San Francisco Bay Area: A Model For Livable Cities?

I lived extensively in two African cities, Algiers and Dakar, La Paz, Paris, Teheran, New York, Denver and the San Francisco Bay Area. I also lived quite a bit outside of cities. In big cities’ centers, one can live well. If one is wealthy. Or if a corporation or a university or a government offers real estate with views, or, even better, a house. 

But generally, life in big cities is hellish, noisy and polluted…. and one can’t escape: that would mean owning a car. Having a car in New York is nearly impossible: one has to walk the car all the time, as if it were a dog… Or, then, as in Paris, one can rent a super expensive garage (and need to be wealthy to do that). Without a car, one can’t ever escape the city.   

Throughout the USA, though, there are so called suburban areas. Actually, they are urbs. In the Bay Area 110 cities form the “Bay Area government”. They have generally perfectly enjoyable amenities… As long as one has a car. But that’s not a problem: parking is free or cheap and available, and one can reach medical centers which are as good as those in New York, and groceries which are vastly superior to the tiny ones in New York selling products which come from… the greater San Francisco Bay Area! (By train.) Now the whole SF Bay area is more than 50 miles wide and 100 miles long (it makes an arc, 300 kms long, 100 kms wide)… But it is interspaced with parks, some of them national parks, complete with deer, coyotes, bald eagles, the occasional condor, and pumas. From Muir Wood national monuments, with two species of trees, Sequoia and Douglass Firs, which reach above 100 meters tall (330 feet), one can observe in rare clearings, between the towering trees, the gleaming San Francisco skyline.

The San Francisco Bay makes a network, with long linear conurbations tied up with freeways and trainlines. In between the strands of the web, parcs, or Bay. 

This sort of suburban set-up is a better solution than traditional cramped cities with a radial spread.

Yes, it’s not perfect yet. The San Francisco Bay Area covers an area of 7,000 square miles, nearly twice Hawaii Big Island. It needs to densify, with more high rise towers and more trains, as the already enormous population grows (more than 10 million, with 8 in the “inner” Bay)… this densification is needed for several reasons, including making public transportation profitable and also to preserve the gigantic park system of the SF Bay: 51 California parks and 4 national parks!  Some of these parks are large enough and contiguous enough to unable megafauna to roam without human interference. 

The presence all over of the enormous park system has positive impacts on peace of mind and pollution. 

Most of the San Francisco Bay Area in this NASA picture. Left is West, up is North. The picture was probably taken in Spring and the north valley water, laden with sediments, is beige. The Bay goes to Sacramento and Stockton, both deep water ports.

All the light or dark green areas are parks, and farmland. Cities appear grey-beige. Mont Diablo is in the center of the picture. One can see clearly the trace of San Andreas fault, from up left (north-west), where it borders Point Reyes National Park to its west. Further down, west of it are the Santa Cruz mountains, with many parks, including Big Basin, where one of the last grizzlies was killed early in the Twentieth Century. East of them, the so-called “Silicon Valley”, a by-product of Stanford University. The large city in the center is San Jose (more than one million). Immediately east of it is the Berkeley-Oakland hills culminating at 1300 meters on Mount Hamilton (famous observatory). The long line of cities east of that range is the Interstate 680 corridor. East of that urban corridor is the Diablo Range, a rising chain of mountains, three hundred kilometers long, culmainating a mile high (1600 m), separating the Bay from the California Central Valley…


One could sneer that the physical geography of the SF Bay imposed on it its urban geography… Instead of some sort of Californian spiritual genius. Indeed. But the result is here, and inspiring. And there was a human contribution: already under the Spanish and Mexican rules, the Berkeley Oakland hills were a protected park surrounded by ranchland. That hill park harbored roaming grizzlies and the planet’s tallest trees. When the greedy fortyniners US immigrants arrived, they cut the trees (making a fortune from it)… Before finally being stopped by John Muir (empowered by the US train baron, his friend Harriman, an ecologist… and geographer…). A few sequoia forests, the hardest ones to log, were saved, including “Muir Woods”, ten kilometers north of the Golden Gate…

East Peak of Mont Diablo, March 6, 2023 from the city of Walnut Creek, 40 kilometers east of San Francisco proper… Yes, snow covered. Mont Diablo, a state park, is nearly surrounded by Bay Area cities…

So cities can be interconnected in networks, interspaced with wild parkland. In this case the city, the greater Bay Area, is larger demographically, and in GDP, than all by a handfull of European countries…

Oakland with San Francisco behind, 2022… Large dark conifers are sequoias. Parkland or megalopolis? Both! Fastest economically growing area in the USA in 2022, with nearly 5% growth… Propelled by high tech.

Patrice Ayme


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