Cultural Heritage

She, Who Can See c Wilfred Galila at
San Francisco is committed to safeguarding the historical, social, and economic value of its communities in a way that strengthens residents' and visitors' understanding and appreciation of these significant places and practices. Safeguarding our cultural heritage helps sustain the traditions, businesses, arts, and practices that construct the City's social and economic fabric for generations to come.

What is cultural heritage? Whose is it?

Cultural heritage is the expression of a way of living. It's developed by a community through objects, beliefs, traditions, practices, artistic interpretation, and significant places. It helps develop a shared bond and sense of belonging, inspires community pride and awareness, and emboldens a sense of identity and responsibility to society at large.

Cultural heritage plays an invaluable role in developing a deeper understanding and awareness of our shared history. Everyone, in some way, contributes to the culture in which they live.

Cultural Heritage: Tangible and Intangible

Tangible Cultural Heritage includes items you can see and feel: artifacts, photographs, books, buildings, sites, monuments, works of art, or physical districts significant in cultural histories. Tangible cultural heritage is generally more than 50 years old.

Intangible Cultural Heritage includes non-physical characteristics, such as customs and practices, artistic expressions, beliefs, languages, folklore, traditions, and even cuisine. Often passed down from generation to generation, it is constantly evolving in response to a communities' religious, political, and social environment, and provides a sense of identity and continuity.

While intangible heritage is often more difficult to preserve than tangible items, it is no less relevant in promoting respect and understanding for cultural diversity and human creativity. A defining feature of intangible assets can be identified by the continuous engagement of a community with a particular cultural heritage resource, such as a ceremony or performing art. These assets generally establish a longstanding presence that bridges more than one generation, or approximately 25 years.

Identifying Cultural Heritage

Tangible cultural heritage resource properties or objects, also referred to as cultural resources or historical resources, are actively surveyed by the Planning Department. These properties may be eligible for local recognition through Planning Code Article 10 or 11 designations, for state recognition through California Register of Historical Resources listing, or federal recognition through National Register of Historic Places listing.

Intangible cultural heritage resources, also referred to as social heritage resources, are not currently inventoried by the Planning Department; however, policies to recognize and promote these resources can be developed and implemented by the stakeholder community with Planning's support and guidance. For example, intangible cultural heritage properties may be eligible for local recognition through the Legacy Business Registry or a Cultural Heritage District, for state recognition through the California Arts Council's Cultural District Program, or for federal recognition through the National Register of Historic Places listings as a Traditional Cultural Property.

Conservation and Preservation: What's the Difference?

Conserving tangible and intangible cultural heritage resources is fairly straightforward – it's a matter of taking deliberate steps to keep today's cultural heritage for the future to ensure it maintains its cultural significance. This includes the study, protection, development, administration, maintenance, and interpretation of cultural heritage resources.

The term "conservation" is often used interchangeably with "preservation." However, "conservation" is more accurately associated with managing change to retain a resource's meaning in society. Federal and state programs have traditionally used the term "historic preservation" to describe the work of keeping buildings, sites, structures, and objects from destruction, and protecting tangible resources from irreversible alterations or changes. As a result, the word "preservation" has become associated primarily with the built environment. Therefore, the Department has adopted the term "conservation" to recognize work that safeguards both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

How does San Francisco currently safeguard cultural heritage?

Over the past decade, San Francisco communities have shown a growing interest in protecting not just our architectural and archaeological history, but also the living history represented by long-standing businesses, events, practices, and organizations that contribute to the City's cultural heritage. Community planning efforts in Japantown, Western SoMa, and the Mission are prime examples of this expanding effort.

In December 2012, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) endorsed Resolution No. 0698,  authorizing the City to develop a program to further document, designate, and incentivize social and cultural heritage. The HPC then endorsed the Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy (JCHESS) in 2013, a collaborative effort between the Planning Department, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and the Japantown community. The JCHESS featured a detailed methodology for identifying and safeguarding intangible cultural assets, and developed a vision for the neighborhood through economic development and preserving and enhancing the historic and cultural uses and buildings.

In 2014, the HPC formed the Cultural Heritage Assets Committee to further explore the issue of social (intangible) heritage. The HPC's work in this area has been closely followed and supported by the non-profit preservation advocacy organization, San Francisco Heritage, which published a nationally recognized paper entitled Sustaining San Francisco's Living History in September 2014.

Making the decision to prioritize social heritage reflects the long-established Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in October 2003. UNESCO has since published numerous papers describing best practices for defining, inventorying, and safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, and established policies that emphasize the importance of relying on community stewardship rather than professional determinations of cultural significance. Underlying the policies is an appreciation that living heritage must sometimes evolve to remain viable, and that some intangible heritage practices will inevitably lose significance over time.

