What San Francisco Would Look Like If It Were As Dense As Manhattan

A team of designers sets out to prove that a lot more housing won’t change the famed character of San Francisco as much as residents think.


As San Francisco grapples with an affordable housing crisis, attention has turned to the city’s relatively low housing density: In its 13 square miles of housing-zoned land, the city still has less than half the population density of Paris and almost four times less than Manhattan. There just aren’t many places to live in SF, as anyone who has tried to find an apartment in the last couple of years can attest.


With more and more people moving in and locals resisting new development, a team of architects decided to answer a question: What would the city look like if it actually had enough housing for everyone?

“The reality is our population is expected to hit a million people around 2030,” says Amanda Loper from David Baker Architects. “There isn’t an option to not change. So how can we accommodate people? When you say something like that, people get scared–thinking the character of the city is going to change, it’s going to be like living in Tokyo. David and I wanted to know what that kind of density would look like.”

Surprisingly, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be that different from the San Francisco of today. The architects mocked up a few different versions of a nine-block chunk of the city.

One ultra-dense option, at 270,000 people per square mile, included high-rises like you might see in Hong Kong or New York today. But it turns out it’s possible to reach Manhattan-level densities with lower buildings that match the city’s existing character.

“When we realized that you could actually house 100,000 people per square mile in a way that uses a language that San Francisco is already immersed in, we wanted to show that,” Loper says. “And say look, this city isn’t actually as scary as it seems.”

With some additional six-story buildings in a neighborhood, suddenly it would be possible to accommodate the number of people who want to live in the city.


“I think people don’t have an understanding of what actually might change,” Loper says. “It’s so easy to push back against something that’s abstract, but then if you say this is actually what we’re talking about, you can get a little bit more of an appropriate response.”

Even as buildings get a little taller, the architects say that good design can help take the focus off the extra height. Humans have evolved to notice what’s 20 feet up in the air–the distance apparently needed on the savannah to keep track of predators. So if the first 20 feet of a building are inviting from the street, and places where people actually want to hang out, that can determine the quality of a neighborhood, the architects say.

“No matter how big a city gets, the life of a city takes place at street level. As much as we may admire a distant skyline, when we are in a city we are almost entirely concerned with the 20 feet immediately surrounding us,” Loper says. “The way to house our growing population is to build diversely and densely, and the way to make this density resonate is to concentrate on the ground floor: Make it a wonderful, flexible, dynamic, and inviting place for people.”

What would it take for the city to actually reach the architects’ vision for new housing? It’s complicated. But for one thing, residents would have to rally around a change in zoning laws, which limit most of the city to buildings to below 40 feet (all of the yellow areas on this map are limited to four stories or less). But Loper remains hopeful that the city can evolve.

“It’s hard to predict how we’re actually going to respond,” she says. “But I’m optimistic because of the people that I continue to meet and that I know are actively working to make San Francisco a better, denser, walkable, more human-scaled place.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."