Posted June 24th 2010 at 4:00 pm by
in CoLab Philosophy

Planning in Economic Crisis: Learning from San Francisco’s Eastern Neighborhoods

Ada Chan, Amit Ghosh, Oscar Grande, Lisa Feldstein, and Rachel Brahinsky at the Towards A Just Metropolis Conference in San Francisco, June 17, 2010.

CoLab participated in the Towards a Just Metropolis Conference in San Francisco, CA from June 16th to 20th.  The conference was hosted by the Planners Network, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, and the Association for Community Design.  More than 400 planners, students, researchers, community organizers, architects and other professionals engaged in a variety of panels, workshops, presentations, film screenings and networking events at the conference. We (Annis Whitlow Sengupta and Sebastiao Ferreira of CoLab) participated in the conference by attending multiple activities, giving two presentations and running a workshop on our knowledge harvesting, which is method for learning collaboratively from past experiences. We found the conference inspiring and feel glad for the opportunity to learn from such a diverse array of experiences and research and to establish connections with practitioners who share CoLab’s values and objectives.

One event in particular stood out. “An Epilogue of the Eastern Neighborhood Planning Process” examined a contentious planning process in San Francisco’s Eastern Neighborhoods between 1999 and 2008 through the various perspectives of planners and community organizers who had led different aspects of the process. During the panel, we heard from Amit Ghosh, who was serving as Chief of Comprehensive Planning for the San Francisco Planning Department at the time; Oscar Grande, a community activist with PODER who worked on community engagement during the planning process; Lisa Feldstein, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley who was elected as a San Francisco Planning Commissioner during the process; and Ada Chan, who worked for the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition at the time. The panel was moderated by Rachel Brahinsky, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley who was a journalist during the planning process.

The panelists told the story of how the market pressure that accompanied the dot-com bubble affected San Francisco’s Eastern Neighborhoods, which were home to many of the city’s low income residents as well as industries and businesses dependent on their labor. The new market forces disturbed the neighborhood’s stability, creating tremendous pressure for real estate speculation and catalyzing an eviction crisis in the neighborhood. The planners’ attempts to redirect the market forces using zoning changes failed because the mayor and city attorney cooperated with the development interests to undermine the planning department’s ability to direct development away from the neighborhoods.

However, the community successfully organized itself to strategically target the planning department, learning the language of planning, storming the planning department, electing a new Planning Commissioner, and running a parallel, community-driven planning process. This push and pull between the planning agency and the community actors eventually led to a People’s Plan drafted by the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and PODER and the official Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which was adopted by San Francisco in 2008. We were struck both by the scale of market forces acting on the city and the effect that the scale of those forces had on the ability of the city’s institutions, particularly the institution of planning, to respond effectively and were left pondering a number of questions:

Can we understand the actions of the mayor and the community as parallel processes responding to the incapacity of planning to manage the scale of change affecting the city?

How can planners better understand the system dynamics driving the economic and environmental pressures manifesting in local crises and conflicts?

How can the planning profession nurture more flexible forms of practice that can respond effectively when the magnitude of change exceeds what the traditional institution of planning can handle?


The story of the Eastern Neighborhoods’ planning process revealed to us the importance of democratic engagement for addressing these questions.

Post by Annis Whitlow Sengupta and Sebastiao Ferreira. Photo by Sebastiao Ferreira.

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