Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Tag Archives: San Francisco

Interview with Peter Calthorpe

​Peter Calthorpe, one of the most well-known innovators in urban design in the world, had a discussion with senior Ma’ayan Dembo on how he started in this field, his views on urbanism in the age of climate change, high speed rail, and the controversial Saltworks project.  In this interview, Mr. Calthorpe also discussed his Vision California project and what California can do to lead the world in designing for cities that have a lower carbon footprint and have better transportation and urban amenities.
Mr. Calthorpe has written extensively about urban design.  His most recent books include:
Mr. Calthorpe’s interview with KZSU’s Maayan Dembo was broadcast on KZSU on April, 24th 2014 on the Modern Tek News news show, and is available from this link.

Ma’ayan Dembo: Abstract for Senior Capstone Project

Even though Hip-Hop graffiti first surfaced 45 years ago, city governments still struggle to come up with policies to address it. While researchers have discussed the negative, unintended consequences of city policies regarding graffiti/street art, none have explored the implications of these laws on the content and processes of the artists.  To do so, an international study was chosen between San Francisco, California, and Berlin, Germany, due to graffiti’s ubiquitous nature today. By looking at different countries, unique cultural and historic factors can be highlighted that affect the consistent core characteristics of this global movement. Both Berlin and San Francisco have had a thriving graffiti culture for over thirty years, and each city has differences in their regulatory approach.

Interviews with artists (ranging from traditional muralists, taggers, wheatpasters, stickerers, and chalk artists) were the best research method. Artists seldom have an opportunity to be in dialogue with city policies, and have to maintain anonymity due to the illegal nature of their work. Artists gave descriptive answers to the open ended questions that allowed common themes to be drawn across, or within, each city. While in San Francisco, artists were recruited through snowball sampling, in Berlin, artists were selected through a different process. I contacted subjects by recording signed works throughout the city and finding the corresponding email addresses or social media accounts. Berlin required a different sampling methodology because there were fewer initial contacts there than in San Francisco. Eleven artists from Berlin and ten artists from San Francisco were interviewed, all focusing in a variety of media. To gain perspective from the city’s side, one representative of the San Francisco Arts Commission was interview, and the Berlin Anti-Graffiti task force referred me to a series of documents outlining Berlin’s stance towards vandalism and street art.

In both San Francisco and Berlin, cultural and historical factors largely explain where graffiti/street artists’ prefer to create their works. While Berlin’s policies and programs also contribute to these artists’ spatial preferences, San Francisco’s robust programs have little influence on artists. In San Francisco, the majority of artists interviewed created works in alleyways, while most Berlin artists mentioned painting in abandoned buildings. These differing spatial preferences in turn inform each city’s scale and content of artists’ pieces, as well as potential barriers to creating legal works for younger artists. San Francisco’s artists focused more on creating works that were relevant, or at least acknowledged, the community. Local artists worked on a smaller scale, preventing them from painting many of the city’s large-scale works. Moreover in San Francisco there are greater barriers to making legal pieces for younger artists due to the lack of free space available for experimentation. In Berlin, artists did not have the same connection to the community in San Francisco because their preferred spaces– abandoned buildings– are outside of the public eye. Berlin artists, though, have more access to larger surfaces and thus are experienced at painting large murals. In addition, by painting in abandoned buildings, Berlin artists can paint on the same scale as San Francisco artists, but have more opportunities to play with the architecture and niches of a specific space. Finally, in Berlin, making legal works is easier since there is an abundance of empty and secluded wall space, as well as many legal Halls of Fame.

In 2014, graffiti is 45 years old– having already started a family and now raising children, it’s viewing the world through a different lens. In a similar life stage, traditional muralism is witnessing younger generations using its techniques and modifying the content and purpose of their works. Graffiti/street art forms are being re-defined right now, and cities must critically evaluate the laws they put in place regarding these urban art forms to fully understand both the consequences and the implications of these policies.

Gentrification Quantified

Most of us at Stanford, and hopefully all of us within the Urban Studies department, are aware of the gentrification occurring in San Francisco. Far from a recent development, gentrification brings white-collar workers to formerly working-class neighborhoods like the Mission. This article from the Wall Street Journal explains to the rest of the country what we see when walking down Valencia Street, watching trendy thrift stores and skateboard shops replace everyday laundromats or restaurants. 

While the housing market in the rest of the country continues to falter, San Francisco’s gentrifying neighborhoods are flourishing. The reasoning comes from two ends: on the one hand, there is a stigma attached to the mansions of Pacific Heights and estates of Portola Valley that surely is not improving with the Occupy movement. On the other, the wealthy–qualified by also being young and educated, for the most part–have come to appreciate the lifestyle afforded by public transportation access and urban drama. What was once reserved for the lower classes, evaded by the middle class in their exodus to the suburbs, is being reclaimed by the financially fortunate. 



