future. 

Post-Coronavirus We Need a New Way to Plan Cities:

San Francisco’s Planning Needs to be Visionary

City planning has the potential to be a visionary discipline. Good planning comes from the ability to see what’s possible, and to fundamentally improve the way people live. Planning is about using our land and resources to solve problems facing our society and our environment. The COVID-19 global pandemic has led to an economic crisis. How we approach the transition from responding to this emergency to long term recovery will define whether we will all live in a more equitable society, or one where an entrenched elite grab ever increasing amounts of profit while the rest of us struggle to survive.

Nearly every city has a Planning Department that determines what gets built where. They guide where we will work, live, shop, play, eat, and how we’ll get around to all these things. In San Francisco, the Planning Department’s director is hired by the Mayor and answers to the Planning Commission, comprised of four members appointed by the Mayor and three members appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development functionally directs Planning’s priorities, guiding the city’s development from an economic and business development perspective. So when we refer to Planning in this article, we’re referring to all of these actors, including the Mayor.

Planning seems to float above the real world. It doesn’t matter what calamities are happening beyond its confines like recessions or pandemics, our planners stay focused on the glistening promises of shiny new buildings. Developers congest the Planning Commission’s agenda with their building proposals and deregulation schemes– agitating for less risk and greater profits. Planning keeps publishing new strategies and reports that respond to developers’ desires.

None of those developments or policies make any advances toward solving the real problems that persist in our city. In order to solve the meaningful problems that would truly make a difference, Planning would need to be visionary. Planning can build much more than buildings. It can establish infrastructures for stronger social bonds and communities, and foster resiliency so we can continue to thrive, despite inevitable crises and hardships.

This article explores some ways for Planning to pivot in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic to:

  • Reduce inequality;
  • House the homeless;
  • Grow food that feeds communities and creates jobs;
  • Ban non-residential uses from taking over our housing;
  • Provide accessible, affordable public health services; and
  • Engage in transformative regional collaboration. 

This article digs deeply into the ways these strategies can be implemented in San Francisco, but the problems and solutions explored here are applicable to cities around the world.

Planning seems to float above the real world.


More than 40 million Americans have been out of work, and most are worried about being able to pay rent At least 8,000 people as of the latest count were homeless in San FranciscoEvery one of these people who are without a home must have access to safe and separated shelter to protect their health and the health of others. With millions potentially unable to pay for their housing, the number of people without a home will likely increase

By continuing to escalate the scale of luxury development and concentration of capital in San Francisco, Planning’s actions have concentrated so much value that land and housing prices have increased much faster than wagesTaking advantage of this escalation in value, venture capital firms have poured billions of dollars into new tech platforms and new financialization schemes to enable investors and speculators from around the globe to access and control land, housing and capital.

Even highly compensated workers were starting to leave San Francisco in noteworthy quantities as long ago as 2017. With the current COVID-19 crisis, this migration has increased.

Yet, San Francisco’s Planning Commission has gone back to holding its weekly hearings primarily to push through approvals of even more high-end development in large housing and office towers, and to finalize approvals of massive rezoning plans full of more residential and commercial space most San Franciscans and local businesses cannot afford.

The Planning Department and the Mayor continue their work under the assumption that the old strategies of simply figuring out ways for wealthy developers to build expensive office towers and luxury condos is actually city planning. Unfortunately, this isn’t planning at all. It’s just figuring out how to build stuff.

Planning doesn’t even know if the city needs any of the buildings that developers are proposing. What’s truly going on with the city’s housing inventoryHow many units are vacant? How many units aren’t used as housing, but instead for executive or new “subscription” temporary uses? How many people are moving away from San Francisco? Planning has no answers to these questions, yet it continues to push forward with an aggressive building program for the wealthy.

While it’s important for the City to understand what is actually happening, it’s just as important to pivot immediately to solve the most important problems. These are problems that the most vulnerable in our communities have been suffering for a long time – and what everyone else is now seeing very clearly. It’s time for Planning to come down to earth and start solving the problems of real people in real communities.

