Allison Arieff

As the editorial director of the San Francisco-based urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, Allison Arieff spends her days assessing the impact of civic design on everyday life. But it’s her past two decades of work—first as editor-in-chief of “Dwell” magazine and currently as a contributing op-ed writer for “The New York Times”—that have cemented her reputation as one of America’s foremost thinkers on design. The UC Davis alum speaks about building cities for people instead of cars, getting lost in Sacramento riding light rail, and her 2020s vision.
Photo by Tyler Kohlhoff

“Design critic” isn’t your official job title, but it’s how you’re best known, right?

I think so. That’s fair enough.

What does a design critic do?

In a perfect world, a design critic would just sit around and think about design and go on walks and meet with people and write about it, which is how I spend my best time. I often write about things critically in hopes of making them better for more people. I sort of wanted to expand how I wrote about things, and that’s what I’ve been doing since I wrote my first design column for The Times in 2006, which talked about everyday things in life that work, and everyday things that don’t.

Design criticism is great, but it’s not like film or restaurant criticism—there’s no Rotten Tomatoes page for miserably designed expressways or Yelp page for bike-hostile urban cores. How are we actually supposed to hold bad design—and the cities and bureaucrats who approve it—accountable?

That’s an excellent question, and I think this is the state that we find ourselves in right now. There’s probably never been more [bad] design out in the world. That can be blamed in part on the massive amounts of capital looking for things to invest in. You know about Juicero? Juicero was this very expensive $700 juicer. You couldn’t just throw vegetables in. You needed to buy these plastic bags—you bought prepacked bags of vegetables to put in the juicer. So the machine wouldn’t actually work if the bag had expired. And this got $120 mil-lion of VC funding. Then one day someone realized that you can just squeeze the bag, and you don’t actually need the machine! So it shut down. Stuff like that just drives me bonkers. Like, why does that get all the money?

Also, it’s not like there was ever a huge amount of money around to support design criticism, but now there’s dramatically less. You can pretty much count the number of [national] urban design critics on one hand. They can’t single-handedly save the state of urban design. They can be effective in advocating for things happening in the cities they write about—I’m thinking about [New York Times architecture critic] Michael Kimmelman or [Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic] Inga Saffron. The L.A. Times has not replaced its architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, and he’s been gone for over a year. So there is not really any recourse if there’s a bad project. Maybe it’s harder to build the next one, but there’s not enough criticism to point that out and do cautionary tales for the next time out.

You’re the editorial director of SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association). What are some ways you’ve seen your organization’s ideas take hold among cities?

A lot of my work at SPUR includes trying to get more and more people to care about these issues. SPUR really has a role to play in keeping people informed. Like, “Hey, you should know about this. You should care about this.” SPUR is involved in many policy areas: Housing, transportation, sustainability, earthquake retrofits. BART has announced that it’s going to start studying the feasibility of a second transbay tube so it’s not just the one tunnel going under the water—which is something we’ve been suggesting forever. On housing, I would say we’ve had a very strong agenda about making housing affordable for people at all income levels. We’ve been putting forth these ideas for a long time, and it’s definitely pushing a rock uphill, as anyone who follows housing in the Bay Area knows. But we are firmly committed to doing problem-solving in that area.

What are some of the most common yet most overlooked ways that people encounter poor or just flat-out bad urban design in their everyday lives?

Oh my God, that’s a long list.

Give me the top three.

I would say that in any city, you will encounter bad urban design when you’re at a multilane street, and you don’t have time to get across the street because it was designed for cars to go past it, not for people to walk across it. I would say that’s one of the most common [examples], and I think we’ve all internalized it so much that we don’t realize it can be different.

And when you think about urban design, you can think about a skyline or the sidewalk. I think a lot of times the focus is on how the skyline looks from far away, but I would argue it’s probably way more important to focus on what it looks like when you’re standing there on the sidewalk. Is there something interesting for you to look at when you walk down the street? Is it safe for you to walk down the street? Skylines are all good and great and everything, but that’s not what you’re experiencing on a day-to-day basis.

Also, the Bay Area doesn’t have a great transit network. I needed to go to Sacramento the other day, and it was like that Steve Martin movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It should be easier. This is a pretty well-traveled corridor! But the train station in Sacramento is not centrally located at all. And the Amtrak [train] doesn’t come to San Francisco, which is insane. That’s an example of very bad land use and bad urban design.

So I took the Megabus up there [from San Francisco], which dropped me off… I don’t even know where. It was pouring rain. I saw the light rail and I said, “I’m just gonna get on it and assume it’ll take me in the direction that I want to go.”

You just showed up in Sacramento and got on a random light rail train? That’s pretty gutsy, Allison.

[Laughs] And then I needed to take a Lyft to get the rest of the way. It was a ridiculous number of modes of transportation to get to where I needed to go. For the state capital to connect to Silicon Valley, there should be a million transit options, and the car should not be your best one.

