San Francisco After the Great Quake and the Great Drought

By Jessie Feller Hahn, Executive Director, Meeting of the Minds

Jessie Feller Hahn is the Executive Director of Meeting of the Minds where she is responsible for identifying global urban sustainability, innovation, technology best practices and thought leadership, developing platforms for city leaders to share lessons learned, and building alliances and partnerships across and within sectors.

Oct 6, 2015 | Smart Cities | 0 comments


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This blog post is a response to the Dear 2015 group blogging event prompt:

The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.

For more responses, see the Dear 2015 Event Page.

The year is 2050. I’m sitting in my San Francisco apartment on the second floor looking out at the Pacific Ocean. The water is still blue but that doesn’t mean it’s as clean as it was back in 2015.

Solarized water purification stations now line the Great Highway. Luckily, the Great Drought of 2013-2025 brought about massive strides in water technology innovations and water district consolidation. From the years 2017-2020, the state government discussed climate migration strategies. Most of us were supposed to move to Oregon, Washington and Montana. Many did. But luckily, a few major policy and technology advances during the Great Drought have enabled the majority of us to stay:

  • two water technologists discovered how to scale conversion of salt water to potable water
  • water became more expensive than electricity
  • every household is now required to install water sensors at each tap, shower and toilet
  • all renters now pay for water, rather than landlords
  • water consumption is measured at the household level and overage charges apply
  • the hundreds of archaic water districts in the state were consolidated into one major privatized water provider – the California Water District — that carefully measures and allocates water usage
  • the California Water District uses sensor technology to prevent leaks and increase efficiency

In 2015, San Francisco was in the midst of one of the largest real estate booms in the history of the United States. But this was short lived. The Great Earthquake of 2018 brought down a quarter of the city’s housing stock (those that weren’t retrofitted in time) and real estate prices quickly followed. We rebuilt, but the Great Quake scared off many of the more recent newcomers. Those who remained and rebuilt were lucky as housing prices gradually stabilized again. Foreign real estate investors fled the state and poured their resources into new markets like Idaho, New Mexico and Indiana.

The Great Quake destroyed the BART tunnels between San Francisco and the East Bay. Unable to wait the 8-10 years it would take to rebuild, the Bay Area ferry industry exploded. Between 2018 and 2019, private sector companies built state of the art docks on every edge of the Bay. Suddenly, rapid ferry service was available from every waterfront of the Bay Area. Those that were in the ferry and infrastructure business are now some of the wealthiest Americans.

Car ownership only started to decline by 2040. In 2020, The Supreme Court ruled that Uber was required to designate their drivers as employees, rather than contractors. This caused the ride sharing industry to go into a tailspin. At the same time, driverless car technology was becoming increasingly viable. In 2021, Uber fired all their drivers and bought Zoox – the robotic, driverless taxi company – for $500 million. ZipCar and City CarShare also switched out their fleets to driverless cars. By 2043, car ownership was down to .2 cars per resident. The use of cars on the road hasn’t diminished – but car ownership has. Financially, it made more sense to use shared driverless cars and robotic personal rapid transit (PRT). PRT took off for several reasons:

  • Parking became a nightmare, especially after the collapse of the BART tunnels
  • Getting from the ferry terminals into the city required a last-mile solution
  • No one could afford car ownership because of water and ferry service prices

Prop F never passed in San Francisco in 2015, enabling AirBnB to stay in business. In 2019, Prop Y passed which incentivized all single-family homes with a backyard or garage larger than 400 square feet to build a 250 square foot studio in-law unit. Grants from four major foundations and state incentives enabled eligible homes to build these units between 2018-2024. Prop Y’s mission was to provide multi-generational housing for the aging boomers. Affordable senior housing couldn’t keep up with demand. Prop Y measures passed in twenty other major cities soon after San Francisco led the way.

With all the new intergenerational housing in San Francisco, families started to return to the city. Rather than formal childcare, families now had Grandmother/Grandfather figures to care for their kids and the elderly were less isolated as a result.

In summary, I’m not sure we would have accomplished much of what we’ve been able to between 2015-2050 without the impetus of the Great Quake and the Great Drought. Prior to both natural disasters, the region was fragmented with multiple transportation agencies, water districts, and urban policies. But the Great Quake and Great Drought required a new level of cooperation and collaboration. New agencies were required to form and old agencies and policies were quickly thrown out. The privatization of certain services, such as the ferry system, was the only way to adjust in time to keep the economy going.

The Bay Area is still one of the most desirable places in the country to live. The tech sector is still thriving – although it’s now focused on new tech clusters such as AI, driverless technologies, robotics, smart homes, clean energy and water.

It’s hard to picture the year 2100 but I’m hoping we continue along the same path we’re on. The future looks challenging but I’m optimistic it is bright, clean and open to new ideas.

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