For a more concrete sense of the phenomenon, the WSJ article mentions that recently an 1,800 square foot house went on sale in Noe Valley and was sold for $1.5 million, 40% above the asking price. A two-bedroom apartment in the Mission went for $585,000, where median home prices went up 44% between December 2010 and 2011. Location, location, location could never be more true. Prices of homes close to corporate transportation like the Google employee bus are raised by the so-called “Shuttle Effect” and “pop-up restaurants with long lines, coffee shops that brew one cup at a time and shops selling curiosities like local honey have followed the influx of cash.” 

These rises and falls in housing prices are part of a city’s natural economy, but what happens when the money-saving characteristics of the city are no longer available to the citizens who need them the most? Yes, employees of tech companies should be proud that they do not have to own a car, but are their savings subsidizing the purchase of the service workers who can no longer afford to live near a public transit line? These difficult questions of gentrification remain, and hopefully some of the gritty charm that attracted young workers to these neighborhoods will as well. 

City of Smarts

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to the Institute for the Future’s Technology Horizons 2011 Fall Conference for a workshop on the bottom-up innovations of the smart city. I will be writing my honors thesis on the smart city, so this was an incredible way to leaders from nonprofit organizations, corporations, activists, and government officials come together around the issue of the future of the smart city and its implications for the future.


From inside one of the hackathons; source

The evening presentation was led by Jay Nash, the Director of Innovation for the City of San Francisco, and Peter Hirschberg, co-founder and chairman of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. Their talk was on the Summer of Smart, a city-wide project designed around three hackathons and months of development and prototyping, culminating in a 9-member mayoral debate setting new precedents for the way that citizens interact with their government.

Each of the hackathons was centered on a particular topic: community development and public art; energy, sustainability, and transportation; and nutrition and public health. While clearly social problems, three areas also have in common a relationship with the environment. While not explicitly related to green behaviors, environmental sustainability is perpetuated through clean streets, waste tracking, and food source monitoring. The winners of the last two categories presented at the conference and shared their innovative ways of addressing chronic problems in the city through mobile phone applications. The SMART Muni app solved problems that the City thought would take 5 years to tackle by combining a GPS feed of Muni buses with an interface that allows MTA managers to fix problems when they occur. The Garden Guardians app gives Bayview-Hunters Point residents real-time information about the availability of healthy food, even incorporating a game function that incentivizes youth leaders and adult mentors to gather data about their local food supply.   Read more of this post

Ulterior Motives?

Two urban planning initiatives have piqued my interest recently.  I encountered one of them firsthand while I was in San Francisco last weekend.  On Powell Street (between Geary and Ellis Streets), planters, benches, railings, and tables—all made of precision cut and twisted pieces of aluminum—have popped up on both sides.  They sit atop aluminum grates with wood accents, extending out from the sidewalk, occupying the space that was formerly used for parking.  LED lights are installed along the walkways, with solar panels on both ends of the block to power them.  This project is called Progress on Powell Street and it was “launched with the purpose of improving the pedestrian experience on Powell Street in a way that transforms it into a vibrant destination and alleviates the congestion.”  Although I can’t say that this promenade did too much for congestion (the street was still pretty crowded when I was there), it certainly was eye-catching.  People were hanging out along the railings and tables, as well as using the benches to chat with friends or take a rest.  Thus, it was not only visually arresting but useful, too.


The other initiative employs something called “the fun theory,” which is the idea that “something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.”  The change can be for people, for the environment, or for anything else, as long as it achieves the goal of effecting change for the better.  One of the projects in this initiative is called the “Piano Staircase.”  I did not experience it for myself but I still enjoyed watching the video of people who did.  The “Piano Staircase” was installed in a metro station in Odenplan, Stockholm.  Each stair was converted into a piano key that, when stepped on, played a corresponding note.  The amusing and interactive staircase was designed to encourage people to be more active and use the stairs, rather than the escalator.  As the video shows, it was quite a success.

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The Triumph of the City in a weekend

I am reading Edward Glaeser’s new book The Triumph of the City, which argues that the city is humanity’s greatest invention and is our best hope to make us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.” He explains that despite technologies that have, in a certain sense, made distance irrelevant, creativity and innovation still benefit from face-to-face contact. Furthermore, cultural and social richness are things that can only be approximated in a virtual world. 

This weekend, events in San Francisco did a great job of proving Glaeser’s thesis. I was up in the city this weekend to run the Nike Women’s (Half) Marathon, and my excursion through the area reminded me of the vitality of city life that cannot be replaced by email, Facebook, or Skype. As I stood in line in Union Square to check in for my race number, the other side of the sidewalk was filled with protesters continuing Occupy San Francisco for the fourth straight week. There were apparently 5,000 demonstrators between Civic Center and Union Square, using the city’s density of both people and financial institutions to make their political statement. 


