In Praise of Small Spaces

Stairway across from the Ritz Carlton on Nob Hill.

by James A. Bacon

I am fascinated by small urban spaces that normally elude the attention of city planners,  star architects and travel magazines. In low-density settings where low value is placed on land, inhabitants pay little heed to the small spaces. But in densely settled cities, residents apply loving creativity to making the most of the nooks, the crannies, the alleyways and the odd bits of land around them. The accumulation of detail in these small spaces is part of what makes a city like San Francisco great.

Some of the most interesting sights I saw here were tucked away in alleyways and in-between spaces. Many of them were stairways.  The photo above shows a particularly beautiful stairway that led between two houses to a destination up the hill. (I was too tired trudging up and down hills to see where it led.)  With manicured trees and flowers along the edge, this stairway was a significant enhancement to the neighborhood.

The stairway below is all the more interesting because it is all the more ordinary, part of an alleyway on a steep hillside that provides access to several nondescript apartment dwellings. It shows few signs of anyone having lavished money upon expensive materials or landscaping upon it, yet it is visually interesting nonetheless.


entranceI love the front doorway shown at right. The house opens almost directly onto the sidewalk, leaving only a tiny transition space. The owner framed that space with a short brick wall and carefully selected plants. I was particularly struck by the way a heavy vine branch had been trained across the door well. It must be spectacular when the vine is in full bloom.




In my perambulations — I perambulated a lot because I am navigationally challenged and wound up in off-beat places — I came across this little shrine. I have no idea who placed it there or why, but I found it heart-warming. Someone’s private faith had inspired them to create a small thing of public beauty.





One more shot, this also of a narrow stairway. The open space is a little wider here, giving it a plaza-like feel. The ornamental trees and planted fringe (presumably maintained by the property owners) frame it very nicely.

We saw nothing like this in Silicon Valley where the public realm is dominated by roads and parking lots (I’ll have more on that shortly). The corporate campuses have lots of landscaping, some of it very attractive, but there is so much acreage that no one tends to the small spaces. You need an older, denser city to find places like these.

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11 responses to “In Praise of Small Spaces”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    SF is somewhat unique (in many ways like New York City) because it is hemmed in on three sides by water. It has no choice but to to do more with less space.
    Therefore, it may be unfair to criticize more spacious areas with more land and cars. Nothing is really forcing them to go small so they don’t — unless it would be top-down governmental rules like zoning which I know you don’t like.
    You may be praising a natural phenomenon that may be the real advantage. What I haven’t seen in your otherwise praiseworthy postings from the Bay Area is that the compression that makes SF unique and beautiful also brings in some of the highest rents and home prices anywhere. Many of the cultural rebels who made the city what it is have been forced out.
    I have been going to SF for years and always liked that quality of cultural uniqueness. City Lights and all that (strangely missing from your blog reporting) . The last time I visited was a few years ago when I was working with a Net-based news media group. I was rather shocked at what had happened — the self-absorbed yuppies had taken over. Even the place where I had been working was changing — the fun and creative types had been leaving to make room for suits or what passes for suits there.
    I was naive enough to think that the Silicon Valley types really had 60s values. In fat, they were selfish money-grubbers.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “I was naive enough to think that the Silicon Valley types really had 60s values. In fat, they were selfish money-grubbers.”.

      Actually, the early Silicon Valley money grubbers were mostly former hippies. Steve Jobs? Every year the hippie heritage is celebrated in Burning Man – a rather bizarre gathering of geeks in the Nevada desert.

      Sorry Peter but I’ve never bought into the “60s values” story line. What values were those? Drug addiction? Rioting?

      And what happened to all of the hippies? You know – the unkempt, long haired, shoeless souls who proved their individualism by dressing, acting and talking as if they’d all been stamped out of the exact same mold.

      The stopped being hippies the last day of the draft for the Vietnam War.

