The Model City

October 12, 2011
The history of city models and their role in city making.

San Francisco sat there for years, broken up and packaged into 17 wooden crates, hardly labeled and nearly forgotten. But when the warehouse that held those crates was sold in 2009, the city was rediscovered. All of its streets and neighborhoods and homes were there, delicately and intricately replicated in a relief model of the entire city measuring 37 by 41 feet and dating back to the New Deal era.

No one is exactly sure how it ended up in that UC Berkeley warehouse. But for Gray Brechin, a New Deal researcher and historian at the university, the rediscovery of the model was an incredibly lucky find. He says it’s likely this model was just one of many built by the Works Progress Administration in the years following the Great Depression, but it’s uncertain how many of them remain. The models were built for planning purposes, but also as a form of what is now called economic stimulus. “It employed an awful lot of people,” says Brechin, who estimates that construction of this one model probably took thousands of people-hours.

The model – with its hand painted houses and little street trees – was given by the WPA to the San Francisco Planning Department in 1940. Brechin says it was probably used to help plan transit in the city, as well as new development. After its professional use, it was likely put on display for the public. Brechin says large-scale models like these were created by the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps for many national parks as well, but he’s not sure how many other cities had them, or if any have survived the years. As tools for planning a city, these models were incredibly elaborate assets for their time, but assets that have slowly disappeared from city planning and even from the broader goal of educating the public about the function and development cities.

San Francisco’s model is potentially very rare and, Brechin says, an invaluable educational tool and historic resource. He’s hoping to find a home where it can be put on display, but room for the 1,500-square-foot object has been hard to find in San Francisco, a city much more dense and developed than the one depicted in the model itself. In the meantime, it's still sleeping in its crates.