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GOOD Ideas for Cities: In San Francisco, City Officials and Designers Are Like Peas and Carrots

After working with GOOD to produce three events pairing local designers with city officials, a group in San Francisco is expanding the program.

As GOOD Ideas for Cities continues its international quest to encourage and tease out fascinating design solutions to urban problems, the program has established itself as a unique model that initiates viable, meaningful change. For the past three years, the team has worked with a group in San Francisco on three events dubbed GOOD Design. Now that San Francisco-based group headed by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has taken the GOOD Ideas for Cities concept and run with it, producing their own spin on the initiative that goes beyond a single annual event.


On Thursday, September 27, AIA SF will host a public party that closes the Architecture in the City Festival, the largest architecture festival in the U.S. that draws 15,000 people to about 48 events. The design community will present solutions to three of the city's most pressing issues. Citywide wayfinding systems, unsafe public spaces and bicycle safety are all addressed in this round of presentations, which has paired the city's brightest designers with local officials and community leaders. A full-length video of last year's event can be seen here.

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This year's event is just the tip of the iceberg. "We've just applied for an NEA grant to do another five challenges next year, so we're just crossing our fingers," says Margie O'Driscoll, executive director of the AIA SF chapter and long-time city activist. Having overseen five projects inspired by GOOD Ideas for Cities, O'Driscoll is hooked on the energy and possibility of identifying urban challenges. "I'll just start talking to people and say 'What's on your mind?' or 'What's keeping you up at night?'"

Sometimes, the challenge simply presents itself to O'Driscoll, as is the case for a recent challenge on earthquake preparedness. "It came from a public meeting where, when asked how many people have an earthquake preparedness kit, only about 10% of the audience raised their hands." In a city where earthquakes are a very real threat, O'Driscoll new she had to do something.


"We hired a group called Lunar which is a product manufacturer for companies like Apple and Samsung, to think about how we could get more San Franciscans prepared for the next earthquake," says O'Driscoll. Lunar's research revealed the least earthquake-prepared demographic was working professionals, ages 25 to 35.

"Working with the Department of Emergency Management, Lunar developed a sort of hipster disaster kit, featuring all sorts of local products," explains O'Driscoll. "The Department of Emergency Management was wary about the project, and wanted a soft release before they went public. But once they saw the idea, they fell in love with it." The kits have received national attention from the likes of FEMA, who is currently looking at ways to get the kits manufactured.

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The projects to be presented at the party on September 27 highlight the vast ills that can affect urban environments, and how each can benefit from a creative rethinking. The wayfinding experts of international design firm Gensler tackled how to create a much more easily navigable city for tourists and residents. "It's hard to believe, but not everyone has an iPhone and Google maps," O'Driscoll points out. "How do we help all those other people?"

Another project takes on a space underneath San Francisco's Central Freeway. "It's about as scary of a Mad Max movie as you could possibly imagine," says O'Driscoll, who reached out to the Bay Area Young Architects to figure out how to improve the area. Lastly, when San Francisco hosts America's Cup this year, the mayor's primary strategy for dealing with an influx of thousands of people is primarily by placing an emphasis on transportation by bike. Working with SF Bike Coalition, landscape architecture practice Bionic took on the challenge of redesigning the city's famed Polk Street to safely mediate pedestrians, bikes and cars.

Ideas from past events have already made their way towards reality. Several concepts from a 2010 challenge to help make Silicon Valley's transit system more appealing to its tech industry workers were recently implemented as part of a pilot project. Kevin Connolly, a planner for the transit authority, said that working with the designers helped him to demonstrate and visualize to his staff how their local bus service was out of touch with consumers.

When pairing together a design firm with a city official or organization, O'Driscoll takes her time. "I spend a lot of time thinking of who's the right match. I have to make sure the firm has both the capacity and bandwidth to work with people who don't necessarily speak design-speak," she says. Working with city employees can be tough, especially when we're all stuck in our own little worlds. "They aren't incentivized to take on these projects, so it's our chance to let them see what design thinking can do."

As she holds out for funding from the NEA, O'Driscoll stays positive but realistic. "I don't go into it with the expectation that every challenge is going to reach production," she says. "I try to set it up so that the challenge seems doable, and that the design team involved is not going to come up with a completely esoteric solution. Because the one thing in city government or non-profits that people don't have time for is an intellectual exercise."

"We're really lucky here," explains O'Driscoll. Architecture for Humanity is based here, Public Architecture is based here. They can thrive here because people here expect a level of social responsibility." With so much local passion for citywide improvement, O'Driscoll know that San Francisco is a perfect place to keep the GOOD Ideas for Cities initiative rolling. With so much potential, the real motivation comes from making these projects a reality. "Having the joy of seeing them happen? How great is that?" says O'Driscoll. "Making your city a better place for everyone to live? That's pretty terrific."

This year's GOOD Design event is Thursday, September 27 in San Francisco. Learn more and purchase tickets here.

Top image: Brent Bucknum of Hyphae Design speaks at last year's GOOD Design SF event. Photo courtesy swissnex

GOOD Ideas for Cities pairs creative problem-solvers with real urban challenges proposed by civic leaders. To learn more visit good.is/ideasforcities. Watch more videos of recent GOOD Ideas for Cities events, and if you'd like to talk about bringing the program to your city or school, email alissa[at]goodinc[dot]com or follow us at @IdeasforCities

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