      They cut their hair, donned leisure suits and headed off to dance under disco balls and snort cocaine in the men’s room. Then they traded in their leisure suits for coats and ties and matured into the early Baby Boomers – the generation that destroyed America. They founded companies like Apple which has systematically robbed every musician in the world and dropped employment in the music business to 25% of what it once was. They went to Wall Street to practice their “greed is good” religion. They masqueraded as liberal minded defenders of gender equality then had sex with 24 year old interns in the office coatroom. They claimed to be sensitive poets and then exposed themselves on stage during a performance in Miami. That same sensitive poet managed to kill himself with a heroin overdose at age 27 with three separate paternity suits pending against him. He was so plastered he thought the heroin was cocaine, snorted it and bled to death from a hemorrhage while the girlfriend he often beat up was passed out on the couch.

      Yeah – those 60s values sure were something.

  2. If you’ve never watched William Whyte’s Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in its entirety, you should. It used to be available online but the copyright owner made everyone take it down.

  3. here’s the thing:

    San Francisco City and county 837,442 • Density 17,867/sq mi
    Fairfax County Va 1,116,897• Density 2,761/sq mi
    Richmond, Va • City 211,172 • Density 3,414.7/sq mi
    Los Angeles 3,857,799 • Density 8,225/sq mi

    SF is 8 times as dense as Fairfax… 5 times as dense as Richmond and twice
    as dense as LA.

    here’s some more:

    Chicago 2,714,856 • Density 11,864.4/sq m
    New York 8,405,837[4] • Density 27,778.7/sq mi

    Only NYC is more dense…

    San Francisco is about 7 miles by 7 miles.

    I wonder how many conservatives live in SF…

    I wonder how many ELECTED Conservatives there are in SF.


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Larry … I applaud your newfound interest in facts and figures. However, I am baffled as to why you would compare three cities with a county. If you want to compare San Francisco to somewhere in NoVa I’d suggest you use Alexandria (density 9,493 per sq mi). If you want to compare Fairfax County to somewhere in Northern California I’d suggest you use Santa Clara County (home of Silicon Valley).

      1. I should have included Arlington and probably Tysons and/or Reston.

        I was an attempt to compare density of SF to a place we are familiar with.

        I think Peter or someone made the point that some places like SF are confined by water and other places not.

        As for hippies – don’t fixate on that fixate on their political views in general and their connection to innovation and economic success… the theme of this blog over and over is that lefties are financially irresponsible, entitlement-loving louts that will be the doom of our society… right?

        If California in general is held up as one of the worst examples of liberalism, right?

      2. DJ, have you seen this density map of Fairfax:

        the darkest spots range from 52-119 per acre which by the square mile goes
        to 33,280 to 76,160.

        which is higher density than these other places which is sort of an apple to organ comparison in a way.

        but Fairfax county overall is 2761 per square mile … BUT it has parcels that
        top out at 33,000 to 76,000 per square mile (unless I’m screwing up math here).

        this is important (I think) when talking about Smart Growth in terms of threshold densities.. on a region-wide basis or on a patchwork basis (like Fairfax is).

        but also in terms of what drives people to exurban vs infill of the patchwork.

        A density map of San Francisco would show a patchwork of density also but even it ‘s least dense places would like be more dense than much of Fairfax.

        San Francisco got a LOT MORE DENSE than Fairfax…

        does San Francisco have the same kind of exurban sprawl around it that Fairfax has?

        why did San Franciso – get more dense by filling in the infill and Fairfax spurs exurban sprawl?

        or does San Francisco have the same problem as Fairfax?

  4. Darrell Avatar

    Guess you guys never got out of SF. The hippies moved long ago. Just take a cruise up or down Highway 1 and you will find them living where ever their car broke down.

    1. so now we know the horrible truth… the hippies were responsible for sprawl, not only settlement patterns but pot?

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I think you are describing your generation,not mine. I must be 10 years older — actually went to Woodstock, read “The Greening of America,” got tear-gassed at anti-war demonstrations,said “Death to Disco,” etc.

  6. Darrell Avatar

    “the hippies were responsible for sprawl, not only settlement patterns but pot?”

    Funny you should ask that.

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