San Diego City Hall / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

A national search for the next planning director for the city of San Diego has been promised. It is now time for Mayor Todd Gloria and his staff to demonstrate just how high they can set their sights in transforming San Diego into a city for all of us.

The vacancy of one of the most influential positions in city government comes at a time of great challenge and even greater opportunity. The pandemic and housing crisis have exposed just how lacking our public spaces, transportation networks and affordable housing are in “America’s Finest City.”

To permit and build the good quality infill development that we need, it is time for San Diego to join cities around the world in adopting objective design guidelines that set a minimum standard of design quality for the built environment to make sure that what is built today won’t be of such poor quality that it will need to be torn down tomorrow.

These standards, in conjunction with a more robust public input process that supports keeping the local community informed about development in their neighborhood, can work together to improve the long-term livability and economic viability of communities across the city without stopping projects from being built or adding time and money to the already expensive and lengthy development process.

To take full advantage of the opportunities made available in the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November, we must work together to redesign and retrofit our city to unlock ourselves from our carbon-reliant way of life. We will never achieve our Climate Action Plan goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035 if we continue to develop our city in the same way as before. We cannot take the path of least resistance by building in undeveloped land rather than densifying the communities we have already developed. We cannot continue to build wider roads for more cars, cut-off communities, and inaccessible transportation centers that ensure that we will continue to rely on polluting single-rider vehicles.

Implementing former mayor Kevin Faulconer’s Complete Communities planning strategy for housing, transportation, parks and infrastructure still requires a bold vision for the city and region as a whole that reinforces existing – and creates new – networks and systems of living and working. Many of the policies currently in place address the quantity of units of housing, miles of bike lanes and numbers of parks that need to be built in the city, but how do we work together to create the highest quality city for generations to come? This requires design leadership.

All around the world, cities are turning to design expertise to lead their development for more equitable and sustainable futures. Helsinki, the 2012 World Design Capital and a city in the process of building entirely new neighborhoods in former industrial lands, has a long history of filling city planning positions with architects and leads the way in robust public consultation and sustainable development.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris won re-election last year after a first term filled with truly visionary urban design policies that removed cars from the city center, completely rethought city-led development and project procurement for the social good, and built her re-election campaign around the concept of the “15 Minute City” – a city where most daily needs can be reached within a 15-minute walk or cycle from every home.

Closer to home, recent planning director appointments of architect Antoine Bryant in Detroit and architect & urban planner Bridgett White in San Antonio show that this trend is extending to smaller cities. Outside of the planning director role, Christopher Hawthorne – former LA Times Architecture critic, now City of Los Angeles chief design officer – has used his expertise to approach the problem of housing availability and affordability in a more nuanced way, looking to low-rise housing solutions and other alternatives to blanket upzoning.

In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan has relied on the diverse design community to provide his office with professional advice on a wide range of urban issues through his Mayor’s Design Advocates program, not to mention the nonprofit Public Practice that places young architects and designers into borough offices to assist with development projects.

San Diego has dabbled in various forms of design governance in the past, with the creation of the city architect position under Mayor Maureen O’Connor in the late 80s and the even shorter-lived San Diego Civic Innovation Lab under Mayor Bob Filner. Both initiatives were mayor-led and did not survive budget cuts and administration changes. The Planning Department directs much of San Diego’s response to issues related to the housing crisis, public transportation and climate change – all cornerstones of Mayor Gloria’s election campaign.

By putting a design leader in the established position of planning director, Gloria would send the signal that he was serious about not only tackling the complex planning issues that we have today, but also setting our sights on a much bolder vision for tomorrow.

San Diego is fortunate to have an established community of architects, landscape architects, urban designers and planners – many of whom have experience in other cities – ready to help the city achieve these goals. With two years until the World Design Capital year, now is the time for visionary leadership capable of crafting and implementing “design-led” urban policies that are at the heart of the World Design Capital designation.

We cannot let this opportunity to bring greater design expertise and a bold long-range planning and development vision to the city of San Diego pass us by. How about that for “big city energy?” 

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