It's time for Planning to come down to earth

Good Planning Can Reduce Inequality, Instead of Making it Worse

Planning has for decades intensified high-end development and abandoned a diversified economic base that included a significant number of blue collar jobs, in favor of high profile, high wage industries–especially tech and biotech– and luxury housing. This approach has made San Francisco’s inequality and exorbitant living costs among the worst in the world. 

According to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitzthe largest contributing factors to rising inequality are the corporate monopolization of land and housing, and the ever increasing intensity of high-end development. Progressives generally seek to address inequality through progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth. Stiglitz agrees with these strategies, but says monopolization of land is an even greater contributor to inequality. Yes, inequality is a land use issue.

Short-term rental platforms like Airbnb, new "intermediate-length occupancies" like Sonder and Key Housing, and the deregulation of market rate housing development are some of the worst contributors to inequality, poverty, and displacement. Planning must take a proactive role in fixing inequality. This is especially true now, at a time when crisis capitalism will force even greater consolidation and monopolization of land and housing, property and wealth, digging the hole even deeper. We need to push back and demand an equitable future.

Solutions for Inequality

San Francisco can develop a plan to acquire existing apartment buildings and develop new affordable housing for families, essential workers, seniors, immigrants– everyone priced out of market rate housing. The City passed the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA) in 2019 that gives nonprofit affordable housing developers the right of first offer for purchasing apartment buildings and development sites, essentially allowing qualified nonprofits to purchase them before anyone else. Planning needs to work with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) and nonprofit developers to identify potential sites for acquisition and development into affordable housing.

Proactively identifying these sites will inform MOHCD how much money they should commit to these strategies. Then developers can be ready to purchase properties as they become available, rather than missing out because funding isn’t available in the tight timeframes required by the program. 

The funds for purchasing these buildings or sites should not be dependent on the meager fees from luxury housing developments. The City should capture the extraordinary wealth that courses through San Francisco. For example, by supporting and passing progressive revenue measures like the proposed increased real estate transfer tax and the statewide Schools and Communities First ballot measure in November of this year. It should also take an active role in making sure that San Francisco has a public bank which would make a whole range of funding available and possible for affordable housing.

Before for-profit developers buy sites that will certainly come available, Planning should rezone our Neighborhood Serving Commercial corridors (examples: Mission Street, Geary Boulevard, Fillmore and Third Streets) to prioritize affordable housing.

One way to do this would be to make all market rate housing a Conditional Use and increase the inclusionary, “below market rate” housing required. Below market rate housing are the affordable housing units market rate developers are required to put in their buildings, which currently includes an option to pay a fee instead. Designating market rate housing as a Conditional Use means that it has to prove its value per the City's General Planand requires a public hearing at the Planning Commission that can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. This would signal a clear priority for affordable housing.

Then, the city should support nonprofits to purchase every site they can to build affordable housing, and reestablish affordable services in the ground floor spaces where there are now vacant storefronts, including neighborhood-serving nonprofits and small businesses.

It's time to aggressively prioritize urban agriculture

Grow Food, Sell Food and Create Jobs Through Good Planning

As people have been losing work and relying more on subsidized food programs, the supply chains for getting adequate amounts of nutritious food to grocery stores have been strained. We have an opportunity to change that through urban agriculture.

Urban agriculture has many advantages over our current dependency on large commercial farms. You can ensure less water and pesticide usage, greater biodiversity and resistance to crop disease, higher quality and more affordable organic produce, and sustained employment. This will create a more secure  “farm to table” system ensuring that there are no breakdowns of getting quality food to markets, restaurants, and food pantries for those with low incomes.

Planning has made some small scale strides into improving San Francisco’s food system, but after an initial splash, they appear to have abandoned these efforts. For the city’s Food System Policy Program, they collaborated with "other public agencies, businesses, non-profits, and community members to understand and improve San Francisco’s urban food system". Unfortunately, this program is marked as having been completed, and the Food Security Task Force hasn’t even met since March of this year, despite the COVID-19 crisis making the flaws in our current, corporation-dominated food system so apparent.