About three miles away, a social gathering of a completely different character was taking place. The Treasure Island music festival was in full swing, featuring bands including Cut Copy and Friendly Fires. The lineup attracts visitors from all over California, and being located in relatively small venue, the festival is manageable and allows visitors to see all of the artists since there are no overlapping set times. While music festivals by no means have to take place in a city (see Coachella), there is something about having the San Francisco skyline as a backdrop to an event like this and city restaurants, hotels, and transportation that enhance the experience. 


The Nike Women’s Marathon itself was a lesson in the power of the physical group. With 22,000 participants, it is the largest women’s marathon in the world and shuts down the city’s busiest streets for hours. The marathon promotes health, raises funding for charity ($13 million this year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society!) and provides local restaurants, hotels, and retail stores with one of their most profitable days of the year. And when seeing the faces of those crossing the finish line, there is no doubt that this San Francisco event makes people happier. 


A criticism of events like these is the amount of waste they produce. Cities, while more efficient than suburbs, are still huge producers of waste and consumers of energy. Putting on huge events or hosting demonstrations generates large amounts of trash and encourages the purchase of single-use items. On the other hand, these events are great platforms for showcasing green practices like composting and taking public transportation. Both Treasure Island and the Nike Women’s Marathon made this a great focus of their planning. 

These three events certainly benefitted from digital technology and social media–there were surely countless Facebook picture uploads Twitter updates–but it was the power of shared emotion that created memories for the participants. Whether it was outrage, enjoyment, or pride, the act of sharing an experience with a crowd of thousands of strangers has a tendency to leave a greater impression than watching an event streaming online with a “crowd” of millions of strangers. 

These were only the main events happening this weekend in San Francisco. Other concerts, performances, museum exhibits, restaurant openings, athletic games, and other events also took place, like usual. This alone is an argument for eliminating measures that subsidize suburban growth and favor rural citizens. Long live the city. 



Public Art or Public Announcement?

At a symposium I attended last week on Philippine literature and politics, the panel was asked a rather difficult question: in a country with a history of turmoil and oppression, could art ever be made just for the sake of art anymore, or is everything inextricably linked to a political agenda?  Since the panel consisted of mostly writers, they were specifically asked if they felt they had to write to send a message or if they could just write to write.  It took several moments for anyone to attempt to answer.  I couldn’t blame them.

This past summer, I faced a similar question while touring San Francisco with a group of international students.  We were in the area to feast our eyes on the famed and fantastic murals of the Mission District.  San Francisco is home to over 600 murals.  The city’s mural tradition is magnificent and diverse, with murals painted on numerous surfaces, from building walls and facades to fences and garage doors.  Even pavements and sidewalks serve as canvasses for artists’ brushes and spray cans.  The colorful Mission District has the greatest concentration of murals in San Francisco.  On any given street, one would find huge, vivid painted scenes framing storefronts or adorning residences.

The mural movement of the Mission District—and San Francisco, in general—was largely inspired by the Mexican tradition of monumental public art celebrating and commemorating history and cultural heritage (a tradition that the writers at the symposium also follow).  Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Siquieros, known as “Los Tres Grandes” or “The Three Greats,” were considered the masters of mural painting.  According to the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center, the “Chicano (Mexican/American) and civil rights movements of the 1960’s inspired a new generation of muralists to rediscover the works of Los Tres Grandes and indigenous heritage continuing the tradition of monumental art addressing social and political issues, with themes of culture and community” (precitaeyes.org).  The predominantly Latino community of the Mission District have been painting murals in this vein since the 1970s.

Balmy Alley, located between 24th and 25th streets, is one of the many fruits of the neighborhood muralists’ labor.  In this little street, the walls, fences, and garage doors glow with figures of Hispanics, whether they are famous for something specific or simply emblematic of everyday people; and images of scenes and objects related to the Hispanic culture.  Here, the murals demand our thoughts turn to such difficult topics as AIDS, war, poverty, immigration, political strife, and other human rights issues.  Nearly every painting implores viewers to bear in mind the struggles of the community that keeps these works of public art alive.


A few blocks over, Clarion Alley shines in all its brightly hued glory.  A younger relative of—and directly inspired by—Balmy Alley, Clarion Alley was initiated and is maintained by the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP).  CAMP was established in 1992 by a volunteer group of six North Mission residents.  Unlike Balmy, CAMP did not begin with a single focus.  Its two main goals were social inclusiveness and aesthetic variety, with an emphasis on emerging artists and new styles.  As a result, Latino, Caucasian, African-American, Native American, Asian, Indian, Queer and disabled artists of all ages and all levels of experience have produced more than 150 murals on the surfaces of Clarion Alley.  The paintings here range from surreal and whimsical to political and subversive.


