Monday, November 21, 2011

Three Reasons More City Space Should Be Like Proxy

Proxy SF

Proxy SF

This weekend, some friends of mine and I finally made it to the new biergarten at Proxy, a temporary urban project delivering a series of food and retail experiences via a cluster of converted shipping containers in the SF's Hayes Valley neighborhood. After a freeway was torn down post-Loma Prieta eartquake, a swath of empty lots waited for their condo-ification which has recently been postponed. Rather than let these spaces drag the surrounding blocks down a bit with their emptiness, they've come back to life in an inspiring new and dynamic form.
I think this type of urban intervention is happening at the intersection of a lot of interesting moments in our urban evolution. And this is only the beginning.

First, there is our new found sense of urgency to transform our public space to be what the citizens want it to be. Neighborhoods like Hayes Valley which have always been very active in transforming their own destiny, the removal of the highway is proof, and Hayes Street has seen a renaissance in its wake. But today we chose to make these demands from the ground up rather than waiting for municipalities to make change happen. Better yet this new sense of urgency can accelerate the pace of change to regulations in a combined effort of both the people, property owners/developers and the city administrators as was no doubt the case with Proxy. This project took quite a bit longer than it was originally suppose to in order to come to life, but the break neck speed still outpaced the usual time it takes to see a project come to life in San Francisco.

Second, A lot of the impetus for these urban interventions is focused around an increased sense of delight in our public spaces. Proxy is, if nothing else, a delightful experience that would otherwise be a stagnant fenced-in parking lot if it wasn't for the vision of Envelope A+D and the community that made it happen. We can make our neighborhoods into magical experiences that benefit everyone who engages, if we chose to participate.

Proxy SF

Proxy SF

Proxy SF

Finally, We are just beginning to see the first examples of cities that adapt quickly to changing conditions of the citizens and businesses that inhabit them. For one, brick and mortar retail is beginning to respond to changing consumer behaviors evolving from online retail and in response they are seeking more visibility and a more frictionless purchase experience. Products like Square enable many small merchants like Smitten Ice Cream (try the Bay Leaf!) are able to execute transactions wherever they set up shop, and this portability makes them far more nimble than their tethered competitors who can't bring their product to where the people are as easily. Some retailers may also only need space for a brief period of time while they wait for a more permanent facility as is the case for the Museum of Craft and Design gift shop which is closing this week at Proxy. The increased visibility in a new location like Hayes Valley was no doubt a benefit to their brand awareness. Can't wait to see what will be there next.

Proxy SF

Proxy SF

Cities around the world should look to all of their empty lots and imagine what could be their, if only fleetingly. Proxy is a superb example. With the exception of the chain link fences, a relic of the lots' days as a parking lot that would be better left behind (if the site is truly public and containers are completely sealable at night, why have fences?), the site is completely open and full of potential for whatever delightful urban experiences are yet to come.

Proxy SF

Proxy SF

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The New Living Room: Activating the Sidewalk

Movie Projecting in the Tenderloin

What's better than watching South Park with a cold beer in your hand? Watching South Park with a cold beer in hand outside, especially when you can watch it on the side of a three story building! Last night in the Tenderloin I ran into this amazing spectacle created by two guys standing outside of the Amsterdam Cafe on Geary Street. With a laptop and a small projector propped up on a table.

It's random moments like this that remind me of how magical cities can be when individuals chose to take some small action in order to make a big impact on the cityscape around them and transform public space into the experience of their liking in the process.

Movie Projecting in the Tenderloin

Movie Projecting in the Tenderloin

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Organic and the Infrastructural in Rocinha Favela

Rocinha Favela

Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

I was surprised to wake up yesterday and see the police and military had taken over the Rocinha favela. I visited Rocinha during some design research for a project last year, and we were told even back then that the Rio government had begun systematically installing peace patrols in the favelas, but in order to establilsh the peace, they first had to take over the neighborhoods by force. Even back then, the NGO guide that took us through his neighborhood said tensions were heightened because the drug dealers knew their days of controlling Rocinha were numbered. The day finally came on Saturday.

