John Rahaim grew up in Detroit. His high school day of community service inspired him to understand the city more, and he went on to receive his B.S. in Architecture from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Architecture with an emphasis on Urban Design from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Urban Design program focused on man-environment systems which especially fascinated John.
It’s all about the interaction of human behavior and the environment and how each one affects the other.
Pittsburgh’s Second Renaissance:
After graduating from Wisconsin, he headed to Pittsburgh in the early 80’s, at which point it had the third largest number of corporate headquarters in the country. However, over the 15 years that he was there, most of them left, along with the 27 steel mills.
Despite this traumatic change to the city’s makeup, John credits Pittsburgh’s strong ethnic neighborhoods for maintaining their stability, low crime rates, and cohesion in a way that Detroit did not.
As a young planner, working with instrumental mentors and a talented, interdisciplinary team in Pittsburgh, John learned what a broad realm of topics planning encompasses.
We have to know a little about a lot of things. It’s not just about buildings and design and whatever. It’s about the economy of the city, it’s about public spaces, and it’s about transportation, and it’s about the price of housing, and all of those things. That is really the kind of mix of things we have to deal with. And that was an enormous lesson for me.
From Urban Designer to Associate Director, he created strong relationships and rewrote Pittsburgh’s zoning review process. When he decided to move on, he spent some time in Rome to discern the new direction or his career, at which point a position for City Designer opened up in Seattle.
Halfway through his tenure at the Office of City Design during the late 90’s, the city started seeing significant growth. The Urban Growth boundary that the state had required of all counties since the 1990s had forced cities to think creatively on how to expand up rather than out.
After Seattle, he was tapped to take the Planning Director position in San Francisco. He was honored to join the rich planning legacy that exists there, however, he knew it would be no simple task.
He laughs that the most common greeting he received when he took the job was “Congratulations and my condolences.”
John notes that on the West coast, local government is bigger and more is expected from it, certainly when it comes to environmental sustainability.
He adds that the population is very knowledgeable which gives leaders both support and push back, as seen with the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), anti-development movement.
I’ll be honest, I think part of the aversion to change here is because this place is extraordinarily charming… It’s a beautiful city in a beautiful setting. And people are averse to change in a way that is stronger than the other settings I’ve been in.
Challenges in San Francisco:
John shares how the housing crisis in San Francisco is due to several factors, including:
- A consistent decrease in development and residential building.
- The extraordinary pace of change and turnaround after the recession.
- The Millennial and Baby Boomer interest in city living.
- The explosion of tech jobs.
The good news is that now they are building more housing than they have in years, and are on pace to meet their six-year goal of building 30,000 housing units.
In addition, he has begun diversifying the Planning Office’s responsibilities. This transformation spans duties from co-leading the city’s efforts on sea level rise to building a community development team focused on stabilizing vulnerable neighborhoods, to leading the city’s efforts on transportation planning.
John believes the profession has really matured over the last 30 years. While San Francisco certainly faces unique challenges, many cities are struggling with the same issues and concerns. For example, housing for the middle class is a huge issue everywhere, and transportation is a close second.
John’s advice to those interested in entering the field is to get a broad range of experience in both the public and the private sector. Particularly, he says you need to try to understand the financial motivation in the real estate industry, and why developers and builders do what they do.