Solutions for Improving Food Access

Instead of relegating urban farms and community gardens to the fringes, Planning should implement a land use strategy that aggressively prioritizes community based agriculture. These are potential sources of not just food, but employment as well. It’s time to occupy vacant public lands including rooftops of public buildings, underutilized open spaces such as parking lots, portions of our parks, and even spaces within buildings. We could adopt regional strategies to ensure that we have a diversified strategy of producing food, providing employment, and distributing that food to stores, food banks and pantries, and restaurants around the Bay Area.

There are many models for urban agriculture that San Francisco can emulate. In Detroit, Devita Davison and FoodLab Detroit in conjunction with Grown In Detroit have created a system of more than a thousand farms and producing hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce, providing organic, affordable food and creating jobs. In Los Angeles, Ron Finley and the nonprofit LA Green Grounds are transforming food deserts into fertile sources of organic produce.

There have been experiments with urban agriculture in Europe, and there is an even more advanced model for large scale urban agriculture is in Cuba which was forced to transition away from a mechanized system of large scale agriculture dependent on petrochemical pesticides back in the early 1990’s. This movement has led to the fact that nearly 20% of all the food consumed in the country is now organic. In the US, organic produce is less than six percent of the food sold. 

Back here in San Francisco, large urban farms, like the Alemany Farm at three and a half acres in Bernal Heights, are prohibited from selling their produce. An ordinance must be passed to allow urban agriculture on public and private lands to sell their produce, and supply Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and food bank distributions where residents who can’t afford food can access the food they need. This new economy would create new jobs.

We actually have a blueprint for how parts of this could be done. San Francisco collaborated on a comprehensive strategy for urban agriculture with the goal to “help cities throughout North America make innovative food sector investments that yield sustainable benefits in the form of job creation, higher wages, revenues generated, and increased access to healthy foods among all communities.” This report also says that “Cities are finding that policies that simply allow more flexibility in land use catalyze innovative use of urban spaces.” We need to challenge Planning to listen to the City's own conclusions and invest significantly in innovative uses of our urban land to grow food. 

From streets to tents


From hotels to homes

Good Planning Houses the Homeless

The coronavirus and resulting economic crisis disproportionately affect low-wage workers, many of them essential workers, who are now finding it impossible to pay their rent. Putting people up in social distance-compatible makeshift shelters or hotel rooms to prevent COVID-19's spread, then turning them back on the street would be cruel. Turning our back to the City’s homeless is already “cruel and inhuman” causing even the United Nations to take notice. 

What we build is a choice about who gets to live here. Planning can deliberately create equitable opportunities for all people to succeed, instead of literally kicking some people to the curb. There are people who argue that if we feed the homeless, or if we house the homeless, more will come. This is apparently an argument for why we shouldn’t provide food or housing for the homeless.

But isn’t the same true when we build luxury condos and fill our storefronts with high end restaurants? As this article clearly shows, prior to the COVID crisis, as we built more luxury housing, more wealthy people moved to San Francisco. Instead of prioritizing our land and bureaucratic resources to create places for people with means– who can live and eat anywhere they want– we need to prioritize housing and opportunities for success for everyone else. People who the market isn't taking catering to and who don't already have a leg up.

Solutions to House the Homeless

Planning needs to identify financial and land resources, both of which are plentiful, and come up with a plan that is coordinated regionally so we can guarantee housing for every person who is un-housed and every person who cannot afford market rate housing. This plan cannot depend on fees from market rate housing. It should be presented to the Planning Commission ahead of any new project that promises luxury condos or expensive office buildings.

Building housing takes time. In the immediate term, the city needs to buy hotels so homeless can stay where they are. This seems to be the most efficient way to make a dent in the large problem of providing permanent and supportive housing. 

The city of Austin, Texas has already started deploying this strategy for temporary housing, but San Francisco could use this same strategy for permanent supportive housing. Salt Lake City, Utah  invested considerably and reduced their homeless population by 91%. When they stopped funding this program, their homeless population spiked again. The lesson? We need a significant long term funding and land use commitment for new permanent supportive housing whether it’s building new or purchasing existing hotels or apartment buildings.

