Innovations in Public Space: Designing for Community

By Shaina Kandel

Shaina Kandel is pursuing an MBA in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. She has a background in Organizational Development and Healthcare Consulting. She is passionate about creating sustainable food systems and improving the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Oct 21, 2013 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

The physical layout of a city determines social interaction. American cities have limited public space, aside from green patches of parks. This means city dwellers exist inside cars, in apartments, in work buildings, or bustling to and from these places, eyes down at our phones. The result of this urban infrastructure is a sense of isolation, even when surrounded by millions of other people.  The isolation creates a yearning for human connection: enter the buzzword “community” and the rise of tech startups that “build community.” (i.e. Meetup, Airbnb, Lyft, Yerdle, Shareable, Skillshare, Feastly, etc.)

The good news is that we are shaping technology to meet our human need for social interaction. The better news is that this trend is not just secluded to technology. In increasing numbers, projects around the country are popping up to turn unutilized urban space into something public, shared, and social.

The projects below showcase transformations of previously unsightly urban spaces into beautiful public spaces, shifting the aesthetic and more importantly, human behavior.

Ballroom Luminoso

San Antonio, Texas

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SXSE Eco presented Joe O’Connell & Blessing Hancock, Creative Machines Inc. the Transformative Design Award for their Ballroom Luminoso Project in San Antonio, Texas.

The designers constructed six large LED, color-changing chandeliers out of recycled bike parts and structural steel. Each light fixture casts detailed shadows on the underpass, transforming the underpass into a community space.

Soak

San Francisco, CA

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San Francisco startup Soak is transforming urban spaces pending development into pop-up spas using shipping containers and ecologically sound design. The company partnered with Rebar Group to design a mostly off-the-grid urban bathhouse using solar power, rainwater, and photovltaic cells, and a grey water system.

Alley Network Project

Seattle, WA

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In 2009, the city of Seattle commissioned Copenhagen-based Gehl architects to conduct a study on how to create vibrant streets and public spaces. The study identified alleyways as under-utilized urban spaces that can be reimagined to create green walkways, host public events, and invigorate local businesses. The Alley Network Project began doing just that and has transformed 4 alleys in Seattle, featuring art walks, movie screenings, and creating alleyway communities.

Pavement to Parks

San Francisco

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Converting parking spaces into platforms with public seating, San Francisco’s Parklet Program “provides a path for merchants, community organizations, business owners, and residents to take individual actions in the development and beautification of the City’s public.” Since 2010, 38 parklets have been installed throughout San Francisco. These parklets create public seating and landscaped pedestrian walkways where parking spots once stood.

Impacts of Public Spaces

The Empirical Evidence:

The San Francisco Great Streets Project conducted a study on Divisidero Street before and two months after the parklet was installed. They found:

  • On weekday evenings, pedestrian traffic rose 37%
  • The host business of the parklet perceived a significant increase in customers after the parklet was installed
  • Among surveyed pedestrians strong community character increased from 80% to 90%


From the Divisidero study, we know that creating a public space creates more pedestrians, which means a decrease in crime, according to the US department of transportation. Local businesses flourish and there are stronger community ties. But these facts are just the quantifiable effects of something bigger that is happening with the reclaiming of public space – we change our relationship with our environment and our relationship with one another.  As Enrique Penalosa, the forward-thinking former Mayor of Bogota Columbia puts it,

Public spaces create a different type of society. A society where people of all income levels meet in public spaces is a more integrated, socially healthier one.

Reclaiming public space means making urban areas amenable to human interaction. It allows seemingly disparate individuals to find themselves in close enough proximity to converse, learn from one another, and create community. Participating in public space means giving ourselves permission to look up from our screens and connect with people of different generations or different backgrounds. It eases the isolation and anonymity inherent in urban areas. This isn’t about civic engagement or improving business, those are stories that can be used to support innovation. This movement to reclaim public space is about making our urban centers places for human connection.

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