120+ attendees met at Intersection for the Arts on 8/14/2012 to brainstorm ideas for prototype interventions on 5th Street between Howard and Market.

Global Design through Local Hacking

Andrew Faulkner reports on a recent brainstorming session that anticipates the upcoming Urban Protoyping: San Francisco festival.

One of the most salient challenges to the creation of good urban design is the abject lack of feedback during the design process. While feedback collected after a project’s completion may be used to refine future projects or retool existing spaces [1], projects in development exist solely in the conceptual and immaterial realm, precluding live user feedback. This is not for lack of effort from the design and planning professions; one can look to the half-century of influence by Jane Jacobs, Paul Davidoff, and their successors for a rich history of advocacy planning. The grim paradox of incorporating community members, user groups, and advocates in the process is that end-users, like the designers themselves, cannot necessarily know how a space will be used [2]. As a result, everyone from the urban designer to the neighbor is left unmoored in a realm of speculation based solely on personal intuition and broad strokes of experience.


The challenge at hand then is how to test a project that doesn’t exist. The solution lies in partial implementation—prototyping. Prototyping, the full-scale demonstration of an idea, is a familiar process to anyone who has designed furniture or landed on Project Runway while idly flipping channels. Prototyping also contributes to architecture through the use of full-scale mockups on large construction sites, where color, fit, waterproofing and structural assemblies can be assessed. At the scale of urban design, it’s time to use prototyping to its fullest potential. Similar to its use in other disciplines, prototyping will allow infrastructure to be adapted to sites, tested, and refined based on live feedback before proceeding with the capital-intensive process of construction. Urban Prototyping can be the filter through which design engages reality.


San Francisco has quietly emerged at the forefront of Urban Prototyping, and several of our greatest recent successes in urban design reflect its influence. The explosion of parklets developed throughout the city as part of the Pavement to Parks initiative [3] began with one cheap, simple intervention that occupied a single parking space near the intersection of First and Mission for only 120 minutes. The power of the idea behind that prototype by Re:Bar Group [4] catalyzed the PARK(ing) Day movement, which has led to the implementation of 975 temporary parks on six continents [5] and the subsequent creation of a permitting process in San Francisco to convert parking spaces into permanent parklets.


Propelled by this renowned success [6], over 120 architects, interaction designers, artists, and creative professionals packed the SoMa headquarters of Intersection for the Arts earlier this week to brainstorm the next generation of Urban Prototyping. The event, part of the Urban Prototyping: San Francisco festival, challenged citizens to optimize typical streetscape elements along Fifth Street, between Howard and Hallidie Plaza. Ideas pitched during an hour-long discussion ranged from the tangential to the actionable. One participant focused on enlivening Market Street with spectacle through gaming; by repainting the ground surface of Hallidie Plaza and installing cameras and speakers, the plaza could become a life-sized chess board with visitors guided by players on smart phones acting as the chess pieces. Other ideas focused on increasing civic participation while reducing government duties. A detailed proposal suggested crowd-sourcing storm sewer inspections for standing water and mosquito larva. The current system requires employees to bike to and inspect each inlet multiple times a year and paint a coded dot on the curb [7]. The brainstorming team reasoned that crowd-sourcing the task would provide a dual opportunity for a distinctive design element at each inlet and a platform for a spatial game. Much like geo-cache enthusiasts, players could gain an understanding of the city’s water infrastructure while contributing to the prevention of the West Nile Virus.


These civic hacks, submitted through an open call for ideas and created live through a separate upcoming ‘makeathon,’ will be built and installed as part of the UP:SF festival from October 20-21, 2012. Projects will be located along Fifth Street between Hallidie Plaza and Howard Street, but should be capable of being replicated around the world. TraceSF readers are encouraged to propose their own ideas that combine physical design and technology; proposals for the open call are due by 11:59PM on Monday, August 20th and rolling registrations are open for the makeathon. To submit a proposal or register for the makeathon, visit the urban prototyping website at sf.urbanprototyping.org/.



[1] For the canonical study on project use and spatial feedback, see William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. (New York: Project for Public Spaces Inc., 2001).  

[2] Direct evidence of the unpredictability of public space design is found in quotes surrounding plans to redesign the 24th Street BART plaza: “24th Street BART Plaza Will Grow,” Mission Loc@l, accessed August 16, 2012, http://missionlocal.org/2012/04/24th-street-bart-plaza-will-grow/.

[3] “Pavement to Parks Initiative,” San Francisco Planning Department, accessed August 15, 2012, http://sfpavementtoparks.sfplanning.org/.

[4] “ReBar Portfolio > Park(ing),” ReBar Group, accessed August 15, 2012, http://rebargroup.org/parking/.

[5] “Park(ing) day 2011,” Park(ing) Day, accessed August 15, 2012, http://parkingday.org/.

[6] “Park(ing) day,” Sust•a•hood, accessed August 15, 2012, http://sustahood.com/2011/08/parking-day/.   

[7] “STREETSCIENCE: Bloodthirsty Females Foiled by Bikes,” Mission Loc@l, accessed August 15, 2012, http://missionlocal.org/2010/06/streetscience-bloodthirsty-females-foiled-by-bikes/.

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