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GOOD Design SF: Solving City Problems, Creatively

Last Wednesday, about 200 of San Francisco's most active and engaged citizens gathered at SPUR's new Urban Center for GOOD Design SF, one of the...

Last Wednesday, about 200 of San Francisco's most active and engaged citizens gathered at SPUR's new Urban Center for GOOD Design SF, one of the final events held as part of AIA SF's month-long Architecture and the City festival. I was lucky enough to moderate the evening, where six teams of designers presented solutions to six urban problems, proposed by representatives of local government, business, and media, who were also in attendance.

This was the fourth GOOD Design event we've held and I have to say, they just keep getting better. This one positively sparkled with excitement and possibility. "Programs like GOOD Design San Francisco advocate for good, quality design in the best possible way," Erin Cullerton, assistant director of AIA SF told me. "By creating an ideas-generating space for designers and civic leaders to come together, the program allowed for the precise collective sharing of talents and expertise that will be necessary to rethink the future of our cities." We couldn't agree more. Here's a quick recap of all six presentations and some more thoughts from the organizers.

E.B. Min of architecture firm Min Day kicked off the evening with a challenge filed by Monique Moyer from the Port of San Francisco. The flat, boundary-less paths along the city's Embarcadero are not ideal for sharing when it comes to the various recreants moving at different speeds, including bikers, walkers, runners, skateboarders, and rollerbladers. The task was not only to make recreational movement safer along the waterfronts, but to improve the relationship with the water. Min hoped their design could slow people down, noting that the original use of the area was a promenade, made for "promenading"-moving slowly along the water, focused on views, not exercise. In this light, the freeway-like space would be divided up into colorful and iconic "lanes" for different speeds of motion. But the best part was the addition of all sorts of objects of interest that would slow people down as well, like planters with interesting flora, large benches, and these really fun, oversized speed humps that could double as play areas for kids. Moyer said that the very first goal for the space-safety-could definitely be addressed with the lanes and color-coding.

Surface Design's landscape architects James Lord, Roderick Wyllie, and Geoff di Girolamo tackled a part of the waterfront that bordered Min Day's challenge zone, the exteriors of the Ferry Building. The problem, submitted by Chris Meany from developer Wilson Meany Sullivan, who handles the Ferry Building, was to take this often vacant pier behind the vibrant, foodie paradise and transform it into a destination that produced revenue and had a better relationship with the water. Quite the tall order. They committed to creating a 21st century "agora." Giant planters ringing the pier would create seating and shade without blocking water views, and a brilliant concept for bringing "floating gardens" (à la Amsterdam's flower farms) would create another level of engagement. To draw revenue to the area, kiosks would create a bustling marketplace and give a local buzz to the area, which would also be programmed with cultural events. Meany seemed to agree that the flexibility of the space was what made their proposal powerful, but he crushed our dreams of the Floating Gardens of San Francisco when he mentioned that one would be exceptionally tough to pass through the proper city channels.

Mike and Maaike-the husband and wife industrial design team Mike Simonian and Maaike Evers-took their orders from Michael Cohen at the City of San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Just the mention of their area of focus-"Broadway"-was greeted with giggles from the crowd, who were familiar with the street populated by strip clubs, adult bookstores, and, at night, lots and lots of neon. Their challenge was to reinvent the strip as a vibrant commercial corridor for the city-one that people weren't inclined to avoid day or night. Mike and Maaike committed to making the street more fun for pedestrians, starting with bumping out the sidewalks and transforming one of the steepest side streets into a Spanish Steps-esque plaza that nodded to the area's Little Italy. (This was a powerful idea that I could definitely see happening on San Francisco's hills.) Another central idea was their "Signs of Good Fortune," an installation that would run along the former waterfront border, which greeted the Gold Rush-crazy first residents of the city, all the way to Chinatown. To embrace the neighborhood's Vegas-quality signage, the fortunes would appear in the form of giant neon signs that illuminate when stepped, biked, or driven over. These included Jack Kerouac quotes co-opted from the nearby City Lights Bookstore (like "Try not to get drunk outside yr own house"). Cohen-an admitted neon freak-loved the idea both for its cultural appropriateness and its aesthetic excitement, noting that all of it was totally doable. They reported that they've set up a follow-up meeting to discuss this in more detail.

