Blog » diy urbanism
- November 10, 2010BY JENNIFER WARBURG
This fall SPUR has featured the projects of local "Do-It-Yourself" urbanists in DIY Urbanism: testing the grounds for social change. In lean economic times, individuals have become the driving force behind some of the most successful initiatives to make San Francisco a better city, often providing the crucial impetus to address problems on a larger scale.
SPUR spoke with Jane Martin, whose image as a jack-hammer wielding advocate for greener sidewalks has made her emblematic of the do-it-yourself spirit. Jane is a local designer, professor and founder of PlantSF, a non-profit which helps homeowners turn excess concrete into exposed-earth gardens.
Many San Franciscans are familiar with sight of sidewalks up to and over 20 feet in breadth. Such expanses of impermeable surface are are hostile to essential natural processes, exacerbating stormwater runoff, air pollution and urban heat islands.
Since moving to San Francisco's Mission district, Jane had struggled to secure a permit to convert some of the excess concrete around her home into usable green space. Such sidewalk plantings would serve not only to beautify the neighborhood, but also to help relieve the overburdened city stormwater facilities, allowing rain to filter into the soil rather than runoff over streets accumulating pollution.
Jane was motivated to action by her principles and her passion, but also by poop. After several storms overloaded the city's septic system, inundating her basement with sewage with nowhere else to go, Jane decided she'd had enough. "That was the big moment" she said, "being knee deep in fecal water and realizing the ground beneath my feet was dry."
Jane worked with the local government to establish a sidewalk planting permitting process that was navigable and affordable. She founded PlantSF in 2004 to continue providing information to individuals interested in reestablishing a connection to the earth outside their own doorsteps.
Prior to her advocacy, "a permit process did not exist." But Jane was encouraged by the City's receptiveness to her proposal. "Convincing people took quite a bit less effort than I expected" she said, and it went really smoothly once we set on doing it. Traditional agency divisions are counterproductive, so it takes mindful collaboration to overcome that. Fortunately some really terrific people were involved."
Thanks to Jane, interested individuals can now apply for sidewalk plantings through a streamlined process (forms available here), marked down from over $800 to just over $100.
The image of Jane literally "taking a jackhammer to the sidewalk outside her own home" embodies the Do-It-Yourself ideal. Yet it seems that the work of installing permeable landscaping actually involves a web of partnerships with neighbors, local non-profits, and city agencies. Jane's response highlights one of the main features of DIY, that it involves not a rejection of government involvement, but a more porous relationship between grassroots activists and City-directed initiatives. "Ideally this would be a city-wide program and not rely on DIY for the main part of making the earth available," Jane concedes, "but we are a town of committed individualists which in this case works against us. We lose out on many benefits because of a lack of coordination."
The government has a critical role to play in altering the current regime of stormwater management through its ability to implement master plans and direct vast resources. "People can still do their own," says Jane, "but it should be in a framework that has been well thought through by the many terrific engineers, geologists and other specialists the City employs."
Jane has joined the ranks herself, as an appointee to Mayor Newsome's Commission on the the Environment. "During my time on the commission we have addressed quite a broad range of issues, including: sustainable development, cell phone radiation, dark skies, bird-building strikes, energy efficiency, green building standards, pharmaceutical disposal and more."
Having gone from a private citizen activist to a member of the mayor's Commission on the Environment and the leader of PlantSF's ambassadorial services, Jane is uniquely positioned to comment on private-public partnerships. To others interested in changing aspects of their community, but intimidated by bureaucratic barriers, Jane says: "Get involved. Contribute your strengths and recognize your weaknesses. Work with people instead of against them. Recognize that everyone has a perspective."
According to PlantSF, Permeable Landscaping provides the following benefits:
• Reduces storm sewer loads, reducing potential for backups and flooding;
• Beautifies the neighborhood;
• Creates opportunities for community interaction;
• Deters crime;
• Increases property values;
• Reduces global warming (by absorbing heat rather than reflecting it);
• Increases oxygen production; and
• Recharges ground water.
• Creates habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife;
• Makes a place to garden;
• Provides potential for urban farming (foodscape);
PlantSF is currently performing demonstration projects in the Sunset district and will be in Noe Valley in 2011. People can check in on www.plantsf.org to learn more and to see the latest projects and to begin their own!
DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change, now on show at SPUR's Urban Center, features innovative "do-it-yourself" projects, providing a snapshot of this burgeoning and distinctively local movement.
Photo Credit: All photos via PlantSFTags: DIY Urbanism
- September 9, 2010POSTED BY ED PARILLON
DIY Urbanism is a movement that arose in part from projects born out of the recession and resulting limited funds. But one project that has a more direct link than most is the San Francisco Arts Council's Art in Storefronts program. The economic downturn brought with it an uptick in empty storefronts, causing some harder-hit commercial strips to look blighted. Art in Storefronts seeks to counteract this by using art installations to enliven these vacant spaces. Efforts in the Mission, SOMA, the Tenderloin and Chinatown have been popular with merchants and pedestrians alike, and the SFAC has worked to make the installations into attractions in their own right, including publishing walking tour maps.
The Ms. Teriosa fortune-telling window in the Mission [Photo courtesy SFAC]
The recession has also hit other cities, of course, and many of these are trying similar approaches. In New York, groups like Chashama and No Longer Empty have worked to find vacant spaces for artists to display their work in the past, and now some commercial landlords are getting in on the act. A New York Times article profiled storefront art in Brooklyn:
"Any sort of activity is better than no activity," said Jed Walentas, a Brooklyn developer whose company, Two Trees Management, routinely lends space in Dumbo and Downtown Brooklyn for art projects. "As long as it's short enough and it's flexible, then there's no real cost. So the question is who can you find that's going to make an investment in a space with that level of uncertainty, and often it's the artist."
Meanwhile, in Southern California, Palm Springs undertook a similar effort last year to keep its shopping districts from looking too empty. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:
Eager to safeguard its image as an upscale tourist resort, Palm Springs is prescribing art therapy as a partial cure for downtown shops caught up in the economic doldrums.
The city is expected to adopt a plan requiring vacant stores to hang paintings, photographs of old Hollywood movie stars or come up with their own picturesque remedies to head off creeping blight in the city center.
"We have more vacant storefronts than we did in the past," said City Manager David Ready. "Many are transitioning or looking for new tenants. This program wouldn't cost the owner anything and would greatly improve the appearance of the buildings."
Local artists will be invited to showcase their work and the city will finance the installation.
Of course, while the economy will likely recover and many of these storefronts will once again become occupied, artists will still need opportunities to display their work. One hopes that this is one DIY Urbanism trend that outlasts the recession, and that even occupied stores will see some value in sharing space with the city's aspiring artists.
[Photo courtesy SFAC]
DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change, now on show at SPUR's Urban Center, features innovative "do-it-yourself" projects, providing a snapshot of this burgeoning and distinctively local movement.
- September 7, 2010BY ANIKA JESI
An Outdoor Living Room in Los Angeles [Image courtesy of ciclavia]
Improving an inner-city neighborhood without setting it up for gentrification could be as simple as placing a few wooden seats on the sidewalk. Or at least that's the premise of architect Steve Cancian's Outdoor Living Rooms, a project featured in SPUR's new show at the Urban Center, DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change (opening today! -- get your tickets here).
The project began as an exploration of the problem of gentrification in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Cancian knew that many of these areas drastically needed improvement, but doing so often resulted in overdevelopment, and subsequent displacement of the current residents. The usual solutions for revitalizing these areas, such as lining the streets with trees, only made the neighborhoods more attractive to potential gentrifiers. Was it possible to improve these areas without the side effect of gentrification?
What constitutes neighborhood improvement for inner-city residents is often different than what constitutes improvement in wealthier areas. In Cancian's case, the residents of the neighborhoods he catered to wanted a livelier street and a better place to socialize. Cancian found that this street culture had the effect of preventing gentrification. Places like West Oakland, where ocean views and Victorian houses made it a prime target for gentrification, had not yet become gentrified because the vibrant street culture tended to repel developers who favored quieter streets. In preserving this street culture, Cancian hoped gentrification would be discouraged. "We want to celebrate what the neighborhood is," says Cancian in an interview with LA Weekly. "For anyone whose goal is to change the neighborhood into something that excludes the current residents, we hope that living rooms will actually be a deterrent to them moving in."
