Opening our Open Spaces…by winks, nods, weights, pulleys

How Open Architecture SF partnered with computer programmers and renown architects to hack underused “open spaces” of downtown San Francisco.

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(As featured July 15, 2016 on Open Architecture Collaborative Updates) What follows is a(n ongoing) tale of ragtag volunteer designers confronting a particularly San Francisco conundrum:

  • “POPOS” or privately owned public open spaces that are woefully misguided;
  • An app for that. was developed by an architecture / techie collaboration;
  • A SOMA workshop on Community Engaged Design brought minds together to ‘hack’ design, use, and policy solutions;
  • Takeaways resulted from this process that may guide others in their work; and
  • Pretty workshop pictures wrap everything up (thanks Sofia and Yuko!).

You could rank the Andersons among the last vestiges of a “Good Ol’ San Fran.” Brother architects Mark and Peter have for ten years led their innovative design/build/prefab firm from a converted 100-year-old warehouse in the South of Market (SOMA) district. Within, the combined architecture studio and fabrication sandbox is a veritable imaginarium of exploratory models, fixtures, and sculptures – some projects are finished as architecture; others are rendered or sculpted as social and environmental theses. Without, the office overlooks a precipice of new City development. Two ancient warehouses away continues the safety-fence girdled construction of a Transbay Station causeway. Over ten years, the Andersons have seen the neighborhood change several times – today finds this community again at great risk of completely losing its balance.

Open Architecture San Francisco (OAC:SF) met with the Andersons last April to explore some sort of extracurricular collaboration. During a conversation about the small scale needs of SOMA, Mark looked up from his sketchbook with a suggestion: investigate an especially SF phenomenon holding tremendous influence on the accessibility of public space in their neighborhood.

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“POPOS”

Privately Owned Public Open Spaces are San Francisco’s solution for the high-property-value areas on both sides of Market Street. A practice dating back to the Transamerica building but codified in the 1980s, the City requires developers to provide one square foot of publicly accessible open space for every 50 square feet of office space in a project. What’s resulted is an ever-growing network of “parks” throughout the Financial District and SOMA – tucked in mid-block pockets, on rooftops and mezzanines, or as street-facing lobbies, fountains, or seating areas – that evade common perception (except perhaps by white collar lunch breakers).


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Typical SF POPOS on a Saturday (at 123 Mission St.) – what a waste!


Their inaccessibility is more or less deliberate. Like the pirate’s captive who failed to specify how to leave the ship, the city ordinance leaves the interpretation of “open” up to the developer. Many “parks” have taken shape as courtyards and roof terraces, through a gauntlet of security desks, business corridors, elevators requiring key fob activation. Many others close after the workday. Recent efforts by the City (a signage requirement), SPUR (a PDF directory), and Rebar (a series of tolerance-testing seances) campaigned to call attention to these spaces, with success limited by the extent of their memberships. Indeed, the Andersons weren’t aware their work had been done. For instance, the SF Planning Department’s interactive POPOS map, while comprehensive, is clumsy, and not responsively designed (meaning it isn’t built for devices). SPUR’s PDF isn’t an ideal in-your-pocket resource.

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Among the few people we could find using POPOS on a Saturday were security guards. Their preference was not to interact with us. 

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An app for that

So it was perhaps time for the OAC:SF to take a crack. Our meeting with Anderson Anderson Architecture ended with a short list of initial concepts for an awareness campaign. Highest up was building a map app that includes hours of operation, availability of amenities (wifi, food, bathrooms), accessibility, and maybe a hashtag feature or a comments section. I took these concepts to Hy Carrell, the organizer of Code for San Francisco (the “Open Architecture” for programmers). He was delighted. He invited us to pitch the app at their weekly Civic Hack Night. Which we did. And were peppered with questions and introductions. And met a member (Jordan) who’d already made a hobby of POPOS. And discovered a responsive mapping platform. By that point (8 PM), Jordan had downloaded the Planning Department’s POPOS map open code. Before the end of the very night we presented, we had launched sfspaces.co.

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Screengrab of sfspaces.co, the first (?) device-responsive SF POPOS map


A SOMA workshop

Back at Anderson Anderson Architecture, in-house artist and regular OASF collaborator Sofia finalized and announced a day-long Community Engaged Design workshop for San Francisco Design Week, squaring up POPOS as a trial community project. Tickets were swept up by designers of all stripes from as far as Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Australia. They would be introduced to the values and tactics of Community Engaged Design – by performing it.

