San Francisco’s many “15-minute” neighborhoods

Why The City is an urban planner’s dream

Sometimes it is tough to keep up with the New York Times position on San Francisco.

Reading that paper, I am never sure whether I should be worried about San Francisco because The City is being inundated by tech people or because it is losing tech companies to other cities, because The City is too crowded or because people are leaving, because it has been taken over by the far left or because San Francisco is not as progressive as San Franciscans like to think.

That is why I was surprised to see on Oct. 11 that New York Times “California Today” newsletter writer Soumya Karlamangla not only took the time to write about one of my favorite streets in The City, but that she more or less got it right. Karlamangla described Clement Street as a great example of the “15-Minute City,” where local residents can meet almost all of their daily needs and more within a few blocks in an otherwise ordinary residential neighborhood. She also explained why this helped the neighborhood make it through the COVID pandemic relatively well.

The bigger story for San Francisco, and a huge advantage it has over other cities, is that we have many Clement streets.

There may not be a Green Apple Books or Good Luck Dim Sum on every street in San Francisco, but there are numerous streets like Clement where great and sometimes even affordable shopping, dining and useful small businesses can be found in a compact and walkable few block stretch in an otherwise residential area. A mile or two west of that strip of Clement Street, a similar-feeling commercial area can be found on Balboa Street centered around 35th Avenue. Denizens of Noe Valley know 24th Street serves a similar function in their community. From Chestnut Street in the Marina to Third Street in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, The City is dotted with these local high streets. To be sure, San Francisco also has major shopping thoroughfares that are less accessible to pedestrians as well as a handful of malls, but these walkable shopping areas in the heart of residential communities have proven surprisingly resilient.

It turns out some of the habits we developed during COVID — such as working from home when possible, feeling discomfort with new places where we do not fully understand the COVID policy and a desire to spend less time in unfamiliar crowded places — make the ability to stroll over to Balboa or Clement streets that much more desirable.

For San Franciscans, this seems obvious, but it is nonetheless true that we have developed organically what urban planners around the world seek to create.

The presence of so many of these streets that form the spine of so many neighborhoods may be due to the hills, which make it more difficult to walk long distances. Outside of a few parts of The City, a 20-block walk in San Francisco is a lot more daunting than it would be in New York, Chicago or Boston. Ironically, the chronically inadequate public transportation and difficulty with finding parking in so many parts of town — including on and around Clement Street, Chestnut Street and Columbus Avenue — also incentivizes people to stay in their neighborhoods.

These small shopping streets may have helped San Francisco handle the COVID pandemic, reduce the dependence on Amazon and other services that flourished during the crisis, and keep people safe now that vaccination rates are so high in San Francisco, but they should also be central to building a post-COVID San Francisco.

It has always been great to live in a city a few blocks from a neighborhood institution like Clement Street, but as we move from the frying pan of COVID into the accelerated fire of climate change, these institutions may become more important and more appealing.

There is also a potential downside to this that cannot be overlooked. San Francisco has long been a city of neighborhoods, but that has often cut in more than one direction. In a city as diverse as San Francisco, divisions, even ones that at first blush seem benign, are hardened when we spend less time outside of our neighborhoods. If you live in the Inner Richmond, work at home and shop and eat on Clement Street, you would not be aware of the different economic and health impact the pandemic had on some other neighborhoods only a few miles away. More broadly, the 15-minute neighborhood is extremely convenient and pleasant, but it isolates communities from each other and leads us to believe what we experience every day is what all San Franciscans experience. But that is never true for any of us.

Another danger is that streets like Clement may exist in middle class and affluent communities but cannot survive as easily in areas where there is less money. It is impossible not to notice, for example, that there are more boarded up businesses on Third Street than on Chestnut. This is both a reflection of the different economic fortunes of those communities, but also means lower-income residents of Bayview-Hunter’s Point don’t benefit from the quality of life and health benefits of 15-minute neighborhoods.

If only the middle class and wealthy have access to streets like Clement and if they become so desirable that only the rich can afford to live near them, as we see happening around other Bay Area counties, then we have failed as a city.

It has become a cliché to say the pandemic, and the recovery, has exposed our deep inequalities, but it is also true. Moving out of the pandemic, we need to build a city where access to walkable, vibrant urban communities exists in all neighborhoods. It is nice to see Clement Street get a good write-up in the New York Times and it is a good model for post-pandemic San Francisco, but it is also a reminder neighborhoods remain the driving force for San Francisco and good public policy should seek to nurture more streets like the stretch of Clement that maybe don’t catch the notice of the Gray Lady, but are nonetheless essential for so many San Franciscans.

Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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