San Francisco’s Public Space Revolution

Plazas and Parklets. Night markets and makers. Prototyping and innovation. If you’ve walked around San Francisco recently, you’ve felt it. San Francisco is experiencing a public space revolution.

Since 2008, SF Planning, SF Public Works, OEWD and the SFMTA have created dozens of new public spaces with local community groups, small businesses and neighborhood residents. With the Mayor’s 2014 SF Plaza Program, San Franciscans now, more than ever, can utilize best practices and guidance from experts in making public spaces successful. Along with the print Public Space Stewardship Guide document, this website begins to fill that need. It provides community organizations and City decision makers with models, case studies and ready-to-use tools for funding, programming and maintaining a successful public space.

Evolving & Emerging Public Spaces

In a city, public space is everywhere. It’s where we gather and find amusement, as well as rest, learn, and express ourselves. Our basic public space archetypes – streets, plazas, and parks – are found throughout time and exist in all cities and cultures. But, public spaces are not static.  They evolve and respond to the dynamism of city life. We must therefore design them to adapt to and support the communities they serve.

San Francisco is a leader in the development of unique public spaces. In the past decade, new methods and policies for creating the city’s “outdoor living rooms” have begun to flourish. We see this in the range of community partnerships and public spaces emerging across the city. The following are just four public space programs the City of San Francisco and its community partners have created and implemented since 2008.


As a result of more interest in pedestrian safety, pedestrian and bicycle access, and public life, San Francisco has had opportunities to rethink how streets – the majority of the city’s public space – function. One response can be seen in the city’s parklets – small public spaces designed in the parking zone adjacent to sidewalks with high volumes of pedestrian traffic. Parklets were inspired by the San Francisco-based art and design collective Rebar in 2005. In their initial installation, Rebar put coins in a downtown parking meter not to park a car, but to create a temporary, miniature park from sod, a tree, and a bench. Today, more than 55 parklets have been installed throughout San Francisco’s neighborhoods through the Pavement to Parks (P2P) program. Typically sponsored by local businesses or Community Benefit Districts (CBDs), parklets re-purpose one to three parking spots, creating new public spaces for people to rest, eat, and enjoy the city’s social life (check out the map on the Pavement to Parks website). San Francisco’s parklets have inspired dozens of cities globally to replace car parking with people spaces and have been shown to benefit local businesses.


In a dense city like San Francisco, opportunities for new public space can seem limited. However, many opportunity sites are hidden in plain view.  Both the San Francisco P2P program and the Mayor’s SF Plaza Program are breathing new life into San Francisco’s streets, plazas and public spaces.

Since 2008, the San Francisco P2P program has created temporary, pilot plazas out of “excess asphalt,” dead-end streets, over-designed intersections, and other unused right-of-way. P2P provides a framework to re-imagine excess rights-of-way through pilot plazas, such as Jane Warner Plaza, Annie Street Plaza, and San Jose-Guerrero Plaza. Through the P2P framework, plazas typically begin with an experimental phase using week-long and low-cost “demonstration” closures in unused portions of the street. Successful experiments are then temporarily closed for a year or more. Based on community feedback throughout the pilot phase, a number of plazas are now transitioning to permanent status and capital upgrades. New plaza locations are also being discussed for the future.

In 2014, the Mayor’s SF Plaza program created a streamlined process for community members to activate public spaces – not just in the street right-of-way, but also in aging plazas and brand new public spaces. The Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) partnered with the Real Estate Department, SF Planning, and Public Works to launch the program. Under the new program, community groups can more easily create, maintain and activate community spaces with art and music events, farmers’ markets, movie nights, local food and more. The Mayor’s SF Plaza Program provides a long-term “home” for successful pilot plazas and other projects created through Pavement to Parks, Invest in Neighborhoods, and development projects. By supporting community stewardship of neighborhood open space,  the program leverages grassroots and community ties to create more innovative, sustainable and livable plazas.


In the fall of 2013, the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and the San Francisco Planning Department partnered to create The Living Innovation Zone (LIZ) Program. The program seeks to invigorate San Francisco’s streets by creating “Living Innovation Zones” – venues for innovation, connection and play in public outdoor places.

The LIZ program streamlines innovation, art and design in San Francisco public spaces. The program provides real-world settings for inventors and artists to test new ideas, evaluate next generation technologies, and engage the public about urban challenges. In doing so, LIZ aims to steer San Francisco’s tech and creative communities toward sustainable community development, efficient government and a better quality of life for all San Franciscans.

The first LIZ , a temporary installation on Market Street, is composed of two elements: (1) a pair of large parabolic “whispering dishes” which amplify a person’s voice, making it audible to the person sitting in the opposite dish 50 feet away, and (2) a “singing bench” that plays music when people complete a circuit by touching the bench’s armrests. The LIZ program website states that over 20,000 pedestrians pass by the installation every day. Initial anecdotal reports from nearby businesses (such as the MOMA Store, The Coffee Bean and Bluestem Brasserie) indicate that the installation has become an important neighborhood “icon” and has increased foot traffic in the area.


The Market Street Prototyping Festival could be considered the most recent development in San Francisco’s public space revolution. The Festival engaged residents, designers, and community organizations in coming up with great ideas for Market Street to inform long range plans as part of the Better Market Street capital improvements project. For three days in April 2015, Market Street was transformed into a platform for 50 design teams to showcase exceptional ideas for improving San Francisco’s main thoroughfare.