Coffee, donuts, introductions, and a neighborhood services voting exercise on the Andersons’ rooftop set the tone of the day. A presentation followed outlining the values and tactics of Community Engaged Design. (It was surprising by how novel the concept was for everyone, regardless of background – more on that below.) Peter and Mark showed us their studio, their many architectural models, and a few of their Spirit-of-the-City aggregated sculptures. We then set out to tour nearby POPOS – a dozen lay within three blocks of the studio, scarcely a one of them in use. We observed, made notes, and interviewed what people we found (security guards). After a hearty lunch the group reconvened for the afternoon session: a design charrette (new concept) for these underused and thorny open spaces. From a rapidfire conceptualizing session (churning out notions on Post-Its, sorting and filtering), we identified three approaches: activation; awareness; and policy.


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Charrettes are magical things. At their best, charrettes empower and energize every participant, regardless of background, to contribute to a design conversation. In such a space, unexpected and harmonious solutions tend to emerge. Now, the premise for this POPOS charrette was a bit unconventional – while Anderson Anderson staff qualify as SOMA “community members,” the peculiar nature of the POPOS causes them to simultaneously be spaces for everybody, and yet owned, emotionally, by nobody. So we all considered ourselves both design facilitators and POPOS users.

The activation group depicted and modeled a menu of features that these spaces are perfectly capable of featuring, including ping pong tables, play structures, barbecues, tool libraries, and furniture for every level of activity, including haircuts, tooth exams, and pedal-powered charging stations. The awareness group imagined ways of engaging the security guards to be more welcoming and informative, like docents, and building discoverable game-directories (in the form of paper fortune tellers). The policy group found the City positioned to further incentivize developers to pursue more accessible and delightful POPOS. Perhaps private public partnership can transfer some of the risk to the City and in exchange ask more of these theoretically public spaces.

As the groups presented, a general realization swept through the studio about how comprehensive the teams’ work had become – the output was poised for the next level of development. And we appreciated everyone’s commitment to the exercise – not only had participants given their Saturday to the program, but the Andersons were just as involved offered ideas, and embracing, tangentially, the continuation of this project. The OAC:SF Chapter was honored to have had such a tremendous outcome – and humbled by the proximity of the project’s next iterative steps.

Takeaways

Not that the successful results from this project were entirely expected or effortlessly won. I’ll wrap this report with a breakdown of the discoveries made pursuing this work:

  • The persistent novelty of community engaged design – It surprised several Chapter members (being completed immersed in this kind of work) how little community engaged design tactics are understood still by much of the design world. This means that, yes, we have a lot of advocacy work yet to do, but also that, once that happens, the principles may catch on quickly with a healthy portion of the design community.
  • Interdisciplinary partnerships – Take advantage of the volunteer nature of this work by elevating concepts beyond confines of a traditional professional project. Chances are a design pursuit will have tremendous appeal to non-designers who appreciate and delight in creativity, thoughtfulness, and passion for inclusion.
  • Lift the less experienced. It can be incredibly easy. Mark and Peter’s participation in the whole workshop came as a very pleasant surprise for us. Their contributions lent a sense of legitimacy to what could otherwise been taken for a guerilla design initiative (which, you know, it still is!). We are so grateful for the Andersons’ trust in our use of their space and with their time. Simply donating the uses of their space created an armitage that allowed the workshop find inspiration and thrive. It’s this kind of mentorship that can be so easy and is so often overlooked, for whatever reason. Everyone has a key to supporting newer designers – there is no lowest rung, and it’s never too early help others with what’s within you, which is often an effortless act.
  • A secret to charretting… It may take four times as much planning, preparation, and rehearsal as the length of the charrette itself to ensure it takes fullest advantage of the participants’ time and enthusiasm. But the preparation is worth it (and we could have used a little more). During the event, engage immediately, and allow space for ideas to flourish.
  • Should you charge for events? This question resurfaced several times for us. We opted for a free event to remove any possible barriers from attending (but maybe not properly assessing the event audience). Some folks said that charging even a small fee creates a commitment from attendees, and towards game day we worried that no one may show up. But nearly everyone did. And isn’t that the commitment you really want – good hearts who see the value of something, regardless of price?


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