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LIZ: Enchanting New Urban Activation

Mar 25, 2014
By Kate Howe, Director + Lead Planner, VIA Architecture
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Northern News: A Publication of the Northern Section of the California Chapter of APA
 

If you’ve strolled down San Francisco’s Market Street this past winter, you may have noticed something new jutting up from the sidewalk at Market and Yerba Buena Lane — a set of eight-foot-tall parabolic concrete disks positioned next to a mysterious “singing bench.” The instillation is the result of a joint project between the Yerba Buena Community Benefits District, the Exploratorium, and the City. As the first “Living Innovation Zone,” or LIZ, these paired discs are the Exploratorium’s “whispering dishes” — now a popular public exhibit for unscripted play, learning, and conversation. If you whisper into one dish, another person can hear you loud and clear at the other, 50 feet away. You might want to stop, explore, and teach someone else how to use them.

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Initiated by the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation and the San Francisco Planning Department, the program is intended to create a pathway for the experimental — to activate public space, foster learning, and showcase innovation. As Jay Nath, Chief Innovation Officer for Mayor Ed Lee commented, “San Francisco is the innovation capital of the world, but you wouldn’t know it from just walking the city’s streets. We are creating a way for the City to showcase the explosion of creativity — design, arts, and technology innovations that are currently pouring out of San Francisco.”

To meet that goal, the program has several complementary objectives. The first is the idea that LIZ interventions should delight and engage the public by addressing a specific community-identified need. (Unlike the popular Parklet program, no sponsorship from a fronting property owner or tenant is required). The second objective is to provide a temporary platform for emerging technologies to pilot new ways of improving the public realm. This, in effect, takes the City’s “open data” initiative to the next level.

With these efforts, San Francisco hopes to improve how we use the city itself; and as an economic development initiative, LIZ might help experimental projects compete more quickly in the market. For example, the installation at Yerba Buena Lane includes a technology component to help city planners understand the social use of public space. By tracking people’s movements anonymously with cell phone signals, planners can now for the first time get a sense of how people are using the space, i.e., how many stop, where they go, and for how long.

The last program objective is perhaps more nuanced but is also highly valuable. Citywide Planner Paul Chasan points out that LIZ offers a lower stakes, temporary place for “government learning.” In the three month window in which the LIZ was designed, permitted, and constructed, over 60 people were involved with the project, including staff at the Planning Department, the Mayor’s Office, Department of Public Works, Public Utilities Commission, Municipal Transportation Agency, The Mayor’s Office on Disability, and architectural consultants, as well as private sector partners.

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For anyone with experience working on projects with the City of San Francisco, to move anything ahead in this incredibly short period of time can be a trial. However, LIZ helps to encourage dynamism, and in so doing enriches and builds internal relationships. The LIZ team worked to imagine a different response to typical constraints — and allowed staff the ability to engage with notions of adaptability, flexibility, and building trust.

The City isn’t sure what’s next for LIZ, but we aren’t worried. The projects themselves are only temporary interventions. Nine more are slated for Market Street, the idea being to continue to provide support, reduce barriers, and highlight innovative thinkers. We hope to see the City continue moving the principles of open government into — and onto — the street.  anything ahead in this incredibly short period of time can be a trial. However, LIZ helps to encourage dynamism, and in so doing enriches and builds internal relationships. The LIZ team worked to imagine a different response to typical constraints — and allowed staff the ability to engage with notions of adaptability, flexibility, and building trust.