Additional Safeguarding Efforts

Cultural Heritage Districts

In recent years, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has recognized several cultural heritage districts that are distinguished by unique social and historical associations and living traditions. While they have physical boundaries, the districts are primarily identified by the activities that occur within them, including commerce, services, arts, events, and social practices. While a cultural heritage district does not currently hold any regulatory controls, the recognition has spurred community efforts facilitated by the Planning Department and the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development to develop strategies for sustaining the living culture of these places. The first such strategy was the aforementioned Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy.

The first formally designated cultural heritage district in San Francisco was established in 2014 with the Calle 24 (Veinticuatro) Latino Cultural District in the Mission neighborhood. This was followed by the formal designation of San Francisco's Filipino Cultural Heritage District, SOMA Pilipinas, in 2016.

Each community associated with the cultural heritage districts has developed strategies tailored to the needs of their own district. In the future, this community-led work may evolve into a more formalized partnership with City agencies to implement economic, zoning, educational, marketing, and planning tools appropriate to the safeguarding of living heritage.

Legacy Business Registry

In March 2015, the Board of Supervisors approved Ordinance No. 29-15 amending the Administrative Code to direct the Small Business Commission to establish a Legacy Business Registry. The Legacy Business Registry works to save longstanding, community-serving businesses that so often serve as valuable cultural assets. The City intends that the Registry be a tool for providing educational and promotional assistance to Legacy Businesses to encourage their continued viability and success.

In November 2015, voters approved Local Measure J, establishing the Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund. Measure J also expanded the definition of a Legacy Business to include those that have operated in San Francisco for more than 20 years, are at risk of displacement, and meet all other requirements of the Registry.

A "Legacy Business" is defined as a business that has been nominated by a member of the Board of Supervisors or the Mayor and that the Small Business Commission has determined meets the following criteria:

  • The business has operated in San Francisco for 30 or more years, with no break in San Francisco operations exceeding two years. The business may have operated in more than one location. If the business has operated in San Francisco for more than 20 years but less than 30 years it may still satisfy this subsection (b)(1) if the Small Business Commission finds that the business has significantly contributed to the history or identity of a particular neighborhood or community and, if not included in the Registry, the business would face a significant risk of displacement.
  • The business has contributed to the neighborhood's history and/or the identity of a particular neighborhood or community. Prior to the hearing, the Small Business Commission, or the Executive Director of the Office of Small Business on its behalf, shall request an advisory recommendation from the Historic Preservation Commission as to whether the business meets the requirement in this subsection (b)(2). If the Historic Preservation Commission does not provide an advisory recommendation within 30 days of receipt of the request, the Small Business Commission shall treat such nonresponse as an advisory recommendation that the business meets the requirement in this subsection (b)(2).
  • The business is committed to maintaining the physical features or traditions that define the business, including craft, culinary, or art forms.

Cultural Heritage Assets Committee

The Cultural Heritage Asset Committee of the Historic Preservation Commission was formed in 2014 to provide a local discussion forum for the emerging field of cultural heritage preservation. The Committee has since held hearings on new strategies for identifying, evaluating, and preserving cultural heritage assets, and continues to provide an opportunity for the public to contribute to a growing list of businesses, community organizations, and neighborhoods institutions that deserve recognition and protection. Current members of the committee are HPC Commissioners Aaron Jon Hyland, AIA, NCARB, and Diane Matsuda (Janauary 2018).

Historic Context Statements

Over the years, the Planning Department has incrementally developed a number of citywide Historic and Cultural Context Statements. The overall goal of these Statements is maintaining a thorough contextual foundation to guide the survey program and to assist in identifying resources throughout San Francisco. In recent years, the Planning Department has prioritized developing historic context statements that focus on minority ethnic, social, or cultural populations, each of which is currently underrepresented in local, state, and national registers. The following are examples of historic context statements that can be used to evaluate both tangible and intangible cultural heritage resources:

Civil Rights Project

The Planning Department has been granted the National Park Service's Underrepresented Communities Grant to support the work of identifying and designating cultural heritage resources related to our social history, specifically the tangible and intangible links to civil rights activism in San Francisco. In addition to pursuing a National Register listing for three local sites – Glide Memorial Methodist Church, Japantown's Young Women's Christian Association, and the Gran Oriente Temple, Hotel, and Lodge – related to the civil rights theme, the Department is also developing a methodology and digital tools based on best practices to further expand our ability to collect data on intangible historic resources.

Related Links and Further Reading


For more information on San Francisco Planning's efforts in safeguarding cultural heritage, contact:
Tim Frye
Historic Preservation Officer

Shelley Caltagirone
Senior Preservation Planner