Let’s explore one scenario that highlights our wealth of resources. San Francisco is a small city of only 47 square miles, but it owns hundreds of acres of undeveloped land including five golf courses, plus a course outside the city limits. These golf courses are a massive waste of land and water resources.

Even if you take one 140 acre, 18 hole course and cut it in half so golfers have to suffer the inestimable boredom of playing the same 9 holes twice in order to get their full 18 holes, you can pick up at least 70 acres of land. Let’s do the math. Developing these 70 acres with a reasonable urban density would mean 4,500 new units of housing on half of one golf course. This would leave plenty of other golf options, while providing permanent housing for thousands of people who currently don’t have a home. 

If Planning wanted to do something quicker and easier than building new housing, it could prioritize securing just one out of every five - or just 20% - of the units that are sitting vacant in San Francisco right now. That would be enough units to house every homeless person. That's right, the City could master lease or purchase these units and that would house every homeless person. That leaves a lot of room just in case other homeless come to San Francisco also looking for permanent homes. But, you might say, this is a permanent drain on our city’s resources. Many of those who are homeless simply can’t afford a home. And many are students and teachers and other essential workers. Thus, ensuring affordable, permanent, stable homes will not only stabilize their lives, but it will benefit our entire city at every level of economic strata.

Assistance from the federal government is important, but we can’t wait or abdicate our responsibility to the federal government. There is so much we can do locally – and be innovative. Otherwise, more and more people will lose their housing and have no option but to end up on the streets. We have to prioritize strategies for not allowing this to happen.

Stop corporations from stealing our housing

Good Planning Bans Non-Residential Uses from Taking Over our Housing

Airbnb and other “short term rental” companies were just the start of a snowballing industry of corporate and temporary rentals. These are venture capital supported tech firms that steal our permanent long-term housing in order to gain revenue from shorter-term uses. These businesses not only steal our housing stock, replacing neighbors with strangers, but they drive up housing prices and increase speculation. 

It’s likely that short term rental uses - where someone offers a room in their place for a paying visitor will decline significantly due to COVID-19, but there will continue to be an increase in whole units being taken over to be used for corporate, non-residential uses.

Planning is the city department that is supposed to hold property owners accountable for using their properties in conformance to the permitted use. Housing should be used for housing actual residents, not as a business- especially not ones that displace people from their homes.

Solutions to Ban Non-Residential Uses

San Francisco just passed landmark legislation that defines Intermediate Length Occupancy (ILO) as distinct from a residential use. [People Power Media provided research which is incorporated into the file for this legislation, see p. 83-98.] We need to make sure that housing units are always used for long term residential housing by implementing a disclosure and registry program for any non-residential uses. The ILO legislation helps by capping the number of residential units that can be used as non-residential, but so many of  them go undetected. Planning must devise a regulatory system that ensures strict compliance with the new legislation, and updates the legislation to regulate new non-residential uses as they appear on the scene.


Good Planning Provides Accessible, Affordable Public Health Services

During this current health crisis, the vulnerability of the homeless, residents in Single Room Occupancy hotels and long term care facilities and nursing homes, and Black and Latino residents in San Francisco has been exposed even more starkly. There is of course a land use component to this problem, but possibly not the one that most immediately comes to mind. Some people think that density is the greatest threat, but there doesn't seem to be consistent correlation between residential density and negative health outcomes. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, areas such as San Francisco– which is the second most densely populated city in the US– have fared better than more suburban or less dense areas, such as Los Angeles and Alameda County. Ensuring that there is a system of quality, accessible, affordable primary care in every neighborhood is essential.

For years, communities and nurses fought against consolidation of hospitals and health services and worked to protect community clinics and equitable access to quality healthcare. We ended up with compromises that are now exposed for their inadequacies.

Solutions for Improved Public Health Services

Planning should work with the Department of Public Health to prioritize updating the Healthcare Services Master Plan to guarantee equitable access to community-based health services for all San Franciscans especially those who are most vulnerable. 

