Who are the people and organizations working to create and revitalize open space available for the rest of us?

It takes a daring person to experiment in the public realm. The game SimCity has it all figured out, though. In order to attract people to live in a certain area within a virtual city, players have to increase the desirability of their land by adding parks, plazas, and landmarks.

It’s a balance between building additional infrastructure and more green space—a compromise between utilitarian land and enjoyable though seemingly “useless” expanses.

In real life, this is where professional disruptors come into play: The folks with enough guts to work for more beauty and publicly accessible zones. Who are these people and organizations, and what are they doing to make life and cities better, greener, and more open to all of us?

Pioneers in public space

So-called Guerilla Gardeners were some of the first activists, starting in the 1970s, to break the law for the sake of urbanism, making abandoned or forgotten (sometimes private land) more welcoming for everyone. Guerrillas usually operate at night, arriving with plants and flowers and arranging them before the sun rises.

Guerilla Gardening
Guerilla Gardening in London

Building a Better Block

Other urban warriors are standing up for their own neighborhoods. Jason Roberts decided to willfully break a set of 80-year-old laws preventing any sort of public activity along his low-key Dallas neighborhood’s curbs. No terraces, no market stands, no bicycle lanes, no nothing. Just cars and pavement.

He started organizing days dedicated to breaking all of those laws on the streets of his neighborhood, and eventually local government started paying attention and loosening restrictions.

Roberts went on to create the non-profit The Better Block to support other grass roots efforts to increase public space for community.

In Seattle, the Alley network project transforms small, underutilized, dark alleys around the city into art galleries—without permission—for pedestrians and art lovers to enjoy.

Moving on up

Inspired by bottom-up initiatives, Boston’s mayor Martin J. Walsh created the Public Space Invitational, a competition aimed at re-thinking small public spaces with the help of the many creative people of Beantown.

So far, ideas have included a portable and mobile library, an interactive music device affected by the tides (called tidraphone), and a permanent videoconference to another city in the world, where people can hang out and talk with random strangers.

Rhodes Project
Description of the Rhodes Project, connecting 2 cities through a permanent video conference.

This takes us to San Francisco

In the city of the Golden Gate, the latest in urban creativity are Living Innovation Zones (LIZs), a city-led initiative from the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation and the San Francisco Planning Department.

These temporary, flexible public spaces mix art and science for everyone on the city’s busy Market Street to interact with. The first project emerged near Powell St. and is a collaboration between the Exploratorium and the City. The Installation looks like a wooden ribcage with two huge concrete sound “dishes” facing each other, allowing two people to communicate from afar.

Liz in SF

Many more LIZs are planned to open in the near future, improving the quality and experience of the public space on Market Street.

Park it here

One of the most famous San Francisco creations in the public domain is the Parklet.

Invented by John Rebar back in 2005 when he decided to put a few chairs and some plants in a parking space while topping up the parking meter, today 46 permanent parklets have been installed throughout the city along with seven mobile parklets on wheels.

The program is now completely coordinated by the City of San Francisco, which recognizes its importance for the public good and decided to make it a full-fledged and operational urban innovation program.

A Parklet of our own

This fall, swissnex is building a Parklet in front of our office at 730 Montgomery Street. An extension of our space that reflects our interdisciplinary vision of the world and bringing people together to build new ideas, we look forward to sharing this Parklet with the vibrant people and culture of San Francisco. Stay tuned for the announcement about the grand opening!

For more on urban experimentation through design and architecture, check out the urban design seminar we are co-organizing with ETH Zurich’s Urban Think Tank.

Come join several evening public lectures on urban spaces, their impact and their future by leading experts in the field.