"City of Life" banner on the Coronado Bridge
Photo illustration by George Mullen

By George Mullen

Yogi Berra famously said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Our city seems to be no exception. Have you noticed that San Diego has long been managed in a haphazard and reactive style, and seems unable to make progress on anything of substance?

Think about it…we have a mayor, nine City Council members, a City Attorney, and five County Supervisors. All of them have pet projects they are pursuing, and projects their financial backers want them to be pursuing. But rarely — if ever — does this myriad of interests work together to actually better our community.

Even more disturbingly, our leaders operate almost exclusively under a policy of reaction. For example, instead of proactively handling the homeless crisis (an obvious public health risk), our leaders waited for the inevitable — in this case a hepatitis A outbreak — and only then reacted. The 2005 pension crisis is another critical example. This is no way to manage a city, or anything else.

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Wouldn’t it make far more sense to first embrace a broad vision of what San Diego “is” and “wants to be,” then implement policies that fit that vision (and reject policies that don’t)?

Las Vegas is a perfect example of a city with vision. Vegas is Sin City and wants to remain so. Gambling, booze, prostitution, glitzy shows, drunk conventioneers — it all fits into their vision. And think about the Raiders relocating to Vegas; the silver and black anarchy fits in perfectly. Vegas knows what they are and want to be, and they excel at promoting their vision. (A few decades ago Vegas tried to deviate by promoting itself as a family-friendly destination, but soon realized they were off message and returned with “What Happens Here Stays Here.”)

San Diego, on the other hand, has no idea what it is or where it’s going. In effect, it’s rudderless. And we are seeing the results of this.

I would argue that San Diego has long been the “City of Life,” we just haven’t realized it. Think about it…San Diegans continuously rave about our “quality of life” and what an incredible year-round city we live in. Likewise, San Diego is a global epicenter in the life sciences.

Once we embrace our vision, the answers to policy questions become much easier to discern between those who enhance and those who detract from it. For example, as the City of Life:

  • Will we continue to allow homeless to wallow all over our streets and canyons, camping, defecating, and urinating wherever they please? Or, perhaps, will we find a place for them to help lift them up and clean up our city?
  • Will we continue to allow trash to cover our streets, canyons and highways?
  • Will we continue to allow 415-plus people to commit suicide from the bridge at the heart of our city? Or will we take real action to stop it?
  • In Mission Valley, will we pursue the SoccerCity development and the dubious chances of a professional soccer franchise materializing, or will we instead support an SDSU expansion for one of our oldest institutions that has been educating San Diegans since 1897? Which choice will benefit the life of San Diegans more? Or is there a third, better alternative?
  • Will we continue to pursue a waterfront Convention Center expansion that isolates conventioneers and further walls off bay access to our citizens? Or will it make more sense to pursue a cutting-edge architectural expansion across the street, further energizing life throughout downtown?
  • Will we preserve our remaining waterfront lands as public parks to be enjoyed in perpetuity by citizens and tourists alike, or instead build more hotels and towers that will prevent such enjoyment?
  • Will we seek to be the outdoor sporting capital of the world, and build 12 public boat houses across San Diego Bay and Mission Bay to make it happen? What an incredible life-enhancing legacy for our citizens and tourists, as well as a powerful sports-tourism draw.
  • Will we demand clean and safe water in our bays and beaches, or keep accepting excuses from our leaders, as well as Mexico’s?
  • Will we allow dockless scooters and bikes to litter and endanger our streets and sidewalks for the financial profit of outsiders? Or will we recognize the looming liability sinkhole they represent to our city?
  • Will we actively seek to be the world capital of life sciences, one of the most sought-after global industries and education platforms, or merely accept what comes our way?
  • Will we seek to enhance the life experience of visitors to Balboa Park by erecting a massive parking garage in the heart of the park? Or, perhaps, remove all cars from the park?
  • Will we embrace our Spanish and Mexican cultural heritages and bilingualism, or reject such?

You see, once we understand what we are and want to be, public policy becomes far easier to determine and execute. It becomes our state of mind.

If we want to embrace our true identity and make it sing on the public stage, let’s be creative in doing so. For example, if we paint “City of Life” on one side of the Coronado Bridge and “Ciudad de Vida” on the opposite for just 3 years, it will cement our identity into our consciousness, as well as that of the global community’s. This is inexpensive, visible and potent.

"Ciudad de Vida" banner on the Coronado Bridge
Photo illustration by George Mullen

Our elected officials and tourism leaders have long failed us in developing our city’s identity. It is time to appoint a “City Identity Chief” (non-partisan and without industry conflicts-of-interest) with a five-year mission to embrace and project our identity on the global stage. This temporary position may turn out to be one of the most important in determining San Diego’s future.

Successfully projecting our identity on the global stage will be beneficial to all San Diegans, institutions, businesses and industries. Likewise, by finally understanding and embracing who we are, San Diego’s public policy decisions will be far easier to define, build support for, and execute.

George Mullen is spearheading City of Life, which aims to build and project a global brand for San Diego. He is principal of StudioRevolution.com and a native of San Diego.