Building more housing units seems to be the best solution to the problem, and since San Francisco juts out on a peninsula, the only way to go could be up. Current zoning laws, however, have kept developers in many parts of the city from building taller.
In the map below, all of the areas in yellow are zoned to limit building height to 40 feet.
One reason the zoning laws exist is that many residents want to keep San Francisco’s character the same.Many San Francisco neighborhoods, with the exception of the downtown area, are made up of one- and two-story buildings.
David Baker Architects, an architecture firm based in San Francisco, wanted to find out what would happen if zoning laws were changed to be able to accommodate more people.
“The reality is our population is expected to hit a million people around 2030,” Amanda Loper, an associate at David Baker Architects, said to Fast Company. “There isn’t an option to not change. So how can we accommodate people? When you say something like that, people get scared — thinking the character of the city is going to change, it’s going to be like living in Tokyo. David and I wanted to know what that kind of density would look like.”
With a concentration of 18,000 people per square mile, San Francisco has a third the population density of Paris (55,000 PPM) and nearly four times less than Manhattan (70,000 PPM). But according to the architects, San Francisco could reach a Manhattan-like density without building high rises that would change the city’s character. They say that adding a few five-story buildings to a particular neighbourhood is all it would take.
The team at David Baker created this visualisation of an extremely dense neighbourhood, with a concentration of 270,000 PPM. Building these high rises would drastically change the feel of San Francisco.
A reimagined San Francisco wouldn’t need to be that dense to accommodate more residents. The architects chose 100,000 PPM as the ideal density for their thought experiment.
“We wanted to see what a neighbourhood that met this 100,000 PPM goal looked like physically,” David Baker said to Business Insider. “We discovered that you don’t need to build a bunch of densely packed skyscrapers. In fact, ordinary five-story apartments can get you there.”
This visualisation shows what a neighbourhood of 100,000 PPM would look like. As you can see below, it’s pretty uniform and boring.
Since San Francisco is far from boring, the architects adjusted the model to reflect the building styles they have observed around the city. Rather than have a uniform neighbourhood of five-story buildings, developers could create buildings of a variety of heights.
“You can mix heights from two story to eight, and have a more diverse urban form and still achieve this metric,” Baker said.
Here’s a visualisation of the ideal density of 100,000 PPM, modified to fit San Francisco’s character.
According to Baker, making San Francisco more dense could have many advantages across the board.
“We realise that it’s not for everyone, but we personally like the benefits of dense urban living. We’re not alone: walkability is one of the prime results of density, and walkability as measured by Walk Score has become a very positive factor for people to choose their residence location. Dense neighborhoods are simply more fun and convenient to live in,” Baker said. “And though individual dwellings command a premium over their suburban counterparts, the ability to not own a personal automobile goes a long way to equalizing that cost differential. Additional benefits of density are the much lower carbon footprint, measured per person, of dense urban neighborhoods.”
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