The solution, then, was simple. Create an outdoor living room by putting unembellished, inexpensive outdoor furniture on inner-city streets. This would facilitate community development and improve the area in a way the residents wanted, but also maintain an active street culture that prevents these vibrant areas from turning into homogenized middle-class neighborhoods."¨
"Living rooms" are straightforward enough that a community can agree on their look and location, they can be built almost immediately, and they are inexpensive enough for a low-income neighborhood to afford. "What has kept them expanding is communities without resources," Cancian said in a New York Times interview. "A simple pocket park takes a half-million dollars and two to three years to build, while a living room takes as little as a month and between $5,000 and $15,000."
And so far, the living rooms seem to be serving their purpose. Not only have they slowed gentrification and sparked street life, but they have also helped to make the areas around them cleaner and less crime ridden. Residents of low-income neighborhoods are embracing them, pleased with the positive changes they've seen. As one resident of South L.A. says about her local outdoor living room "There was nothing before, just a lot of trash right here. It makes it look a little bit decent."
- September 3, 2010BY LIZA PRATT
SPUR's Park(ing) Day 2009 installation [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Park(ing) Day 2010 is just two weeks away. First celebrated in San Francisco in 2005, PARK(ing) Day has since become a global phenomenon. The annual event celebrates public space and street life by temporarily transforming parking spaces into public parks (or performance spaces, reading lounges—whatever you like!). It is also a great opportunity to test what a parklet on your street can do for your neighborhood or business.
Wish there was more outdoor seating in front of your favorite cafe?
Is there a place in your neighborhood you'd love to see a parklet?
Help spread the word about parklets by printing the Great Streets Project's easy How To Guide and encouraging your favorite business or institution to participate in Park(ing) Day.
Click here to watch Streetfilms' video from Park(ing) Day 2008 in New York City.
- September 1, 2010BY FABIANA MEACHAM
A prototype for a bike rack designed by David Baker + Partners [Photo Credit: David Baker]
Build pretzel-shaped steel tubes, bolt them to the sidewalk, and the cyclists will come. Or at least that seems to be the logic behind the newfound interest in bike rack design in cities throughout the country. I remember a time when parking your bike meant locking it to anything you might tie a dog to, but these days everyone seems to have an opinion on the right way to lock up your bike — and a lamp post or park bench just will not do.
San Francisco-based architect David Baker (whose elegant, pleasantly weathered bike rack prototype is featured in DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change -- opening next Tuesday!), provides an excellent primer on bike rack design and implementation. Who knew that round tubes were more susceptible to pipe cutters? Or that a standard U-rack can easily accommodate three bicycles? It would behoove city planning officials to consult this guide before potentially installing the wrong kinds of racks on their city streets.
But bike racks have become much more than just another place to park your bike. Following in the wake of widespread bike lane implementation in even the most car-centric of cities (like Indianapolis and Detroit), bike racks are an instantly recognizable symbol of a city government's commitment to promoting bicycle transportation. In recognition of the bike rack's symbolic potential, cities like New York and San Francisco have brought industrial designers and architects into the process, sponsoring bike rack design competitions. Even David Byrne has collaborated with the New York Department of Transportation to install his own whimsical designs — although he seems to be on such good terms with the DOT that his work managed to bypass the usual jury process.
American cities have a long way to go before we come close to approximating the volume and efficiency of bike storage in iconic cycling cities such as Amsterdam, but a standard curbside U-rack with a galvanized steel finish is a good place to start.
Bike storage in Amsterdam [Photo Credit: flickr user julia.simard]
Criteria for bike rack installation in San Francisco [Image courtesy of SFMTA]
- August 31, 2010BY FABIANA MEACHAM
A patch of greenery at Hayes Valley Farm [Photo Credit: Fabiana Meacham]
Situated on a former off-ramp to Highway 101, Hayes Valley Farm is a powerful symbol of a bottom-up transformation of neglected urban infrastructure. Planned according to permaculture design principles, which mimic the biological relationships found in naturally occurring ecosystems, the farm will serve as an exemplary model of this design philosophy.
Although the farm currently has only a two to five year interim use permit for the site, volunteers and staff have wasted no time creating a new kind of urban landmark for the Hayes Valley community. In addition to providing an opportunity for locals to learn about growing food, the farm offers a variety of workshops and classes, including yoga in the mornings.
The community response has been "overwhelming" according to Garden Educator Intern Dave McConville, with up to 2,000 volunteers (mostly drop-ins) participating within the last six months. He senses that "people are looking to get involved with solutions" and recognize "a need for change."