I actually [went back] to Sacramento the following week, because my daughter had a rock-climbing competition at Pipeworks. It felt to me like a very car-centric place. It didn’t seem like there were a lot of other ways to get around. The traffic, by the way, was horrendous on the drive [back]. It took us almost four hours to get home—even on a Saturday afternoon. There should be a major transit corridor connecting to Sacramento. And to Los Angeles for that matter. High-speed rail could deliver on that. It’s way overdue, and it should happen.

I mean, Sacramento spent over $500 million on Golden 1 Center. And there are only two bike racks next to it, on streets that don’t even have bike lanes!

I know, I know. People are used to living in places designed for cars. And when you suggest we should do otherwise—I don’t have to tell you this—those people lose their minds: “Don’t take my car away! Don’t make it inconvenient for me to use my car!” Like, if you’re sitting in traffic all the time, you should be embracing all of these other alternatives that would actually make your commute better in every way. My daughter is 13 years old, and I’m giving her a lot more independence, but the thing I’m most worried about with her walking around is not that she’s going to get kidnapped but that she’s going to get hit by a car. The odds are exponentially higher that something like that is going to happen. I really love the idea that you should be making cities for 8- to 80-year-olds. We should be thinking about the safety of all those communities. I’m not seeing enough of that, and that’s really the direction that we need to go.

A year ago you wrote “Automated Vehicles Can’t Save Cities,” an animated op-ed column for The New York Times that cleverly showcased the ways innovative design and alternative transportation can boost cities. What kinds of reactions to that piece did you receive?

Quite phenomenal, actually. People really, really like that message. Another example [of bad design] is buildings that are designed for cars to drive into instead of people to walk into. I stayed at a hotel in Seattle last month. It didn’t have a pedestrian entrance. You had to walk into the parking lot, and there was a door in the garage. I kept thinking, “There has to be some way to get in this building!” And there wasn’t. It was very strange. This whole idea of designing cities for people, not cars, seemed kind of obvious. But then as I was sharing this with people, it was not obvious to everyone else. People were like, “Oh my God, this is amazing! I never thought of that!” All the people at The Times were excited, and we did this visual piece. I’m happy with the response to that. It probably got more interest than anything else I’ve ever written, and I credit the illustrator, not my words.

With all this talk about AV, people are saying, “Oh, we’re going to have all this extra space because of autonomous vehicles.” I don’t believe we’re going to have all of this extra public space because of autonomous vehicles, but we will begin to recognize the importance of designing for people, not cars, and that will change the ways cities think about themselves moving forward. There’ll be more of an embrace of walkable urbanism. I read a stat in the past week that transit ridership nationally is at 5 percent, which is so bleak. So I’m all for pushing anything that gets us away from car dependency. Climate change necessitates that we do that.

For me, that piece represents the kind of accessibility that design criticism needs to have in order to make any impact. Would you agree?

Oh, absolutely. I always talk about “gateway drugs” to these things—what can you do to get people interested? You just need someone to show you. Design criticism can do that for people when it’s well done. If it’s jargony and verbose, it’s going to do the opposite. If it’s articulate, or even aspirational in a way—like “Look, this is how things can be”—then I think it could be totally transformative for people.

I’m assuming a broad audience when I write. I am very lucky that I have this amazing platform of The New York Times, [but] I write about design for the Opinion section. My audience tends not to be a super design-savvy audience. So I definitely write with that in mind. Also, my editor, whom I’ve worked with for a long time, is a very smart guy, but design isn’t his thing. So I have to write in a way that he understands. And he’ll take me to task for all kinds of stuff. If I sent something to my editor written the way that it was written at Dwell, he’d say, “Who are Charles and Ray Eames? I don’t know who they are!” That forces me to explain. To someone who’s deep in design, it might be overexplaining, but to the average person, it might be the first time you heard about them. I’m happy to make an effort to be as clear as possible.

You have a master’s degree in art history from UC Davis. How did your time and studies at Davis influence your thinking about design?

I really loved doing research. I think that’s definitely helped the way that I approach the stuff I write about now. I think we’re also in such a period of anti-history, and a lot of designers and so-called innovators are sort of ignoring it at their peril. If I look back at what I studied over the years, I think it all impacts what I’m doing now in some direct [and] some indirect ways. Nothing feels like it was wasted, whether it was the stuff that I read or the discussions that I might have had.

The 2020s are almost upon us. What are some of your predictions for the coming decade in architecture and urban design?

I would love it if cities would recognize that density doesn’t mean 100-story pencil towers like in Manhattan. It can be six stories. There’s a way to have variety of scale and architecture with density. San Francisco in particular is so terribly afraid of it, and it’s inexplicable to me.

I would love to see a tapering off of the push for “smart” cities. The problems with cities are not typically problems of technology. The idea that you can just invent some gadget that’s going to solve all the problems of urbanism is fundamentally flawed. Nobody says, “I’m going on vacation to Rome because it’s so efficient.” People like the visceral parts of cities—the foods, the smells, the people, the music, the culture. Of course they want all the services to function well and on time, but that can’t be the only barometer of success, right? I’m all for this “maintainers” movement that focuses on infrastructure and rebuild and repair. Sometimes it’s not all about the new-new thing. Sometimes it’s about really making sure the existing things work as well as possible.