Back in 1904, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan convened the Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco, a private group which invited the visionary Daniel Burnham to create a unified plan for the development of San Francisco.

From a compendium prepared by San Francisco’s Planning Department, from which Burnham’s proposed treatment of Telegraph Hill, as rendered above, was taken:

Burnham proposed a grandiose re-thinking of San Francisco, much like Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s system for Napoleonic Paris.

The Burnham plan envisioned a new pattern of grand boulevards cutting through the City’s existing grid, expediting the flow of traffic, and terminating the most important civic spaces. Drawing on the styles of classical Greece and Rome, he envisioned the City’s hilltops as key visual markers, breaking the City’s topographically-blind street grid with a mixture of open spaces, terraced streets, and public monuments.

Less than a year after the plan was presented to the public, much of San Francisco was leveled by the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906. Though Burnham and the Reconstruction Committee saw the City’s destruction as the ideal opportunity to realize the plan, it was not to be.

Political instability, the lack of strong government authority over private development, and the overwhelming civic desire to rebuild quickly all meant that the City was rebuilt on an essentially unchanged grid. However, one key aspect of Burnham’s plan did become reality.

In 1909, Burnham took up the cause of a City Beautiful Civic Center at the site he had initially proposed at the intersection of Van Ness and Market. Though the public initially voted down a bond issue to cover the project, the idea was successfully revived in 1912, connecting the need for a grand civic center with the City’s upcoming plans to host a World’s Fair.

That same year (1912), San Francisco voters approved an amendment giving the city’s Board of Supervisors the power to create a Planning Commission. The California State City Planning Enabling Act was passed in 1915. And following a few years of political wrangling, San Francisco’s first Planning Commission was appointed on December 28, 1917.

An inaugural zoning map for San Francisco was subsequently drafted, establishing six land use types: two residential (Single and Multi-Family), two industrial (Light and Heavy), one Commercial and an “Unrestricted” district south of Islais Creek.

And in September of 1921, San Francisco’s new Planning Commission adopted the first comprehensive zoning ordinance for the whole of the city.

While the ordinance didn’t establish any set height limits, and largely mimicked how the city had already formed, it established a density limit for buildings in the single-family districts, limited heavy industrial uses to zones along the waterfront, and established formal commercial areas and corridors.

And from that first map, which effectively governed the development of San Francisco through the 1950s, the vision and planning for San Francisco have evolved, a terrific overview of which has been prepared in celebration of the centennial of San Francisco’s Planning Commission on the 28th.

28 thoughts on “A Century of Planning in San Francisco”
  1. It’s certainly pretty to look at now, but I don’t think the Burnham plan could have accommodated all the traffic of a modern SF, with all of those diagonal boulevards- and that one nearly-circular road in the center of town! Perhaps if it had been paired with a metro similar to that in Paris…

  2. that was pre-sea-water-level-rise issues…..

    and still does not show any connectivity SW to SE of the city (the pendulum) needed to link the west and south and southeast sides to the downtown and bi-county growth.

  3. Quite ghastly and no comparison to the charming rows of cottages and beautiful Victorian homes.

      1. There was a plan for a north-south park belt extending from the Presidio to Mt. San Bruno. Park Presidio Blvd, Golden Gate Park, Buena Vista Park, Mt. Sutro, Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson and McLaren Park were part of that grand plan.

        1. Yes, the Plan, IIRC, envisioned turning most of the hilltops into parks ( maybe I should say “parks” since many of them would have been over-ornamented extravaganzas, as shown – for Telegraph (??) – at the top of the page). I just meant there wasn’t a plan to formally extend GG Park “across the entire city”…at least not in the manner that the Panhandle extension was proposed.

  4. Linking “then” to “now” is about as much of a stretch as it would take to wrap a garter around that abomination known as Salesforced-upon-us Tower.

    Planning today serves mostly to process the wind vane like instructions emanating from either end of the developer snake: for-profit and so-called not for profits. That and (in consort with DBI) to constantly tweak building codes in such a way as to favor the trade groups rather than the property owners. Literally the codes change so much year to year that what was built a few years back is out of code now.

    Actual quality of life, infrastructure, livability, beauty, awe inspiring detail, etc. has nothing to do with Planning today, and EVERYONE knows it.

    1. Agree about the SFT. It is a bulky hulk that doesn’t enhance the skyline – today from Diamond Heights, with the bright light reflecting on the skyline, it looked especially bad. Once it is joined by the even more bulky Claw tower the pair will be a permanent eyesore on the San Francisco skyline. Worse than the BofA tower.

      While it’s true developers have helped ruin the city and contribute the decline in the quality of life here over the past decade, it’s ultimately the residents’ fault. They could have voted in strong sustainable growth Supervisors or sponsored initiatives to control the pace and aesthetics of development. They did not and that is IMO because today most SF residents don’t care. They are transients with little connection to what once made SF special. Where I live many owners are renting out multiple rooms to tech workers, paving over the yard for parking and on and on. There is way too little stewardship taken of the neighborhood and community by many current residents.

      1. Completely disagree. The way the SFT catches the sunlight during the golden hour makes it seem almost opalescent. It’s been a fantastic addition to the skyline which has brought our skyline into modern times. I can’t wait for Oceanwide center and the other 800’ tower to be complete.

