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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: 884,363
  • GDP (PPP) million: $481,400

San Francisco was founded in 1776 as part of Spain’s mission to convert the area’s Native American inhabitants to Catholicism, and was briefly part of Mexico during the mid-19th century. Its economy boomed during the Gold Rush of 1849 and with the arrival of the railways. Since the mid-20th century San Francisco has been known worldwide as a centre for counterculture. In the 1950s it was the home of the Beat poets. The Bay Area music scene of the 1960s included bands such as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane who went on to enjoy international success. In 1967 the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood became a gathering place for hippies during the Summer of Love. Meanwhile, the Castro neighbourhood became known for one of America’s first identifiable LGBTQ communities. Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was the first openly gay individual to be elected to public office in California in 1977. San Francisco is also one of the most racially and ethnically diverse American cities. The Chinatown neighbourhood dates back to the 19th century, while the Mission district has been a hub for Latino and Chicano arts and culture.

Today, San Francisco remains one of the cities with the highest number of artists and arts organisations per capita in the United States. Its creative and cultural scene attracts tourists from across the world. In 2017 the city had 25.5 million visitors, of whom 40% were overnight visitors. Cultural tourism alone generates $1.7 billion in visitor spending. Many of the city’s cultural institutions are clustered around its Civic Center, including the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. This is one of the largest performing arts complexes in the United States, with almost 7,000 seats spread across multiple venues, and is home to the San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony. Several of the city’s major museums have recently undergone extensive renovation. The ten-storey expansion of SFMoMA was completed in 2016, making it America’s largest modern and contemporary art museum at 170,000 square feet of exhibition space. The city also takes pride in a pluralistic, localised arts scene in which world-renowned arts institutions and deeply rooted community based arts organisations exist side by side.

Known for its intimate, walkable neighbourhoods and historic low-rise architecture, the features that make San Francisco so attractive are also contributing to the pressure on its infrastructure. Between 2005 and 2017 the city’s population grew by 135,517 – 18% – yet only 33,780 new housing units were built. As a result, San Francisco’s housing prices remain one of 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 famous for technology 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 hi-tech workers to the area, its economic dominance has also led to fears of the homogenisation of the city’s alternative culture, and the marginalisation of communities of color. The shortage of affordable housing is increasingly leading to outmigration and the displacement of artists from San Francisco.

Recent structural changes in local government are impacting the future cultural funding of San Francisco. Following the dissolution of California’s Redevelopment Agency, a number of cultural assets, both buildings and artworks, are being transferred to the City. Many of these assets do not have a budget for ongoing maintenance costs. In 2013, the Hotel Tax allocation for funding arts and culture was rescinded due to a legal challenge. The City’s Board of Supervisors has introduced an initiative ordinance (Prop E) to go before voters in November 2018 to restore the Hotel Tax nexus for arts and culture. If passed, Prop E would initially increase arts funding by approximately $9 million annually.