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Urban Wander: Curating a City's Hidden Public Spaces

As a San Francisco native and resident, I’ve accumulated a long list of local spots to share with visiting friends and family. These public...

As a San Francisco native and resident, I’ve accumulated a long list of local spots to share with visiting friends and family. These public spaces provide a more vibrant city experience and make up the authentic fabric of San Francisco (sorry, Pier 39!). Everyone has their own favorite hidden spots throughout the city that might include stairwells, parklets, murals, slides, and POPOS.

POPOS (Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces) are scattered across the center of San Francisco—almost seventy semi-secret spaces. A deal between the city’s development agency and developers in the 1980s created a boom of these public spaces. POPOS include terraces, gardens, and plazas. They are often poorly indicated and, as a result, under-frequented. How can we use technology to draw attention to these hidden urban oases?

With this spirit of discovery in mind, the Urban Wander project began. Our team wanted an effective and fun way to curate these beloved secret spaces. We also wanted to use technology to enhance the experience and subvert and take back public space.

We started by workshopping the idea to the Urban Tech SF Meetup group. Enthusiastic urbanites mapped out their favorite off-the-beaten-track spots in San Francisco and then led the audience on a verbal walkabout. Details of amenities such as local art spaces, cafes and best times to visit were noted. We wanted to design for those users who may be returning visitors to San Francisco, seeking a deeper experience of the city—or for locals who may want to find a new place to eat lunch.

Building upon the dataset of spaces from recommendations and open data sets from the city of San Francisco, the Urban Wander team took to the streets and did several exploratory field trips. What were these spaces like during the middle of the day compared to the evening? Who might best enjoy these spaces? What activities are most suitable? Our approach was to not simply produce a list, but to create a curated set of urban adventures. Let’s Get Physical routes the heart pumping stairwells around Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, Beautiful Views maps bird’s eye terraces and garden rootops atop city skyscrapers, and Kids' Corner highlights playgrounds and open green spaces.

Advancements in mapping technologies like geofencing and geotriggers were an exciting addition to the toolbox. More obscure urban spots, such as the rooftop garden at Westfield Mall, are accessed through a series of confusing elevators. Geotriggers will provide clear instructions. Users will also have the ability to provide ratings and feedback about their experiences. In future versions, the application will allow users to schedule and host events in these locations.

Urban Wander has just launched the responsive desktop version of the site that includes four fun city routes. The IOS app is currently in alpha, with a download available soon. Stay tuned. We also plan to scale the application to other cities—open spaces can be enjoyed by people throughout the United States and world. Let’s enable residents and tourists in other cities to reap the value of urban exploration.

This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Take a Staycation. Follow along and join the conversation at and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.

Images courtesy of Lou Huang

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