By Greg Lindsay.
Next month, the 250,000 daily travelers along Market Street — San Francisco’s three-mile-long central artery — will discover some new attractions along their commutes. Near the Embarcadero, a metal wall six feet tall and eight feet long will chime when touched or tapped. In the Financial District, “Data Lanterns” will draw on transit and other public data feeds to glow in response to arriving trains. A little further down the street, near the city’s Civic Center, billowing sheets of fabric will evoke a more tactile version of fog, while a street theater with seats made of compacted mushrooms will be composted after use.
These are just four of the fifty finalists in the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a novel effort to engage local designers, artists, and residents of surrounding neighborhoods in the remaking of thirty-six blocks of Market Street ahead of its planned reconstruction in 2018. For three days in April, the public will play-test their projects, offering feedback that will be used to select concepts to include in the final design.
The festival is also a prototype in its own right for a Bay Area strain of tactical urbanism that neither originates purely from above (a la the stealth makeover of Times Square in New York) or below (e.g. painting your own bike lanes), but tries to occupy middle ground. In this iteration of tactical urbanism, city planners commission ideas from citizens, iterate their designs with the help of community and professional partners, and incorporate their creations into official plans. The festival’s backers hope the process can become a model for other cities.
The festival is in turn an offshoot of the Better Market Street Project, the $400 million overhaul of the city’s busiest, widest, and arguably grandest thoroughfare. Last year — after three years of planning and public hearings — city officials decided their conceptual designs were missing something. “It lacks the diversity of the neighborhoods it passed through, so how could it feel more like home?” says Neil Hrushowy, who manages the City Design Group in the city of San Francisco’s Planning Department and is the lead urban designer for the Better Market Street project. “How can we make Market Street a more inviting place at night? How do you bring seating back — we had these beautiful black granite benches removes in the 1990s, at who knows how much cost — and how do you play?”