Open Space No Shade

An unusably hot open space with no shade. Patricia's Green, 2019.

It's blisteringly hot in San Francisco right now. The Department of Homeless Services has activated special policies to help get people inside. It's a Spare the Air day, which means we are all supposed to figure out how to avoid driving private vehicles. And, most worryingly, fire season has already started.

You know what would be great on a day like today? More shadows, to help make the sidewalks cooler. Unfortunately, it's the explicit policy of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission that shadows are harmful impacts that must be mitigated. If you want to know why the sidewalks are so hot, start with the politicians who view more shade as harmful.

In 1989, San Francisco voters passed Proposition K, which required explicit Planning Commission approval for any building that might cast a shadow on any public park. This past April, 63 units of housing, including 15 below market rate units, were denied because they would increase the shadow on a basketball court on a nearby public park. (There were other reasons to deny the project - the property owner has a poor record with tenants on other properties - but the law required an objective reason to deny a project, and shadows were it.)

As a recreational basketball player, I can say that playing basketball in 90-degree heat is miserable. If one team has to stare into the sun to see the basket and play defense, they're at a significant disadvantage. More shade means you can spend more time playing basketball and less time sweating. If the court is darker for 30 minutes longer in the summer, use the property tax revenue or impact fees from the new construction to build lights. 

Other city parks are entirely concrete and have no shade at all. The Jose Coronado Playground is a great example: it has a concrete soccer field and basketball court, surrounded by buildings that aren't tall enough to cast shade. I guarantee every person in that neighborhood would have appreciated a shadow on Monday, June 10th, when the City was 97 degrees. 

San Francisco’s Supervisors are no better. Last year District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen delayed a zoning compliant project that would have replaced a laundromat by noting that it would cast a shadow on a nearby preschool.

The preschool yard in question is entirely concrete. On a day like June 10th, temperatures in the yard exceeded 95 degrees - not exactly ideal for three and four-year-olds playing outside. Rejecting a building on the explicit grounds that it would have provided shade to four-year-olds is borderline inhumane.

Blocking new housing due to shadows also keeps most of our existing housing stock really old. Old buildings aren't as well insulated, are less likely to have air conditioning, and use significantly more energy to keep cool. Proper insulation and building design can keep buildings cool when it is hot out and prevent heat stroke.

Taller buildings also pay impact fees and reassessed property taxes. This gives local government more money to pay for services that can relieve the impact of heat. We can pay to maintain more public trees, which provide shade and also lower the temperature of the surrounding air, by pulling water from the ground. We can build more supportive housing and air-conditioned navigation centers, to help get homeless people off of our very hot streets.

This summer is already off to a hot start. But thanks to climate change, San Francisco summers are only going to get worse from here. It's time to start re-evaluating policies to adjust to this new reality. Adding more shade is a good start.

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