“I want to see how it turns out…”


The reality of magazine editing is that you often have more good material than you have space to publish.
That was certainly the case with Tech X Interiors.

As part of our research for “Workplace 2068,” we sought some informed opinion on what San Francisco will be 50 years from now. We interviewed John Rahaim, San Francisco’s Director of City Planning, about where the city is going and Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director at SPUR, about the impact rising sea levels will have on the waterfront. Metropolis had only a couple of column inches to give to John and Laura’s comments, but because everything they had to say was fascinating, we wanted to run a longer version.
Here then is our city half a century from now as imagined by two people whose job it is to make it happen:

Laura Tam

Sustainable Development Policy Director

John Rahaim

Planning Director
City and County of San Francisco

“I don’t think most people see climate change as an urgent issue and relative to the other issues that face San Francisco today I would tend to agree with that. I mean it is an issue that is very important and we have to stop it as quickly as possible. And at least we’re in an environment where people are not denying climate change here. We have a favorable political climate in which to take action. We could be doing more, but with respect to the other urgent social issues that are facing our city today I would tend to agree with most people that we should be focusing on other stuff sooner.

“We’ll probably be fine. And by ‘be fine’ I mean we will prevent loss of life from flooding and we will prevent inundation, widespread inundation on a regular basis. I’m not sure we will have the same quality of experience, human experience on the waterfront that we have today. And I’m not sure it will look like it looks today. But, you know, we think a lot about the future here at SPUR. Think of the difference between 1918 and 1968. A lot changed in the world! And it might be the same here. We might have new technologies that enable us to swallow up sea level floods with a sponge. Maybe the world will come up with a way of solving climate change and stabilizing sea levels.

“I think we will protect downtown San Francisco as much as we can. I think we will raise the Embarcadero and then we’ll do it again in the future. And we’ll be in a Netherlands-like situation where downtown is below sea level at some point and we’ll pump water out.

“If I were to put my own money on it I would bet that we would have at least a foot of sea level rise by mid-century and it might be more—it might be 16 inches. I would bet that by the end of the century, probably at least 3 feet. It might be worse. A lot of those estimates do not account for potential major ice losses in the Antarctic. There’s a scenario that Ocean Protection Council has developed around catastrophic warming and sea level rise called the H++ Scenario and I think in that situation that’s like 10 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, so we’d be seeing the 6 feet, the 5 feet by 2068—your time frame.

“If you’re building infrastructure, you should think about its design life and you should factor in very aggressive sea level rise estimates if you expect it to have a long life. If you’re building something that is more temporary or can be moved in the future or is floodable, then you don’t have to worry as much about building it to accommodate sea level rise. You need to pick the level of sea level rise that your project might face in the future in order to build it right the first time.

“This is just a side note, but I feel like I spend so much time thinking about the long-term trajectory of sea level rise and it just kills me that I’m not going to be around to find out what happens. You know? It bugs me so much. My kids are always like, Would you want to live forever if you could? Some people would definitely say no. But I’m kind of like, Yes! I want to see how it turns out! What happens to civilization? Do we end up solving climate change? Did we have H++ or did we stabilize things? I’m really optimistic and hope and think that we will.”

“I believe strongly that the trend of moving away from cities in the last half of the 20th century was an aberration in urban history and that the trend back to cities today is more the norm. People often ask me is this just a temporary trend and I say it’s actually the opposite and what happened in the 60s, 70s and 80s was the aberration. I believe that trend will continue. Cities will continue to densify. San Francisco will continue to densify.

“There’s going to be increasing pressure to rein in sprawl. It’s going to force the cities, particularly San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose to grow up instead of out. And I think that’s particularly true in a place like Oakland. I would guess in 50 years you will see Oakland grow dramatically, probably even more than San Francisco.

“While housing has never been—well, in the last two or three decades—has never been affordable in San Francisco, the last decade has seen a doubling of housing costs. Will it ever be affordable? No. I don’t believe so. Even if we reduced the cost of housing by 20%, which is a huge number, the median price of a house would still be close to a million dollars. I’ve said many times that this is the biggest threat to this city and many others. Perhaps the thing that I find most troubling is that it’s happening on my watch. I often wonder if I’m presiding over the death of the soul of San Francisco.

“This may be somewhat provocative, but I believe in the long run the only way to get a handle on this is for the public and non-profit sector to take control of a bigger percentage of the housing stock like they do in Northern European countries or places like Hong Kong where they control 30 or 40 or 50% of the housing. We control 6 or 7%. It’s essentially thinking of housing as part of the city’s urban infrastructure. Just like we build roads and bridges—we build housing.

“We are still building buildings with 19th century technology. The construction industry is woefully behind in terms of technology and we are looking very carefully at modular construction and other ways of building. I mean really there is qualitatively no real difference between how we build these buildings today and how it was done in the late 19th century. Nails and boards! I do think the whole construction industry will change dramatically in 50 years. 3D printing will have more of a role.

“What I’m optimistic about is a growing awareness of the need to address these issues in different ways. We have this whole community development team in the department that works on anti-displacement and controlling evictions and convening other agencies to try to figure out how to keep people in their homes and businesses. The notion is that you can grow the city and stabilize the population. That’s my goal.”

We’re including here some of the illustrations produced by Nikki Hall and Kelsey Dawson that didn’t make it into the issue, as well as extended comments from the experts who were quoted in the article only briefly.