Designing San Francisco

Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay


Designing San Francisco is the untold story of the formative postwar decades when U.S. cities took their modern shape amid clashing visions of the future. In this pathbreaking and richly illustrated book, Alison Isenberg shifts the focus from architects and city planners those most often hailed in histories of urban development and design to the unsung artists, activists, and others who played pivotal roles in rebuilding San Francisco between the 1940s and the 1970s.

Previous accounts of midcentury urban renewal have focused on the opposing terms set down by Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs put simply, development versus preservation and have followed New York City models. Now Isenberg turns our attention west to colorful, pioneering, and contentious San Francisco, where unexpectedly fierce battles were waged over iconic private and public projects like Ghirardelli Square, Golden Gateway, and the Transamerica Pyramid.

When large-scale redevelopment came to low-rise San Francisco in the 1950s, the resulting rivalries and conflicts sparked the proliferation of numerous allied arts fields and their professionals, including architectural model makers, real estate publicists, graphic designers, photographers, property managers, builders, sculptors, public-interest lawyers, alternative press writers, and preservationists. Isenberg explores how these centrally engaged arts professionals brought new ideas to city, regional, and national planning and shaped novel projects across urban, suburban, and rural borders. San Francisco’s rebuilding galvanized far-reaching critiques of the inequitable competition for scarce urban land, and propelled debates over responsible public land stewardship. Isenberg challenges many truisms of this renewal era especially the presumed male domination of postwar urban design, showing how women collaborated in city building long before feminism’s impact in the 1970s.

An evocative portrait of one of the world’s great cities, Designing San Francisco provides a new paradigm for understanding past and present struggles to define the urban future.


“Isenberg, a professor of history at Princeton University, dug deep to capture the transitional years when the city’s establishment was on the verge of being altered by cultural forces that it could not control. . . . Designing San Francisco deepens our understanding of how today’s landscape came to be and the bullets we dodged along the way.”

— John King, San Francisco Chronicle

Designing San Francisco is an outstanding contribution to the growing literature on the City by the Bay, and is indeed one of the finest books in recent memory about American city building in the postwar period.”

— Ocean Howell, American Historial Review

“The urban historian Alison Isenberg’s Designing San Francisco is, among its many other virtues, a vital text for helping landscape architects think through this dilemma. . . . Isenberg is a clear and engaging writer who is both transparent and persuasive in presenting her own angle on the story. . . . Designing San Francisco is a vital critique of the standard narrative of design authorship.”

— Justin Parscher, Landscape Architecture Magazine

“Alison Isenberg’s Designing San Francisco explores a series of controversies from the 1940s through the 1970s, decades when activists, artists, environmentalists, and preservationists challenged establishment approaches to land use, public sculpture, and urban redevelopment in the Bay Area. Her fascinating book is essential reading for anyone interested in the politics of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design.”

— Dolores Hayden, Yale University, author of The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History

Designing San Francisco makes a major contribution to the history and practice of urban planning and architecture. Probing deeply into how urban plans are worked out on the ground by a broad cast of city builders, Isenberg offers the first serious and persuasive alternative to the longstanding binary opposition between the partisans of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.”

— Mary P. Ryan, author of Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History

“Masterful and compelling.”

— Julia L. Foulkes, author of To the City: Urban Photographs of the New Deal


  • 2018 PROSE Award for Architecture and Urban Planning, Association of American Publishers
  • John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize, Foundation for Landscape Studies