On a recent Sunday afternoon at Hayes Valley Farm, the picturesque Freeway Food Forest — a literal freeway of edible plants — could be found on the site of the former off-ramp, yellow lines still in tact. A small group of volunteers conversed quietly while working in the shade, a young man read a book on a pile of cardboard, and a passerby admired the unexpected sight of a farm in the middle of the city.
The Freeway Food Forest [Photo Credit: Fabiana Meacham]
A moment of repose [Photo Credit: Fabiana Meacham]
The farm thrives behind the chain-link fencing [Photo Credit: Fabiana Meacham]
Hayes Valley Farm is a featured project in DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change, opening Tuesday, September 7. Purchase tickets here.
The last installment of "Farming the City" profiled Alemany Farm.
- August 20, 2010BY FABIANA MEACHAM
Hayes Valley Farm extends to the very edge of a more traditional urban scene [Photo Credit: Fabiana Meacham]
Spend a few hours walking through any sector of the city and you will inevitably stumble upon a small patch of toiled earth, usually surrounded by chain-link fencing and accompanied by the all too familiar odor of manure. Urban farms have surfaced throughout the country in recent years -- in both major and not-so-major urban areas -- and San Francisco has been no exception. We now have a proposed legislation to loosen zoning restrictions on urban agriculture -- a measure that would profoundly affect small scale farms' capacity to do business.
The reasons for practicing urban farming are copious: a closer connection to food sources, reclamation of vacant land in blighted areas, education about healthy eating habits, a source of employment in hard economic times.
But for many city dwellers, urban agriculture remains a somewhat vague practice carried out by highly motivated individuals who have somehow found time to till, sow, weed and harvest small slivers of earth that have escaped the traditional urbanizing forces of cement and asphalt. For most of us, urban farms still don't play much of a role in defining the way we experience our cities and questions concerning the feasibility and longevity of urban farming still remain:
- What are the actual urban farming scenarios taking shape throughout the city and how did they come to be there?
- How do urban farms confront the task of growing food in areas that were never intended to support agriculture?
- To what extent can urban agriculture integrate itself into the urban landscape and way of life in the long-term?
- Is urban farming about more than just feeding people? What else is it about?
"Farming the City," a new blog series, will address these questions by highlighting the urban farms taking root in and around San Francisco, the people who run them and the particularities that define their role in the urban landscape.
This week we'll look at Alemany Farm, one of San Francisco's pioneering urban agriculture projects.
Alemany Farm occupies four and a half acres of land in southeastern San Francisco. Wedged between the Southern Freeway and the Alemany public housing development, the farm and its immediate surroundings reflect much that has gone wrong -- and the potential to do right -- in San Francisco's planning.
One of the City's early forays into urban agriculture, Alemany first came into use as a farm in 1994, when the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) received permission from the Recreation and Park Department to convert the site from a dumping ground to a community farm for residents of the Alemany and Potrero Housing Developments. Although SLUG eventually disbanded, the farm's commitment to community involvement persists. Today, a core group of 15-20 volunteers (with the occasional weekend influx of corporate community service groups) cultivates the land while maintaining a close relationship with the adjacent Alemany Housing Development, whose residents are eligible to receive a free CSA (community supported agriculture) share from the farm's harvest and have open access to the grounds at all times.
On a recent tour of the site led by dedicated volunteer Kom Siksamat, the farm boasted vegetable patches, a native plant garden, fruit trees, a bee colony, a frog pond, and an evolving terrace farm. Siksamat has led the effort to cultivate the steep slope comprising about one quarter of the farm's total land area, but the challenges of applying the ancient practice of terrace farming to the urban farm micro-scale have become apparent. (The Inca may have mastered terrace agriculture by constructing miles of irrigation channels in the Central Andes, but most urban farms can't count on the unflagging labor of thousands of devoted subjects to carry out such undertakings.) For now, much hand watering and heavy lifting is required. Siksamat hopes that a "hillside full of food" will one day become a mainstay at Alemany.
In many ways, Alemany perfectly embodies the non-profit model of urban farming: greening a slice of underutilized urban space, creating opportunities for the community to enjoy and learn from it, and thereby providing a new lens through which we might question our relationship to the surrounding urban environment. The existence of this thriving patch of land in the midst of such classic crimes of urban planning (the freeway cutting through the city, the alienated public housing project) implies that although we may not be able to completely dismantle such misguided urban mega-projects, we can at least ameliorate their negative impact through smaller scale interventions. Alemany Farm gives us a reason to visit this neglected part of the city, providing a rare opportunity to consider not just what went wrong there, but also marvel at everything that seems to be going right.
