Pedaling through the Netherlands over the last couple weeks was pure bliss, from the fragrant streets of Amsterdam to the verdant Dutch countryside, discovering why this is one of the happiest places on the planet. Since returning from that vacation to San Francisco, I’ve been contemplating the role and plight of world-class cities in these changing times.
I’ve long been aware that the Scandinavian countries consistently top surveys of how happy its citizens are, thanks to their social welfare systems and urban policy decisions that emphasize cycling, parks, art, small businesses, and tolerance for a wide variety of lifestyles and ideologies. The Dutch work fewer hours than Americans and have more time for leisure, a key factor in feeling good about life.
But I was a little surprised to see that San Francisco also rates high on the happiness scale, an aberration among U.S. cities, which otherwise don’t measure up to our European counterparts. Strangely, one reason that San Francisco makes the list is our abundant shopping opportunities, an activity that I personally don’t associate with happiness.
In fact, I’ve come to see that kind of conspicuous consumption and the capitalist system that promotes it as one of the greatest threats to urban life and human happiness, a notion that was reinforced by my trip to the Netherlands. My friend’s boyfriend, Dennis, an Amsterdam native, complained about how his city was changing as we pedaled through it, echoing many of the same points that I regularly make about San Francisco.
Amsterdam’s busiest tourist neighborhoods were absolutely jam-packed with people during my visit, something Dennis and other locals said has reached problematic new peaks in the last year. And they blame the same company whose disruptive impact on San Francisco I’ve been chronicling in the last few years: Airbnb.
Suddenly, Amsterdam has busted way past the tourist holding capacity it maintained with a limited supply of hotel rooms, by some accounts adding up to 13,000 rooms for tourists that had formerly been the homes of Dutch locals. The result is the same as in San Francisco: skyrocketing housing prices and the displacement of artists, activists, and young service workers to surrounding regions.
Upon my return, I saw that Airbnb and its impact on the local housing market remains a hot and divisive topic in San Francisco, with the Board of Supervisors here splitting 6-5 votes against cracking down on the company’s illegal business model and a citizen’s initiative that would do so headed for the November ballot.
This is a big issue in some of the greatest cities around the world, from Berlin to New York City, places that are both popular tourist destinations and which have long wrestled with maintaining enough affordable housing to serve the young artists and other creative types that give big cities their cultural vitality.
When world-class cities focus on tourists more than their existing residents — and when top civic officials court Airbnb’s pro-tourism disruption rather than trying to effectively regulate it — they run the risk of becoming Disneyified caricatures of their once-authentic and dynamic selves.
I don’t think it’s too late to save cities like Amsterdam and San Francisco from the ravages of corporate-sponsored homogeneity, but that requires vigilance and pro-active action. We need to recognize this as a problem and seek to redress it, and once we do, there’s a lot that the people can do.
As part of my Dutch bike tour, I visited the city of Groningen, which has the highest percentage of vehicle trips by bike (known in transportation planning circles as mode share) in the world, at nearly 60 percent. That means most of its citizens and visitors get around by bike, and that’s had a wonderful impact on how it feels to be in that thriving mid-sized city, enjoying the clean and quiet air in outdoor cafes along its canals.
How did they do it? As a transportation doctoral student there explained it to us, it was a deliberate decision by city leaders to limit automobile access to the central city by creating just two access points on opposite side of the city, and using forced turns that made it take far longer to cross the city by car than by bike. Delivery trucks can still get in to serve businesses (more easily and creating less traffic problems than in car-heavy cities like San Francisco), and the city functions well, even better than those that give cars free reign. Just imagine if San Francisco gave that same treatment to its Market Street corridor, kicking out the cars, rather than tolerating the dangerous and uninviting mess that it is now, decade after decade.
What’s my point? Great cities don’t get that way by accident, or by the magic of the market or the benevolence of the capitalists. Civic leaders make deliberate decisions to shape their cities and prioritize what’s important in their long-term development, and they act with courage to implement their visions. In the absence of that, greed and chaos prevail.
San Francisco is reaching a breaking point as it seeks to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of new residents that are expected to arrive here over the next couple decades, coupled with the relentless push for more tourism and more corporate conventions that our business leaders and the politicians they sponsor are constantly courting.
Our streets are some of the most traffic-choked in the nation, the BART and Muni transit systems and at capacity and starved for additional capital investment, and our precious rent-controlled housing stock is rapidly being auctioned off to the highest bidders, who don’t seem to have any qualms about evicting long-term, fixed-income residents.
The Netherlands isn’t perfect; indeed, it’s seen a troubling rise in anti-immigrant racism in recent years as its longtime residents feel a growing sense of economic insecurity and look for someone to blame. Does that familiar, my fellow Americans? We’re playing a dangerous game by letting free-market capitalism run rampant and expecting that it’s somehow going to self-regulate and make everything okay.
It won’t. That’s up to us.