        I’ll never understand why some people have such a vested interest in turning SF into some kind of museum to city living of their favorite era. It’s easy to hitch a ride on the current wave of political propaganda against immigrants and transplants and apply to SF. It’s easy to look at a new person who doesn’t operate like you do and attribute whatever negative attributes you believe internally to them.

        The reality is that the only OG San Franciscans are the Ohlone – the rest of us are transplants. Try talking to some of these people instead of broad brushing all new people with the “they aren’t real San Franciscans and they don’t care”

      2. SFT is outstanding architecture.

        And I’ve probably known proportionally more ‘new’ residents who are deeply involved in city life than ‘old’ residents.

  5. If only. This was a missed opportunity, a pivotal point which – if another choice had been made – would have drastically altered the physical structure and aesthetics of the city. It is what it is.

    In Portland a similar pivotal point was the late 1800s when the choice was made, against all odds, to preserve vast tracts of forest land within the city limits and to save the park blocks. The Park Blocks? Imagine more than a dozen Union Squares in downtown San Francisco verdant with trees and flowers and full of cultural amenities If those choices had not been made Portland would be a totally diferent city today. It is what it is.

    San Francisco made the wrong choice while Portland made the right choice.

    1. Not sure how you can say the city missed an opportunity to create parks, when that was done intentionally throughout the history of the city. It’s not like a decision to set aside parkland happened only in Portland. It happened pretty much everywhere. Only two cities have more park per acre: Washington, with all its monuments, is 22% park, and NY is 21% park. SF is 19% park. Portland is 18% park. See table 2 here.

      Did you want SF to be 40% park? How much park is enough? We have lots of amenities and open spaces in the city — perhaps too many, given our inability to deal with homelessness.

      1. Yeah but what’s S.F.’s “park per acre” if you discount the enormity of GG Park? Dave’s point is to contrast someplace like Charleston SC, or Washington DC, which have small green spaces all over the place.

        1. That is indeed part of it. A better measure of this might be tree canopy. At 13.7% and shrinking SF has the smallest tree canopies of any major US city. Portland’s canopy is around 30% and expanding. Even the dreaded LA has around a 20% canopy. BTW, the SF park department has plans to remove around 16,000 trees in the next decade. Other cities are expanding their canopies – SF is virtually alone in actively reducing its canopy.

          [Editor’s Note: The Plan To Make San Francisco More Green]

          1. Meant to add, and it’s anecdotal, that Khrushchev supposedly said when he visited San Francisco that it could never be a great city as it had no trees. Moscow, BTW, puts even Portland to shame with its 36% canopy.

          2. Actually, as noted, SF plans to add 50k trees.

            I agree that the city has been deficient the last few decades. One positive of Mission Bay is the parks and street trees. As they grow it’s looking better.

          3. Well, SF should not have the tree canopy of Portland, since it’s a completely different climate. SF was planned to have a park every half mile — it has the most accessible parks in the nation, in terms of percentage of people who are a 10 minute walk from a park. Something like 99% of the city falls into that bucket, highest in the nation. See Table 6.

            So you have a small park within walking distance wherever you are in the city, and also you have large dedicated open spaces such as GG park and the presidio, which is pretty optimal, if you ask me. I.e. if you hold the park area fixed, and were to subtract some land off of GG park and enlarge the small city parks a bit, I think this would be a net loss. It’s certainly not obvious that it would be a net gain.

            Now, if you think those parks are not properly cared for, or they don’t have the right amenities, we can debate that. But to me at least, the worst part about the parks is homelessness, not the parks themselves.

            I think your real beef might be with things like care for sidewalk trees, especially out in the avenues. Certainly SF can do better in terms of greening parts of the city, but the overall layout of the parks is pretty good and I don’t see any failures in design or planning there.

          4. So tired of people whinging about canopies. San Francisco is not and never has been a city of trees. Take a look at old photos. Historically, it was a city of dunes and scrubby bushes and low trees along creeks.

    2. Park blocks like Alamo Square? Or do you mean like Lafayette Square? Or more like Alta Plaza? Or more natural, like Buena Vista Park? or Bernal Heights?

      Yes, it’s too bad previous generations didn’t set aside park blocks in the middle of the city!

      1. The North Park Blocks and South Park Blocks in downtown Portland form two, Panhandle-like parks. A number of cultural amenities have located around South Park Blocks. Like most urban parks, they are a mixed blessing. On the one hand having open space in the central city forms a welcome green oasis for urban dwellers and office workers. On the other hand, they act as a magnet for aggressive panhandlers and the homeless.

        1. The North Park Blocks will soon become home to the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The North Blocks are paralleling the South Blocks in seeing an explosion of cultural amenities.

          The park blocks are the center of a growing hub of cultural institutions, public art and a myriad of plazas. And beautiful trees, flowers and water features. They have become the core of Portland’s cultural center and have drawn a myriad of support businesses such as galleries and rehearsal studios. San Francisco has nothing to compare. One can spend a day in and around the Park Blocks and not see everything. The seating areas are perfect for people watching, reading a good book (from Powell’s of course) or working on one’s laptop.

          Is there a panhandling problem – yes. Is it aggressive – by SF standards absolutely not. it is getting better while such things in SF are getting worse.

        1. I miss not having old cemeteries in the city, though. I’d gladly convert 10% of the park land to cemetery use, if they were beautifully maintained, with lots of statues.

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