There was a hearing scheduled for March 12, 2020 for the Planning Commission to meet jointly with the Health Commission to discuss the 2019 update to the Master Plan, but that hearing has been postponed indefinitely. Prioritizing an update to the Healthcare Services Master Plan is critical. Then moving on securing now vacant storefront spaces for community clinics should be prioritized as well before those spaces are no longer available.


Good Planning Leverages Regional Collaboration

What we saw at least for a couple of months during this COVID crisis was a rare glimpse into the ability of Bay Area counties to pull together to respond to a public health emergency. 

The Association of Bay Area Governments and its partner agencies do long term regional planning and they even have a “Resilience Program” which might be helpful to respond to the catastrophic effects of climate change or an earthquake, but they don’t seem to be adaptable or nimble to address the type of economic upheaval we’re currently experiencing.

To house the homeless, ensure affordable housing for all, ensure a system for providing healthy food and employment for all, we need to approach our land and financial resources completely differently. To meet these challenges, no city can isolate itself or continue to work in competition with other cities. These are crises that need to be solved by governments collaborating and sharing resources. This takes real visionary planning and swift action. It takes an approach of sharing resources and strategies– setting aside notions that government is simply an enabler of the private market and selling off our resources to the highest bidder.

Governments can actually be innovators, especially in solving our most complex problems. In her acclaimed book, The Entrepreneurial State, economist Mariana Mazzucato discusses the role of the government as entrepreneur and as being a high risk investor in innovation. As Mazzucato writes, “The path-dependent direction that the economy follows under ‘free-market’ conditions is problematic, particularly when the world is confronted with great societal challenges such as climate change, youth unemployment, obesity, aging and inequality. In addressing these challenges, the State must lead...” It’s time for our city to meet these challenges– to prioritize solving the most important problems facing us rather than simply defaulting to rubber stamping the ambitions of for-profit developers who have no interest in anything but their own bottom lines.


It's time to be visionary and solve the real problems facing our city


We know that this isn’t an exhaustive list. However, it’s time to stop expecting that the market will solve any problems that would result in greater equity and resiliency for our city or our communities or for our most vulnerable people. It has no motivation to. In the wealthiest country in the world, it’s time for us to be innovative, for our Planners to be visionary, to listen to communities, to engage in bottom-up problem solving, and prioritize our resources so we can actually solve these essential, challenging problems.

The orientation of Planning for decades has been figuring out ways to enable the market– to incentivize building as much, as large and as expensive as possible. The COVID crisis has shown us very clearly that this is not a strategy that provides for our health, for our economic stability, or for our ability to stay housed and fed. All this wealth and all this development only benefits those who are already wealthy, while the rest of us struggle to stay healthy and employed, and pay our rent or mortgage. 

Through successive political administrations, Planning has embraced the thinking that if we just keep building more, we’ll have greater prosperity. The problem which is now tragically obvious is that all the towers and construction cranes have only brought prosperity to a very small minority. Meanwhile, there is a growing population of homeless and those who are so close to the edge of financial solvency that any hiccup in the economy threatens to dump many thousands more out of their homes.

It’s time for Planning to pivot. It’s time for Planning to stop prioritizing approvals of luxury towers. It’s time for Planning to do the visionary work of prioritizing all the City's land and economic resources toward equity. That means housing the homeless. That means securing and building affordable housing now. That means committing to food security immediately. That means ensuring the health and stability of our essential workers and most vulnerable residents before any new luxury housing or office tower, or any new market rate development deregulation scheme goes to the Planning Commission for approval.

A New Way To Approach Planning

Our next piece in this series will explore a new framework for approaching planning.

We call it DAPSS which stands for Desegregation, Affordability, Production, Stability and Sustainability.

The theory behind this acronym is that these are all problems that we need to solve as we continue to develop– but none of these problems can be solved passively. For instance, building thousands of luxury housing units does not solve the problem of affordability. In order to solve the problem of affordability, you need to make housing more affordable. Or make more housing that is truly affordable. Sounds straightforward, right? Stay tuned as we dig into this important new way of approaching how we plan and develop for a more equitable future.