Have you ever heard of the Embarcadero Freeway? This double-decked state highway, built in the 1950s amidst similar projects in many American cities, followed San Francisco’s magnificent shoreline—and surrendered it all to car traffic. The hulking concrete ribbon, over a mile long and hated by many, blocked the views of the gorgeous bay, created blight in its wake, and burned a big hole in the city’s soul.
I find it one of the most important parts of San Francisco’s history. Sure, it is perhaps altogether too easy to imagine a technology-obsessed guy who grew up in a communist state to be in awe of a man-made, brutalist structure. But it is its absence today that is, to me, an immense inspiration. The Embarcadero Freeway was torn down in the early 1990s, and freed from its shadow, noise, and pollution, the waterfront prospered. Palm trees lined the new surface boulevard, the city dusted off its vintage streetcars, and even the historic Ferry Building and piers got it on the action, allowed to reinvent themselves in a metropolis no longer a port.
It was while standing at the Embarcadero a few years ago, imagining concrete sentinels and road decks shooting up into the sky, when perhaps for the first time I thought of cities as truly malleable, entities unfrozen in time, possible to be shaped—and also misshaped—by ourselves.
And that includes me.
Now, my powers to either build or tear down elevated freeways are, at best, imaginary; like in that Seinfeld episode, I can only pretend to be an architect or an urban planner. My daily (and, too often, nightly) job is that of an interaction designer and developer: wrangling bytes and pixels into beautiful (hopefully), delightful (if I’m lucky), useful (if I work really hard) apps and websites.
But then, as technology pervades our lives and the Moore’s Law relentlessly soldiers on, our interactions with places we live in turn increasingly virtual in nature. The cities become tablets in our hands, phones in our pockets, augmented reality glasses on our noses, and all those yet-unknown future devices we will not as much carry with us, but—spoiler alert—wear inside us.
That’s the future, or at least one possible variant of it. I’m joining Code for America as a fellow for 2013 because I want a part in shaping that future. I want to work with other passionate people and wrangle some bytes and pixels into helping cities work better. I want to build beautiful (hopefully), delightful (if I’m lucky), useful (if I work really hard) apps and websites that aid city officials and citizens alike. I want to help design cities in that one realm where I know how to design things. I want the virtual counterparts of our physical places to be about people instead of computers, just as we learned the hard way that cities should be about people and not about cars. And I can find no better reminder and no bigger inspiration for it all, than I do at the Embarcadero: the old streetcars picking up passengers, the bay glistening in the winter sun, and the merchants preparing for a farmer’s market, as I start another morning run in my favourite of cities.