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San Francisco city profile | city data
  • San Francisco is known as a centre for the American counterculture and was a birthplace of the gay rights movement.
  • The presence of Silicon Valley has made the city a world capital for the creative and tech industries.

City data: Key facts

  • Geographical area: 121 sq. km
  • Total population: 805,235 according to 2010 U.S.Census
  • Percentage of total national population living in the city: 0.3%
  • Education level – percentage with degree level or higher: 52.40%
  • GDP (PPP) million: $388,272
  • Percentage creative industries employment: 6.11%

San Francisco was founded in 1776, when Spain – via Mexico – established a mission to convert the area’s Native American inhabitants. Part of Mexico from 1821 until 1848, when California was ceded to the United States of America, it boomed with the Gold Rush of 1849 and the arrival of the railways. San Francisco’s Chinatown dates back to this period – now over 35% of its population is Asian American.

Since the mid twentieth century San Francisco has been known as a centre for the American counterculture. In the 1950s it was the home of the Beat poets; in 1967 it became a gathering place for hippies and other radicals during the ‘Summer of Love.’ During this period the Castro neighbourhood also became the home of one of America’s first identifiable gay communities, and a leading centre of gay rights activism.

Known for its intimate, walkable peninsula and historic low-rise architecture, the features that make San Francisco so attractive are also contributing to pressure on its infrastructure. Between 2005 and 2015 the city’s population grew by 75,000 – almost 10% – yet only 17,000 new housing units were built. As a result San Francisco’s housing prices are the highest in the United States.

One of the reasons for this growth is the influence of nearby Silicon Valley, which has made the city a world centre of innovation and start-up culture. In a 2015 UNESCO study, San Francisco was ranked fourth in the world for its concentration of creative talent. Although Silicon Valley has attracted many highly skilled, affluent technical workers to the area, its economic dominance has also sparked fears of the homogenisation of the city’s alternative culture.

Stabilising the threatened arts ecology is a priority for the city of San Francisco. One way it has addressed the affordability crisis is through its support of the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), a public-private partnership established in 2013. Investors in CAST receive tax deductions: the money is used to purchase property which the organisation leases to nonprofit arts organisations on a ‘lease to own’ model. Development also raises issues for the city’s nightlife, due to noise complaints from new residents. The San Francisco Entertainment Commission has acted to support the city’s nighttime economy, putting in place regulations to ensure that new developments do not push existing places of entertainment out of business.

Despite the challenges posed by its rapid growth, San Francisco remains a culturally vibrant city. It takes pride in a pluralistic arts scene that fluidly crosses the boundary between ‘high art’ and ‘fringe culture.’ San Francisco has more artists and art organisations per capita than any other major United States city. The cultural sector is also particularly successful at winning both public and private funding: San Francisco organisations win 7% of national arts grants over 10,000 dollars in size, and also attract one of the highest levels of National Endowment for the Arts funding.

Local government support for the arts is also unusually high by the standards of the United States. In 2014 the city government spent $99.30 per capita on arts and culture. A priority for the San Francisco Arts Commission is achieving cultural equity, championing all cultural voices and particularly those which have been historically marginalised. Its Cultural Equity Initiative programme, funded by an endowment, offers grants focusing on underserved communities, and has become a national model. Funding for this programme was increased by 50% in 2015.

Its culture scene makes San Francisco a magnet for tourism. In 2015 it had 24.6 million visitors, of whom 2.9 million were international overnight visitors. Culture-inspired tourism alone generates 1.7 billion USD in local visitor spending and supports more than half a billion dollars in household income for city residents.

Many of the city’s cultural institutions are clustered around its Civic Center, including the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. It is one of the largest performing arts complexes in the United States, with almost 7000 seats spread across multiple venues, and is home to the San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony. Also in the area are the main public library, the Asian Art Museum, the Orpheum Theatre, and SF JAZZ. The Civic Center serves as a gathering point for city festivals including Gay Pride – which in 2015 attracted 80,000 participants and 1.8 million spectators.

One recent cultural development is the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), completed in 2016. The ten-story addition means a tripling of gallery space as well as 45,000 square feet of new public space. SFMoMA is now America’s largest modern and contemporary art museum.

San Francisco is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, historically known as a centre of alternative culture. Now also a capital of the creative and tech industries – due to the proximity of Silicon Valley – it must develop new ways of coping with the resulting affordability crisis if it is to retain its current vibrant cultural mix. Its capacity for innovation means that San Francisco may provide the model for other world cities facing the same issues.