Kuth Ranieri's Byron Kuth and Liz Ranieri took a challenge submitted by Carlos Garcia of the San Francisco United School District, which was to relocate a school to the Civic Center, and changed it slightly to address the needs of all San Francisco schools. By using Willie Brown Jr. Academy, a junior high located in the Bayview neighborhood, they offered a scalable case study that could help to make schools more valuable for their neighborhoods. The designers offered a sobering array of facts about the massive scale that these schools operate on-the solid waste produced in a year could fill 166 semi trucks-and how, because of "family flight" from the city, enrollment is way, way, down: almost half of what it was in the 1960s. Adding to troubles was the school-choice system that sends students to schools far from their homes. The designers realized that the key to improving schools was to enlist community involvement. To do that, the schools needed to be more open for local residents. They began with a very basic and sustainable structure for a new school that didn't have the bunker-like qualities typical of many schools. And they added programs like daycare, food banks, community gardens, a farmer's market, even a dental clinic. Garcia mentioned that the schools were already very open to ideas like this (some already have dental clinics and adult education centers), but transforming a school into a highly-visible landmark like this would truly be the key.

Stamen's Shawn Allen and his client Tim Papandreou from San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency were charged with designing a better citywide bicycle parking system. Allen described the challenge as a chicken-and-egg scenario: Cyclists need better bike parking to feel comfortable riding and leaving their bikes, but the city won't build more until there's more demand for it. After reviewing some current solutions (taking over one parking space makes parking for 30 bikes) and creating some maps showing where cyclists were most likely to lock up (the data crunching that Stamen is famous for), Allen concluded that more parking was needed, and lots of it. But a better solution? Devalue the bike. Make cheap, forgettable, lose-able bikes the standard, and drop a fleet of "junker bikes" into the city. Both men were cyclists-Papandreou lamented that his front wheel had been stolen recently-and they both understood how hard it was to feel good about leaving their pretty bikes strapped to a lightpost. While Papandreou acknowledged that the city was fighting hard to wrestle parking spaces from cars, he said it has been incredibly challenging. And while the MTA couldn't approve a fleet of junker bikes, he wouldn't be opposed to seeing a renegade art project just happen to leave a bunch on the streets of San Francisco.

Finally, Volume, Inc.'s partners Eric Heiman and Adam Brodsley gave a rousing and quite entertaining solution to a problem submitted by Zahid Sardar, author, design editor, and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The problem, to put it simply: those freakin' bins. Even though San Francisco has a progressive residential recycling program, the disposal system-those freakin' bins-are based on an old trash-collecting model that doesn't reward residents for having less waste. The solution? Not a fancier bin. How about no more waste pickup? None! Instead, the designers proposed a new system: Bin There Done That. Community recycling, composting, and minimal waste collection would be done at sites within walking distance to residents, who will get credits-per-pound of compost, and lose points per pounds of trash. To further cut down on waste, each resident would get a kit of reusable bottles and containers they could take to the store, and the city would give incentives to stores who cut out packaging in favor of these refillable alternatives. This proposal turned the whole trash paradigm on its ear, as the room nodded, imagining a city more responsible and accountable for its actions, where recycling and composting almost became a game.

As the Q&A ended and attendees filtered out into the lobby for wine and more conversation, there was a strong buzz in the room. "The fact that all of the designers respun these 'problems' into opportunities speaks to their industrious nature-where every example of how something's been done before is only a chance to do it better," said Julie Kim, SPUR's public engagement director. "And I think the city leaders all showed great enthusiasm, even for the ideas that were wacky and out there-in a good way. It's good to help break down that public perception that city leaders are resistant to new ideas."

The biggest question for designers and attendees was how to keep this momentum going, and this was one place where the city leaders had the answer: Get involved. Go to meetings and hearings sponsored by groups like the school district and MTA, meet your city council members, find those grassroots causes that need help and then use your skills as designers to bring them to the city's attention by making them accessible, understandable, and shareable for the public, which is certainly what the design teams did for the enthusiastic audience here. We can't wait to follow the progress of these six fruitful collaborations, and we'll be sure to keep you posted.

More coverage of GOOD Design SF at Fast Company, Curbed SF, Inhabitat, and Planning 4 Change.

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