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San Francisco’s Historical Infrastructure and Urban Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environment
Wordcount: 1859 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Transportation infrastructure

San Francisco lies at the center of the world’s business community. In this regard, it has an elaborate transport infrastructure. The San Francisco Municipal Railway operates on a 24-hour basis alongside a fleet of diesel buses, modern light rail vehicles, electric trolley coaches, alternative vehicles that run on fuel, and the famous cable cars. Furthermore, the San Francisco International Airport ranks number seven among the US busiest airports and 22nd in the world. The airport handles 95% of international flights within the Bay Area with modern cargo airplanes allowing businesses to transport goods across borders in a matter of hours (Storper, Kemeny, Makarem, & Osman, 2015).

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The opening of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 marked the onset of the region’s modern road network considering that San Francisco was going through remarkable engineering transformation and political achievements. San Francisco also replaced city’s cable car and streetcar lines with buses between the 1930s and 50s allowing workers and passengers to access cheap and convenient transport. This was a major development despite the ongoing World War II. Today San Francisco has an elaborate transport system including ride-hailing companies making over 170,000 vehicle trips on a typical weekday.

Energy infrastructure

In 1879, San Francisco became the first city to have a central electricity generating station meeting the rising demand for electric light within factories. The California Electric Light Company constructed a second station in 1888 to increase production capacity. San Francisco has been struggling to relieve itself from the monopoly of using energy that is controlled by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for most part of the post-war era (Storper, Kemeny, Makarem, & Osman, 2015). In this regard, the government is developing renewable resource projects like solar, wind, and wave energy to supply San Francisco with clean power effectively. The history of limited power transmission into San Francisco has also contributed to the need to come up with alternative power sources that are generated within the local areas.

The fishing village north of San Francisco rejected Pacific Gas & Electric’s first commercially viable nuclear power plant in 1958 for environmental concerns until the projects forced abandonment in 1964. In the post-war era, PG&E aggressively promotes its environmental image through renewable sources campaigns but has had to lay off thousands of employees from its closed nuclear plants. As of today, more than half of San Francisco’s electricity generation is by natural gas-fired power plants. San Francisco also ranks among the largest hydroelectric power producers in the US (Storper, Kemeny, Makarem, & Osman, 2015).

Industrial production

San Francisco’s industrial production was active in the early twentieth century with factories and warehouses being built across the city (Hesse, 2016). However, the onset of San Francisco’s industrial woes began with the earthquake of 1906, that saw people and businesses flee to the suburbs (Storper, Kemeny, Makarem, & Osman, 2015). The event changed San Francisco’s physical landscape besides killing over 3,000 people and destroying almost 80% of the city. Manufacturing in San Francisco began with the outset of the industrial revolution creating employment for residents. The first great industries were ironworks on the south waterfront in 1868 (Walker, 2005). However, with time these industries started to move away. Manufacturing began moving out from the earliest days of industrialization, and mostly after the Civil War, when industries moved beyond the city limits towards South San Francisco.

Today, the region has adopted the wave of innovation within the IT sector and biotechnology. The area is likely to face an ongoing loss of industries in favor of easing the cost of housing. Increasingly, San Francisco is consistently changing from industrial land in favor of other uses. Currently, industries cover only 14 percent of San Francisco, approximately 3254 acres (Storper, Kemeny, Makarem, & Osman, 2015). Most of the jobs in San Francisco today are office jobs while the industries are in small-scale production like the print media. The presence of small-scale manufacturing activities can be linked to the adoption of new technologies and the increasing importance of information and knowledge in the production process.

Telecommunications infrastructure

In San Francisco, the first real telecommunications infrastructure began with the invention of the electrical telegraph that used telegraph lines connecting one location to another in 1853 (Schafran, 2013). After that, Alexander Graham Bell made a successful telephone call to Thomas Watson in San Francisco marking a milestone in telecommunication technology. This enabled businesses, industries, and government agencies to communicate instantaneously regardless of distances. Towards the end of the 19th century, San Francisco boasted of several telephone-line exchanges. Wireless technologies like the radio and TV currently rely on physical infrastructure for transmission. After the World War 1 ban on wireless communication ended in 1918, Lee De Forest set up the first Radio station in San Francisco in 1919. Businesses ripped from this invention as they advertised on radio. Today, the internet comes in as the most widespread form of communication. However, internet service providers are still dependent on the old physical infrastructure that facilitate telephone and radio communications. Cell phones have brought a raft of new telecoms providers into the lives of San Francisco’s business and leisure users. The rapid evolution of personal computing has virtually minimized time and distance in communication. San Francisco has turned into a world of digital communications, allowing workers to interact with employers and clients regardless of location (Schafran, 2013).


