Do urban design guidelines help or hinder growing cities? In San Francisco, where architecture is a spectator sport, you might think there would be a clearly defined set of guidelines spelling out how new buildings can best fit our distinctive surroundings. The City Planning Department has embarked on its first set of urban design guidelines, a two-year effort that has produced a 70-page draft. Yet the inherent subjectivity of such standards could muddy the waters rather than lead to better buildings, which is what we really need. At the most basic level, the aim is “to promote the quality of individual buildings, and to enhance the experience of the city as a whole” according to the current draft, which is being presented to community and design advocacy groups. Right now, we have a vast amalgam of documents that speak to design, but none that approach it in a methodical manner. Public Realm” also gets its own section, including a call to “locate and design open spaces to maximize physical comfort and visual access. Part of the problem is that no document can defuse the perennial tension between San Franciscans who want new buildings to look as if they’ve been here all along, and those who want the city to be a contemporary showcase on par with Barcelona or Rotterdam. The idea is to make sure that spelled-out standards don’t “stifle innovation and/or exceptional design.” Standards that upgrade the sorriest proposed buildings also can be applied so joylessly and dutifully that imaginative architecture gets pressed into a predictable mold. […] the next paragraph stresses that contemporary additions should come with appropriate “massing, siting, scale, proportions, facade design, material choice and roof form.” With clear words and well-chosen images, lay people can get a sense of how specific aspects of a building or space can add up to something greater. Architects and designers can benefit from a cleanly focused primer on the values of a particular neighborhood or city.