Those who love cities are lucky. Whether they are visiting them or living in them, city buffs can turn the most mundane trips into research projects, they can read the streets and buildings as others would a book and they learn the stories of social and physical change, of aspiration, of failed and successful projects.
It was Fei Tsen, the San Francisco Chair of SPUR, which is the closest thing to the NLA that they have in the Bay Area, who pointed out this benefit while she was showing me around the city recently. Fei was Director of Development for the Port Authority when it was converting its waterfront into a major public amenity and she is now President of the Treasure Island Development Authority which is overseeing the master planning of a 405 acre former naval yard situated in the heart of the Bay. We first met in Shanghai where we were on the same platform discussing waterfront development, so our conversations as we charged up and down San Francisco's vertiginous streets provided a fascinating three way comparison.
Common threads run through the future policies of each of the cities. Perhaps top of the agenda is the problem of congestion, of pollution and healthier streets. The chief planner of Shanghai had told of his ambitious plans to increase the coverage of the metro system by 2040 to allow 15 minute pedestrian access to stations right across the city. Both London and San Francisco have similar aspirations to encourage more active travel, but the chance of delivering it in the same timescale as Shanghai is nil as each city is equally committed to the democratic process. London edges out San Francisco in the infrastructure delivery stakes. Despite the fact that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was a world leader when it was delivered in the 70s, its expansion has stalled in spite of calls for more lines to serve this very polycentric area.
Each city has been regenerating its docks area for several decades, each now realises the importance of culture in the creation of new pieces of city. In Shanghai the banks of the Huangpu River and the West Bund have been landscaped, roads have been built and old warehouses converted into massive art galleries; in London artists' colonies in Fish Island are recognised as important parts of the economy, the Royal Docks are being planned for creative communities and Barking and Dagenham is developing film studios as part of its programme for economic growth. In San Francisco makers and crafts people are colonising areas of Mission Bay as development in the area accelerates.
We didn't see much evidence of homelessness in Shanghai, but London and San Francisco share a similar problem of street sleeping, although San Francisco's is more evident and distressing. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but London has around 8,000 rough sleepers out of a population of 8.7million, whereas SF has around 7,000 out of a population of just under 900,000 with a disturbing number clearly suffering from mental health problems.
Resilience is a big issue in SF, not only is it facing up to the problems of climate change but it needs to prepare for a future earthquake. As the SPUR website states "We know that another major earthquake will strike San Francisco — we just don't know when." That may not be a problem London will face anytime soon, but then we don't get the benefits either. In 1989 the Embarcadero Freeway was damaged in the earthquake that caused considerable havoc in the region. Instead of rebuilding the structure which cut the city off from the Bay, they demolished it and used the areas previously occupied by the approach roads to create parks and public space. The city was reconnected to the Bay, and the Ferry Building with its iconic clock tower converted to a retail centre and creating a world class waterfront.
This article first appeared in On Office magazine
Peter Murray, commenting on London, architecture, cycling and cities