The government has taken a decidedly more hands-on role in the management of the favelas given that Rio will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. With so much of the favelas becoming solidified with more formal infrastructure, I am struck by the neighborhoods' origins in organic growth and how there can be the right balance between this new insertion of organization within the seemingly chaotic in these dense neighborhoods (Rocinha has estimates of 300,00 people in this small valley and hillside). After all, the favelas were orginally founded by former slaves who did not own land and relocated to uninhabited hillside jungle to cultivate crops. Over the years they've become gradually more formalized and permanent. Ultimately, I went to the favela to be inspired by what cities could learn from an organic settlement that grows with the intentions of the crowd that occupies it but I left wondering what the right balance of top-down and bottom-up is right for urban development that meets the evolving demands of the inhabitants.

So what is the critical amount of infrastructure that is provided in a top-down system, and what can grow with the will of the occupants and adapt to changing demands over time?

Upon my visit I was struck by how permanent everything was as my naiveté led me to assume we would be visiting ramshackle houses. While there are a few sections of new housing that look very informal and unsafe at the very tops of the hill which have been recently built on some very unstable, steep hills, the vast majority of the housing is multi-story concrete and terra cotta brick construction that looks like it's been there for some time. The two houses we visited had full kitchens, running water and electricity. Most people have lived in their home for several generations.

So while the government has largely ignored the favelas, the residents were busy building up their own infrastructure organically. Every phone pole in the neighborhood has dozens of power lines spliced into it. And there is even an informal address system and mail delivery that operates in the neighborhood. Trying to find a residence without a guide would be nearly impossible for a non-resident as there is only one paved road (which the government added several years ago) and all of the houses are stacked on top of one another on stair-ridden curving alleys.

Rocinha Favela

Young men play soccer in an alley that is being carved up through Rocinha to prevent tuberculosis and provide better circulation.

Rocinha Favela

Power and phone lines are spliced in a beautifully, chaotic mess.

While we were there, the government had also begun a process of clearing some larger pathways up the hillside. The favelas are so densely populated that tuberculosis has been a problem because air cannot circulate properly, and the pathways will help alleviate that problem. This also provided a much faster way for us to get to the homes we were visiting. The residents who are being displaced by this project are being relocated in a more formal concrete housing complex close by. While you can see, it's decidedly more orthogonal than its neighbors, the new complex is a similar density and won't force people to move far from their support network.

The neighborhood will no doubt be a better place without a drug trade that rules it like a mafia and offers no positive opportunity for the young men and women who live there. And most of the infrastructural improvements will be very positive, but we should be wary of the displacement of residents for what may in some cases be ulterior motives. Some of the residents we spoke to near the top of the hill in Rocinha said they are going to be moved almost 40 miles away to another neighborhood because they believe the government wants to use their property, which has 2 stunning views of the city and Leblon beach, to build bed and breakfasts during the World Cup. Such a significant move from the support network of family and friends that is such a vital part of favela life would be critically disruptive to a household here.

Rocinha Favela

An informal water system stretches from rooftop to rooftop since there are no primary and secondary roads to run a water main.

Rocinha Favela

New housing that is being built within the favela for those who are being displaced by the new pathways carved into the dense neighborhood.

Some of the more sprawling favelas of Vigario Geral have a new gondola system that connects hillside residents with grocery stores and neighbors that are hard to get to by foot.

But not all of the improvement of the favela is provided, top-down, from the government. In the absence of the government's intervention in many of the problems of the favelas, the communities took action as well. And we saw a bright spot example when we visited the AfroReggae Cultural Center in the Vigario Geral favela and had the honor of meeting AfroReggae's charismatic leader, Junior, who has grew up there. AfroReggae provides an infrastructure for young people of the nighborhood to thrive in arts and culture providing education and state-of-the-art performance facilities in the heart of the favela.

It will be exciting to see how the favelas evolve with a genetic code of organic, chaotic growth as they face new challenges that come with the addition of formal systems hopefully striking the right balance between the two.

The AfroReggae Cultural Center in the Vigario Geral favela.


The arts and community center built by AfroReggae has a vibrant public courtyard and performance venue.



Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Obstructing Public Gathering Space

As people gather in open public spaces around the country right now for the occupy movement, it's important for us to remember just how much this tradition that is so fundamental to American cities is being further restricted and "managed."

