headshot of GSD alum Eric Shaw MUP '00 on a teal background

“On our very first day of school, [GSD professor] Jerold S. Kayden [MCRP ’79] said to me, ‘Being a planner can be a curse, because you actually live in your work and decisions.’ As I’ve grown in my position, that’s something I think about often. It helps me to be aware of the responsibilities and gravity of my actions, because I’m a consumer of my own choices.” 

—Eric Shaw

Over the next couple months, we are continuing to share conversations with several GSD alumni, each of whom pursued different areas of study at the GSD and are now leading impactful careers in design.

We recently spoke with Eric Shaw MUP ’00. Eric has led planning and philanthropic organizations in major cities throughout the country, and has been recognized for his work in establishing strategic initiatives that support inclusive development and resilience in communities throughout the United States. A devoted mentor, he serves as an advisor to the GSD’s African American Student Union, the Harvard Urban Planning Organization, and Queer in Design, in addition to serving as a member of the GSD Alumni Council. Currently, Eric is the director of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

How did you hear about the GSD and what led you to attending? 

I went to UCLA for undergrad, and that’s where I came across urban planning. I took a course taught by [former Massachusetts Governor] Michael Dukakis, who wrote my letter of recommendation for Harvard. He really got me thinking about planning and policy programs. He said, “If you want to be a leader, don’t be a lawyer.”

I learned the language of community from UCLA, but I learned the language of design from Harvard. It was horribly hard that first semester, but my professors and fellow students really invested in me, and [the GSD] gave us all the tools we needed to intensely engage with the program. Everything I learned that first year changed my life.

Are there certain courses or professors that you feel have shaped the work you’re doing today

Richard Marshall [MAUD ’95] was a new professor at the time. Like I said, I was really struggling my first semester, because I didn’t want to draw, and [back then] that was what the GSD was all about. Richard Marshall said, “Eric, I want you to succeed.” So instead of drawing, he made me write a five-page paper every time we met. He knew I knew how to write and speak, so he took my papers and made them into drawings for me. He was my Rosetta Stone that taught me how to bring those two skills together.

Oh, and I can’t forget M. David Lee [MAUD ’71], who I believe was the only Black GSD professor at the time. He’d say: “Go do it, brother.” Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Through your work on the GSD Alumni Council, you’ve spent a lot of time mentoring students. How did that begin?

I’ve been on the GSD Alumni Council for almost 10 years now; one time early on, [someone from the GSD] told me about this “Black in Design” conference, a three-day symposium organized by students. They invited Black designers, architects, and landscape architects from around the country and had one of the most prolific events around how we center Blackness and Black power. Telling the stories of Black accomplishment, Black innovation, and Black fame—I had never said “Black” so much at the GSD, as a student or alum!

The best thing was that it was run by students. The students came in and they felt empowered. A lot of them are my mentees now, and they’re also my peers. It was a single moment where the school was transformed. All those things really come from student leadership, [with students] mobilizing to shift the narrative of design.

“Black in Design,” hands down, has transformed [the GSD]. I probably know 85 percent of the Black students who have graduated in the past 10 years, and probably 60 percent of the queer students. I’m very proud to be paying it forward—like my GSD, UCLA, and professional mentors did for me. In every position I’ve held, I’ve committed to supporting future planning leaders with backgrounds not currently represented within the profession.

Could you tell us about the work you’re doing right now in the San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development?

I have a community development organization in which I invest about $300 million a year in grants. Those grants go to supporting community organizations and cultural districts. We guarantee that anyone who’s up for eviction has the right to a lawyer, and we administer rental assistance for people with very low income to keep them housed. That’s my day to day—basically trying to align resources, policy, and politics to keep people in their homes, and making sure new homes are being built.

So, I’m functionally a realtor and a broker that matches low income people with apartments in buildings around the city.

Looking at the past decade, what have been the biggest changes and adaptations you’ve seen in housing and urban planning? 

For a long time, economic development was the crux of planning: how do cities make more money to do more business? So we started focusing on things like revitalization, green spaces, and bike lanes—because those things made a place “nicer” and caused more people to want to live there. But, it’s “nicer” because we wanted a certain type of person—someone with taxable dollars—to go eat at a restaurant in town. We call that beautification. The planning was very intentional: creating beautiful places for a certain type of person that had the means to invest in the city, which would convince businesses to come.