San Francisco faced a huge water shortage during the Gold Rush. Despite the existence of several freshwater streams, they were far from settlement for them to be useful, whereas wells were scarce. Later in 1923, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed and connected with the necessary pipelines allowing San Francisco residents to use water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. In the postwar era, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is responsible for the provision of water for both domestic and industrial use (San Francisco Public Utilities Commission [SFPUC], 2005). The commission also handles sewage treatment for San Francisco. Depending on the geography of the different areas within San Francisco, pies, hydraulic structures, and pumping facilities are used to transport clean water and collect wastewater from different locations such as residential areas, schools, and industrial parks. Wastewater is taken to treatment facilities to undergo physical, biological, or chemical processes that help remove organic matter, solids and other pollutants before the water is treated and discharged into the ocean.

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In its earliest days, San Francisco’s water system developed from streams and wells to the modern day system of dams, reservoirs, and pipelines that supply water by gravity across California. The success of the San Francisco utility infrastructure may be attributed to the wholesale water customers that had a long-term commitment to the water system. This puts the challenge on the SFPUC to manage the potential risks to San Francisco’s water system and to invest in projects that value the uniqueness of natural resources and treasured quality of life within San Francisco and in years to come (SFPUC, 2005).

Coastal infrastructure

Much of the land around the San Francisco Bay was developed at the beginning of the gold rush era. This saw many people settle around the Bay and when land was scarce, parts of the Bay were filled to create room for new development. In the past 150 years, the San Francisco Bay has risen by 18-20 cm. this means that each flood event puts real estate, public infrastructure, and natural resources at risk. Towards the end of the 20th century, the Great Seawall was constructed along San Francisco’s northern edge transforming the area into an urban maritime waterfront and has supported economic growth ever since.

Problems associated with erosion are not new at San Francisco’s ocean beach. There have been struggles to protect infrastructures from the North Pacific Ocean tides (Cloern, et al., 2011). The City defends its shoreline boundary using concrete fill, rocks, dune grass, and seawalls. The California Coastal Commission and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission are the special government agencies mandated to take care of the natural water in San Francisco (Cloern, et al., 2011). However, the agencies have little authority allowing them to make strategic decisions regarding rises in sea level. For instance, the San Francisco BCDC is responsible for issuing permits for changes in lands use within salt ponds, wetlands, and the shoreline of San Francisco Bay. However, the jurisdiction of the BCDC to regulate developments along the shoreline only extends to 100 feet upland.


  • Cloern, J. E., Knowles, N., Brown, L. R., Cayan, D., Dettinger, M. D., Morgan, T. L., & Jassby, A. D. (2011). Projected evolution of California’s San Francisco Bay-Delta-River system in a century of climate change. PloS one, 6(9), e24465.
  • Hesse, M. (2016). The city as a terminal: The urban context of logistics and freight transport. Routledge.
  • San Francisco Public Utilities Commission [SFPUC]. (2005). History of the Municipal Water Department & Hetch Hetchy System. Retrieved from San Francisco Water & Power: https://sfwater.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentID=5224
  • Schafran, A. (2013). Origins of an urban crisis: The restructuring of the San Francisco Bay area and the geography of foreclosure. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(2), 663-688.
  • Storper, M., Kemeny, T., Makarem, N., & Osman, T. (2015). The rise and fall of urban economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Stanford University Press.
  • Walker, R. (2005). Industry Builds Out the City: The Suburbanization of Manufacturing in San Francisco, 1850-1940. Retrieved from Found SF: http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Industry_Builds_Out_the_City:_The_Suburbanization_of_Manufacturing_in_San_Francisco,_1850-1940


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