Take the example of Findley Plaza here in Atlanta, which I have been visiting for a project for a few weeks. It's the center of an eclectic alternative neighborhood called Little Five Points which is definitely worth visiting. Having grown up in Charlotte, I have a hard time imagining a place that could very comfortably fit into San Francisco thriving here in the South. But Lil 5 has been one of the centers of Atlanta's multiracial alternative subcultures since at least the 70s according to one
shop owner who even compared it to Haight Ashbury, having lived there in the 60s.

A couple of merchants and residents I spoke to mentioned that people use to regularly gather at Findley Plaza and sit in the beds beneath the trees, sometimes to protest but usually just to gather, talk, share music, and be social. This obviously doesn't sit well with local authorities who built a fence around the beds to stop this informal gathering. These awkward low corrals (really the inverse of a corral) completely kill the space and remnants of this gathering experience can now only be seen on a few benches squeezed in probably as a token to what once was.

I'm sure there are many people who are thrilled by moves like this, but it's important to remember before taking such drastic action in our public spaces, that when people frequently gather somewhere, it's because that space is serving one of the most fundamental needs a city can for those people, it's enabling interactions. You only need to look at Findley
Plaza to see that any attempt to obstruct those interactions seems forced and artificial.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Heating Things Up At Occupy Wall Street

How will they stay warm?

Here's my 10 minute rendering of an OWS that could last protesters through the winter.

original images from Wikipedia and

With last week's surprise snowstorm, Occupy Wall Street got an early preview of what the months ahead will be like and the NYTimes asked how long people can continue the occupation through the winter. While the perseverance of many of the occupiers is admirable, you only have to think back to last winter in New York to be reminded of how hard it will be to survive through February and March.

There are a lot of intriguing solutions being proposed including using a single candle, 2 bricks and cast iron skillet to create a footwarmer as suggested on the forum. There is also a group working to install electricity-generating bikes in the park, and while that is a sustainable solution to lighting demands after the city took everyone's generators away, it doesn't seem practical to use bicycle power to generate heat for the very cyclists who add to the system.

So what else is a possibility?

The ambitiousness of the infrastructural improvements Occupiers continue to make to their city-within-a-city is really inspiring. And it makes me wonder if they could develop a system to parasitically use wasted heat from the surrounding city infrastructure as a source of heat.

The artist Michael Rakowitz has done some inspiring, provocative work around temporary housing for homeless which utilizes the exhaust air from nearby buildings to heat temporary homeless shelters.

There are more permanent versions of this heat byproduct becoming a useful public resource. I recall an article in Metropolis awhile back where the town of Holland, Michigan used wasted hot water running in pipes underground and utilizing it to heat the sidewalks. They even built a sidewalk hearth that the community can gather around in the dead of winter.

Holland, Michcigan Public Hearth.

Imagine a temporary infrastructure that captures the wasted hot air of the financial service offices in NYC's Financial District in order to keep the protesters warm! I am writing this from the comfort of a warm home in Atlanta this week, and I haven't been to Zucotti Park, so take this proposal with a grain of salt. There are reports that some of the protestors are begining to install larger army tents that will keep them warm and protect them from the snow. How great would it be to see all of the OWS tents warmed by wasted heat coming from the banks they are calling into question? Does anyone at OWS know if this is at all feasible?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Social Life of Mid-Market Street

After recently thinking about what our cities can learn from the temporality of Burning Man and lo and behold this appeared this week on the SFist, a free bike repair kiosk has appeared in abandoned news stands in the Mid-Market district of SF.

J. Barmann/ The SFist

I've made no secret of my admiration for the use of underutilized resources, especially when they new use is such and intuitive outgrowth of the previous use or structure. There is no question that abandoned "street furniture" does more to detract from the vitality of a street than if nothing had ever been placed there. With so much effort in the revitalization
It's impressive to see how relatively quickly this concept went from brainstorms spearheaded by HOK in September of last year to a functioning reality today. Below are some of the visuals from the charettes.

There is a lot of admirable momentum from a lot of great organizations around revitalizing Market between 5th and 10th, SPUR is one of the leaders. As part of an ongoing Reclaim Market Street! exhibition, they'll be showing urban planner William H. Whyte's classic film "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" on Nov. 15. I'll see you there!