‘Knight Cities’ podcast: Prototype Festival hacks traditional methods of city planning

communities / Article

Joy. Play. Whimsy. Those are words not often used to describe city planning and the associated public engagement it usually requires.

But with its Market Street Prototyping Festival, San Francisco inverted the traditional planning model and turned its main street into a canvas for testing ideas submitted by citizens.

Knight Cities podcast

The result, on display for three days in early April, was a collection of 52 passion projects up and down Market Street that the public could experience and play with.

Neil Hrushowy, program director with the City Design Group, led the effort for the City and County of San Francisco Planning Department.

Here are five things you should know about my conversation with Neil.

1. The traditional planning format of hosting community workshops with 30 to 40 people at the neighborhood level isn’t reaching people who live, work and own businesses in the neighborhood. The same people show up and don’t offer a lot of new ideas. Clearly, the traditional way we have attempted to engage the community is not reaching people who live, work and own businesses in the neighborhood.

2. We have a huge moral responsibility as public servants to engage much more democratically with people for whom the street matters so much. We have to find new ways to engage people, methods that are more democratic, engage more people and engage them where they are (versus in a community meeting on a Friday night).

3. In San Francisco, we saw an opportunity to invert the traditional planning model where government sits at the top, asks the questions, decides what answers it brings forward, and then builds it. The new model, demonstrated with the Market Street Prototyping Festival, puts government in the role of saying, “Here’s a canvas. The canvas is Market Street. Tell us what matters most to you and how you most want to see the place enlivened, and we will provide you the tools to make that happen.” Then everyone who uses the street can tell us how well it works.

4. The power of doing is to show that democratized planning is not nearly so threatening. In the case of the Market Street Prototyping Festival, you could see the results, and the public’s response was overwhelmingly positive.

5. The Market Street Prototyping Festival needs an arts organization like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as a partner. The center’s understanding of the creative process and putting creative work in front of the public was critical. It was a partnership of governance for the public good.

Listen to my conversation with Neil here. And sign up for the “Knight Cities” newsletter to get alerts as soon as new conversations are posted.

Look for new “Knight Cities” content posted every Wednesday. You can follow us on Twitter at #knightcities or @knightfdn. And if you have ideas for people you’d like to hear from, please email me.

Carol Coletta is vice president of community and national initiatives at Knight Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @ccoletta.

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