The problem was: we didn’t think about making more housing because the focus was on “livability” and creating community amenities. So then: what about the people? The people, themselves, demanded it, and planners and politicians finally responded: “Oh, you’re right.”

Housing has become the key implementer for a lot of our goals: community stabilization, wealth building, transportation, climate change, and so on. It’s now all of these goals versus only the economic development of a space.

What about government funding—and funding in general—for housing projects? 

The federal government has given us a lot less money. Now, a lot of communities have said, “We want to tax ourselves, but we want to have a plan for when we tax ourselves.” For the first time, there are a lot of local resources to advance planning. I think that, finally, the intentionality has changed.

San Francisco is one of the most expensive places to build—one of the most expensive places to live—in the world. Fortunately, we have a mayor who is deeply committed to advancing housing opportunities. My operating and investment budget is about $1.7 billion specifically for the investment in housing. I run an investment bank that invests billions of dollars with nonprofit developers to build new affordable housing throughout the city. We have a commitment that for any new large market-rate housing developments built in San Francisco, 20 percent of housing needs to go toward low-income residents. That’s been mandated for about seven years now; it’s called inclusionary zoning.

Why did you choose to work in San Francisco, specifically? 

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and it is nice to be back home. The older I’ve gotten, the more freedom I have had to choose where I want to be. I’ve been so blessed to work in a lot of places, but as the adage says, “There really is no place like home.” Professionally, when an opportunity arose to work with Mayor Breed [in San Francisco] I was excited to support her vision and leadership—to feel a stronger familiarity with the communities where my team and I work.

Also, I became a planner because I’m deeply committed to advancing opportunities for African-Americans. I want to make Black people’s lives better. Under [Mayor London Breed’s] leadership, we went from five Black people in five years getting homeownership through our homeownership programs to 25 this year alone, with 100 more in the pipeline for next year. It’s great to be in a city that I love, a city with a mayor who I trust, and means to be a responsible steward of policies and resources. First working for [Washington D.C.] Mayor Muriel Bowser, and now Mayor Breed, I’m one of the only people in the country to have worked for two mayors who are African-American women.

Could you talk a bit more about the importance of diversity when it comes to planning and understanding the needs of a community? 

In San Francisco, the housing authority director is a Black woman. The redevelopment director is a Black man. Our homeless director is a woman of color. We have a disproportionate number of Black people in homelessness, and we recognize that. And so there’s a deep sort of coordination around this. If the resources are there, I think we have a sense of urgency to act. And we did it. We had one of the lowest rates of unhoused people that got COVID. Everyone got a hotel room; 3,000 people have been housed. We moved them from the hotels and from their tents to permanent housing with more vouchers.

On top of that, as a Black queer person, it is so much fun to be subversive—to understand that there are layers to beauty, functionality, and usability that only discrete communities are going to use. That’s when I think the powers of design, agency, and leadership all line up.

How can planners continue to grow as leaders in their field?

By really, deeply engaging with the communities we’re working with. I always find it exciting when my training comes from organic moments working alongside a community.

I used to work as a development officer in San Jose supporting city investments in a predominantly Mexican immigrant community. One day, we had this barbecue in a park. Somehow, it got back to the women’s husbands that this non-Mexican man was trying to barbecue for their wives, and they were not happy about it. My Spanish is limited, but I knew they were saying: “No, you’re not going to cook for my community. We know how to do that.” They all came over with steaks and hot dogs, and you know what I did? I backed off, and just observed. I thought, “Okay, this space is different when women are with their husbands; so in our planning, we should have a bigger grill.” It was a beautiful space where men felt safe to engage with each other, express love for their families, and show grassroots leadership. My job was to pull back and observe, and I did.

My training as a student was so important—so, I’m going to tell one last GSD story. My first studio was with Alex Krieger [MCP ’77], and I remember he gave students 20 minutes to design our ideal town square. We drew them separately, and then everyone pinned them up on the wall. All of our town squares looked exactly the same, because we all came from western places—a park in the middle, a church here, and an ice cream shop over there. Every designer has an inherent bias. A trained designer understands that bias. From there, you either have to justify it, or learn the tools to unwind it and create the town square that the community actually needs. That’s the power of training; it’s an exciting power.