Urban Prototyping Festival Rethinks SoMa’s Streets


For the past few decades, Market Street has been an illogical disconnect in San Francisco, where the confluence of its not-quite-intersecting streets and abrupt diagonal grid shifts have evolved radically different but adjacent streetscapes. To the north lies the financial district, Union Square, tourism, and flagship retail; to the south, the remnants of wholesale businesses, manufacturing, and SRO hotels. While this seam has gradually been mending as a result of real estate economics and municipal upzoning, the invasion of SoMa by wealthy tech companies is accelerating the pace of change. The combination of capital, government prerogative, and community organization make the mid-Market area an ideal site for urban experimentation and innovation.


The groundswell of technology companies rushing to locate headquarters in gritty locations like SoMa is a recent phenomenon, undoubtedly hastened by software’s shift from social to spatial mediation. While early technologists argued that a monolithic web of global connection would render distinction of place obsolete, precisely the opposite has occurred. Currently one of the startup world’s leading sectors, Social Local Mobile (SoLoMo) converts place into tangible profit. Foursquare, a SoLoMo leader, monetizes physical location data [1] and along with its cohorts, is estimated to have 800 million users this year and revenues of $13.5 billion by 2015 [2]. The growing interest in place-driven technologies such as SoLoMo is colliding and fusing with resurgent interests in craft and fabrication, as evidenced by San Francisco’s Urban Prototyping (UP) festival this upcoming weekend (October 20-21).


Photo by Andrew Faulkner


The festival was prefaced three weeks ago during the UP Makeathon, held in a nondescript annex of TechShopSF (nearly co-located with Foursquare’s headquarters). Selected participants spent a weekend protoyping projects for the festival. Teams huddled together designing, wiring, and hacking motion sensors—or in one case hacking a Dance Dance Revolution board found on Craigslist—and used TechShop’s traditional and CAD-driven tools to fabricate these into customized assemblies. The energy was palpable as the day wore on and  disparities among the makers were exposed; skills in programming and electronics didn’t necessarily translate into the woodworking and metalworking skills needed to mount projects and assemble enclosures. Interdisciplinary teams able to bridge both skillsets proved their advantage.


Photo by Andrew Faulkner


The majority of the projects that emerged from the Makeathon fell into three categories. The first rethought an existing piece of infrastructure or juxtaposed conventional infrastructure with unconventional environments. This category was exemplified by Turn to Clear Vision, which reconfigures tourist binoculars with remote cameras that insert surrealist surprises into the banal streetscape, breaking the relationship between observer and observed. The second type of projects employ technology to reshape interactions with urban space. CitiPlay uses traditional sidewalk games as a point of departure and prototypes a new programmable ground surface that functions as a reconfigurable game board/exercise platform. The final category of projects addresses deficiencies in the urban environment, offering new forms of infrastructure that optimize existing conditions. One example was Urban Barnacle, which provides vending space, power access, and seating while collecting and disseminating data on the entrepreneurs using the system.


The Makethon projects will be exhibited with previously commissioned prototypes at the Urban Prototyping Festival this weekend. Teams will exhibit prototypes for public use at scattered outdoor sites between Market and Howard Streets in the vicinity of 5th Street.


This weekend should herald the beginning, and not the culmination, of Urban Prototyping. But as SoLoMo startups such as Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft are discovering [3], innovative concepts can eventually crash into restrictive permitting and cumbersome regulation, reflecting parallel challenges for urbanism. Without progressive planning and streamlined municipal codes, forward-thinking urban design and place-based practices risk being stymied. Urban Prototyping will be successful only if it is able to win the public imagination, build coalitions of support, and effect real change. The most innovative urban ideas of the past century [4] fought these social and political battles, which will not be obviated by new technologies. It’s our collective responsibility as citizens to continue to push the boundaries of how we reshape our urban environments. More than a one-time event or a circumscribed pursuit, Urban Prototyping is a process, open to everyone.


How will you get involved?




[1] For information on Foursquare see:  McKenzie, Hamish. “How Foursquare plans to monetize: no dumb banners, all specific targeting”, Pandodaily, accessed October 13, 2012, http://pandodaily.com/2012/10/11/how-foursquare-plans-to-monetize-no-dumb-banners-all-specific-targeting


[2] For forecasting on location-based software see: Lunden, Ingrid. “SoLoMo Update”, TechCrunch, accessed October 13, 2012, http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/11/solomo-update-mobile-only-social-networks-to-reach-1b-users-by-2014-800m-users-of-foursquare-other-location-services-this-year/


[3] Referring to the CPUC’s attack on new forms of ride-sharing: Reisman, Will. “Lyft, SideCar, Zimride say they will fight cease-and-desist orders to stop services”, SF Examiner, accessed October 14, 2012, http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/transportation/2012/10/lyft-sidecar-zimride-say-they-will-fight-cease-and-desist-orders-stop-s#ixzz29L4ohq3k”, http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/transportation/2012/10/lyft-sidecar-zimride-say-they-will-fight-cease-and-desist-orders-stop-s


[4] The removal of the damaged Embarcadero freeway was a watershed moment for traffic planning and urbanism in America. In the end it took a powerful coalition and a brave stand by the mayor to see the project through. For a general overview see “Embarcadero Freeway Removal”, Streetswiki, accessed October 14, 2012, http://streetswiki.wikispaces.com/Embarcadero+Freeway+Removal

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