The Southern Freeway looms in the distance
A volunteer amidst an abundance of greenery
The terraced hillside
[Photo Credit: All photos by Fabiana Meacham]
On Saturday, August 28, SPUR's Young Urbanists will host Urban farming 101 at Alemany Farm at 11:30 a.m. Participants will have the opportunity to practice skills learned in the workshop from 1-3 p.m
Urban farms play a central role in SPUR's upcoming exhibition, DIY Urbanism: Testing the Grounds for Social Change, opening September 7.
- August 16, 2010BY ELIZABETH HOLDEN
[Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Through an interactive market system of live music, produce booths and youth art projects, the Mission Community Market (MCM) activates an underutilized block at the intersection of 22nd and Bartlett Streets. It also brings diverse walks of life together on one block every Thursday from 4 to 7p.m. Chance encounters with fellow pedestrians carrying sunflowers or succulent produce are the only signs of the Market on Thursdays, making it a delicious find.
San Francisco artist Chris Treggiari of Root Division led a mural project on the first Thursday market. Looking around the space, he commented that it had "a lot of potential." "Look at that empty wall over there - it could be a great place to have a mural for a youth arts class. I am excited for what this market can be." The mural Chris helped facilitate that first Thursday addressed urban themes and provided an opportunity for all community members to participate in a common art project.
Organizers of the Mission Community Market have transformed an underutilized block of Bartlett Street into a thriving weekly market, where vendors sell their goods while kids play in the street after school. Jeremy Shaw, chief organizer of the market, hoped that the first market would attract enough people for it to gain traction. "The point is to create choice for healthy foods," said Shaw, and "use it as an economic development engine where we create booths and stalls for Mission-based and local emerging businesses." This market will provide a community space and promote local buying by stationing itself on a central block in the Mission District.
In addition to partnering with the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), the MCM will work with La Cocina, a non-profit in the Mission that helps street food vendors by offering an industrial kitchen and classes for enrichment. Entrepreneurs from La Cocina sell their prepared foods at the events alongside non-food crafts from local businesses working with the Mission Small Business Association (MiSBA). "The food part is the anchor," said Shaw. "People come to buy food, and that's how we support these other community programs."
Potential was what this first farmers market was all about.
In preparation for our upcoming exhibit, DIY Urbanism: Testing grounds for social change, (opening Tuesday, September 7), the SPUR Blog will feature local and international urban projects that embody the "DIY" mentality. Check back for more DIY Urbanism features in the coming weeks.Tags: DIY Urbanism
- July 14, 2010BY JON ROGERS
Determined to see changes occur in their neighborhoods despite tight city budgets, many DIY Urbanists are taking matters into their own hands. They are rolling up their sleeves to make improvements to their built environment by planning, designing, and implementing projects. Because DIY Urbanism projects are conceived by individuals and implemented on tight budgets, innovation and creativity are key ingredients in any DIY project. As a result, DIY Urbanism projects are as diverse as the people who implement them. Projects can run the gambit from short to long-term endeavors, and can include anything from greening and beautification of public spaces to temporary improvements to stalled construction projects.
Aside from jumpstarting an otherwise stalled project, DIY Urbanism offers several other benefits, not least of which is empowering individuals to make a positive difference in their communities. In direct contrast to typical "top-down" approaches to planning, DIY Urbanism's "bottom-up" approach requires that individuals actively partake in shaping the city around them. This, in turn, strengthens the connection between individuals and their surroundings, and can even lead to a more engaged citizenry.
Featured Project: Life in the Fast Lane
Not all DIY Urbanism projects have to serve a particular goal such as beautification, public safety, or information sharing. Check out this example (sponsored by Volkswagen) from Berlin, to see what happens when a little piece of the playground is brought to a subway station. This whimsical project is a friendly reminder to have fun and shows us that a small DIY project that re-imagines a conventional environment can add a little joy to our everyday lives.
In preparation for our upcoming exhibit, DIY Urbanism: Testing grounds for social change, the blog will feature urban projects from around the world that embody the "DIY" mentality. Check back for more DIY Urbanism features in the coming weeks.