It was in these two alleys, most especially Clarion Alley, that I was asked the question.  Several of the international students had noticed that some of the murals blatantly carried a message (i.e. the images were accompanied by quotations or slogans) but others did not.  Were the paintings without words emblazoned on them still saying something then?  Or are they merely visuals imagined by the artist?  After taking some time to study the murals, I answered in the same way that one of the panelists at the Philippine literature and politics symposium answered: it depends.  And a lot of it on the viewers’ interpretation.  The artist (or the writer) may or may not create something with the intention of promoting a particular opinion but if the audience sees something in their works that could be construed as a “message,” it would be hard for the audience to un-see it, no matter what the artist says.  Yet, whether or not they are all saying something, there is no arguing that the murals contribute to the Mission District’s rich character.  And, as Precita Eyes describes, the “community murals are painted by and for the community whose walls they enhance. Whether they espouse political views, family values, cultural pride, or historic events, they reflect the needs, hopes and dreams of the community members who paint them” (precitaeyes.org).


Whose Streets?

This week in Sustainable Transportation Planning (URBANST 165) we learned that U.S. roads were first paved because of intense pressure, not from the automobile industry, but from bicycle interest groups.  At the turn of the 20th century, pedestrians determined the speed and flow of traffic, cyclists dominated the roads, and it was the motorists, of all people, who were seen as the interlopers. This hierarchy, of course, has been completely reversed, and it is now hard to imagine a time when commuters truly shared the road.

Bicycles are still allowed on the roads, but our urban streets and transportation amenities are tailored to the car.  It is against the law to ride your bike on the sidewalk, and yet, you must bring your bike up onto the sidewalk to find a designated parking rack. Doesn’t this seem a bit strange? The sidewalk is for pedestrians, the street is for cars, and it is unclear where cyclists are meant to feel at home.  It seems to me that if cyclists are meant to ride on the road, they should be able to park on the road just like a car.  In fact, turning a couple parking spots on every street into mini bike lots (2-3 racks per space= 4-6 bikes per space) would be a great way to encourage biking, discourage driving and provide a visual reminder to drivers of the cyclist presence on the roads.

SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, has been working on a project called Reclaim Market Street, which facilitates temporary public experiments that look at how the San Francisco thoroughfare and its surrounding public spaces are used by the public. This weekend (Saturday 8th, 12-5PM) they will be organizing a Sidewalk Intervention, the next weekend (Saturday 15th, 1-9 PM) a Plaza Intervention, and the following weekend (Saturday 22nd, 1-5PM) a Street Intervention, which will include a collaborative bike ride down Market in search of the best bike lane options. The input and observations at the these events will eventually lead to the 2015 Remaking of Market Street. Who knows, maybe the public will demand a return to the bicycle and pedestrian-dominated Market Street of 1910.



When Scarcity Meets Abundance

There are a lot of hungry people in the U.S. And I am not using the term “a lot” lightly. According to worldhunger.org, over 17 millions families in the U.S. are food insecure. Yet, despite the severity of America’s hunger problem, each year the U.S. throws over 34 millions tons of perfectly edible food into the landfill. 

To me, the co-existence of widespread hunger and excessive levels of food waste is absurd. How can such massive levels of food waste be legal—or at the very least socially acceptable—when so many are hungry?

Over the summer, I am working with an organization that attempts to redress a portion of this illogical coexistence of hunger and food waste. This organization is The Free Farm Stand, located in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Free Farm Stand operates by collecting unsold produce from farmers markets across the Bay Area and bringing this produce to Parque Niños Unidos. This produce is then arranged into little baskets, placed on shaded tables, and given away every Sunday for free. While the food is intended for those who cannot afford to purchase fresh produce, all are welcome. Through this effort, hundreds of families are given fresh produce weekly and farmers are relived of having to find a way to dispose of their unsold fruits and vegetables.


To me, this process just makes sense. There is no reason that hunger should exist alongside an overabundance of nutritious food.

Yet, while I appreciate the work that the Free Farm Stand is able to do, I know that food waste and food access issues run much deeper than anything the stand can hope to address. For instance, due to twisted food subsidies, purchasing a Big Mac in the U.S. costs far less than a bag of lettuce. That means that in the U.S., the most affordable route out of hunger leads directly to obesity.

It’s a messy, confusing system, and I do not think there is any one solution that can fix it. However, if food-based issues say in the political and cultural spotlight that they currently occupy, I am hopeful that America’s food system will improve in the semi-near future.