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Monday, December 11, 2023

3 Dire Visions of the Bay Area in 2070—and 1 That's Pretty Great

The Bay Area is blessed; the Bay Area is cursed. This is how Gabriel Metcalf, the director of the urban policy think tank San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association—aka SPUR—puts it, more or less. “We really have everything we need to successfully solve our problems,” he says. “What we’re missing is a kind of civic will to act at the necessary scale.”

This month, SPUR embarks on a three-year project to create a regional strategy for the country’s richest area—and its most unequal. The strategy goes far beyond the standard 5, 10, or 20 years for such plans. SPUR is projecting all the way to 2070. And this month, the group released a report on “future scenarios”. They’re an attempt to answer: What happens if nothing in the Bay Area changes over the next half century? What happens if everything does?

“It’s too easy to create a massive dystopian document, that the future is all going to be terrible,” says Allison Arieff, SPUR’s editorial director. “This is an effort, in earnest, to look for the positive.”

It’s also an interesting way to get at the area’s main gifts and problems, most of which can be summed up in a few statistics. The region, which stretches from Sonoma County in the north to San Mateo County in the south, and from Contra Costa and Alameda Counties in the east to San Francisco in the west, had a gross domestic product of $748 billion last year. Its economy is growing nearly twice as fast as the rest of the US. More than half of Bay Area residents have a bachelor’s degree or more. The median home resold for $712,000 at the beginning of this year, up 11 percent from the year previous. Just 4 percent of the region’s housing is subsidized. High fees and a tortuous permitting progress make it hard to build more. Thanks to increasing traffic congestion, commute times are now at record levels, while residents are taking far fewer public transit trips than they did 25 years ago. Projections show middle-wage jobs in the Bay Area will account for just 22 percent of the job growth in the area between 2010 and 2020—meaning the share of middle-wage jobs has declined compared to low- and high-wage ones.

So you don’t need a stack of paper to know that fixing the place by 2070 comes down to the economy. That, plus housing, transportation, and land use. Oh, and the variables that local policy alone cannot control: climate change, natural disasters, whatever the heck is going on in Washington. It’s all very complicated, which is why SPUR’s scenarios make for a useful rubric. Of course, it’s pitched toward the organization’s own policy views: that increased economic prosperity can be created hand-in-hand with the tech community, and that building market-rate housing is one path out of the affordability crunch.

Let’s start with what happens if nothing changes. SPUR calls this scenario “Gated Utopia.” Service jobs are automated, and the people who used to do this work have moved away. Schools are good because there’s only rich people here now. Public transit is OK, but only in the urban core, and most of the area’s wealthy residents rely on private transportation, like personal autonomous vehicles. The area is packed with random millionaires—former middle-class folk who happened to buy homes when prices were low. Safe, but homogenous; successful, but only for some. “If the current trends continue, that’s where we end up,” says Metcalf.

Scenario two: “Bunker Bay Area”, a place marked by economic decline and social exclusion, meaning people are bereft of opportunities because of their income or education level, or because of the color of their skin. The gradual concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is masked, for a time, by the area’s booming economy. But as homelessness becomes more and more common, money leaks out of the public safety net and away from job training programs. The gated community is the architectural signature, as the wealthy use their own resources to protect themselves. Low-income people rely on an informal economy to survive.

Three: “Rust Belt West,” a place dominated by anti-business sentiment, economic decline, and social inclusion, meaning politicians and institutions work hard to support workers, the middle class, and the poor. Informal co-ops have taken over for municipal garbage collection and public transit, while hospitals and pharmacies lay mostly fallow. “As companies left, there were no business leaders to contest the policy choices, which over time became more and more extreme,” SPUR explains in its report.

Finally, the best of all possible worlds: “A New Social Compact,” a place where the economy booms and social inclusion thrives. A single regional transportation agency—right now, there are eight in the Bay Area—has extended service into lower-density areas, while reconfiguring roads for walking and scooters. Immigration continues unabated. Smaller, infill homes bloom.

The terms are meant to be a starting point for a longer process, one that won’t just be guided by SPUR’s own staff. “Planners are in the middle of this shift in how decisions are made. It’s less top-down, though not fully bottom-up,” says Arieff, referencing Robert Moses’ highway building by near fiat as the “old model” of city decision-making. “Organizations such as ours have to be wide open and receptive and inclusive of as many voices as possible.” She notes that SPUR will hold three public listening sessions in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, to get a sense for where many groups’ priorities lie. 2070 feels far away, but knowing what residents really want it to look like is the first step in getting there.

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