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Designing Streets for People, Not Just Cars

In San Francisco, three pedestrians are hit by vehicles every day. Our streets should be designed to be safer than this, and we think in the process they can also become viable public spaces that enrich our urban experience. In this project for Walk San Francisco, inspired by a GOOD Design challenge from Center for Architecture and Design, we wanted to transform everyday infrastructure to achieve both of these goals.

What if the street itself could be considered a kind of undiscovered public space—a park, even—that rewards and enhances living in higher density urban areas? Streets can be both connective tissue and destinations in themselves, rather than just spaces we pass through on the way somewhere else. With these lofty ideals in mind, we initially struggled when Walk San Francisco asked us to reconsider the mundane curb extension. (A curb extension widens the sidewalk at crosswalks to place pedestrians in a more prominent location—protruding into what is considered the zone of the street. The overall intent is to make pedestrians more visible to drivers).

Our first thought was that the curb extension should be modified to protect the pedestrian it places in a more vulnerable position. This protective buffer could also host planters and benches to support a new public space created at intersections. We also realized that if it is built along a series of intersections, this everyday infrastructural element could sponsor an extended network that unified the street experience for pedestrians, created green connections to local parks and gave meaning and expression to the local community.

As a test case, we selected six blocks of Divisadero Street between Oak and Fulton. We chose Divisadero because it is an evolving, active pedestrian street with challenging traffic and, importantly, median strips. Not far away are the Panhandle and Alamo Square, two parks that this network could link to invigorate and soften the Divisadero corridor. In the larger context of the city, this network could develop at major streets and extend out to make green connections to parks.

Along a path, each intersection has curb extensions, and the curbs rise up to create ridges to protect pedestrians, while providing planters and benches for the public space. A hatched crosswalk extends into the street to signal that it's a place for both cars and pedestrians. The median strip is integrated to create a physical link down the street to the next intersection, and a continuous planting strategy links the streets to adjacent parks. Planters at corners and median strips are managed as community gardens, fostering diversity and local ownership of the streetscape.

All this variation can be achieved by developing a limited infrastructural 'kit-of-parts' that can be deployed as the occasion requires.

This project starts by looking at something we rarely see—the humble curb—and asks it to do more. Specifically, how we might introduce natural forms into infrastructure to make a safe public space which is both communal and non-commercial, a more livable city?

Images courtesy of Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects.

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