Makers on Market: Lessons from San Francisco’s Market Street Prototyping Festival

Author Gehl

This resource from Gehl reports lessons from the 2015 Prototyping Festival in San Francisco. The festival aimed to enhance community, capacity, and connection through experimenting with temporary activity and interactive instalments, taking into account the views of multiple place stakeholders. The festival helped to enhance diversity, vitality, and dwell time. Although based on San Francisco, the project provides lessons for how other places could similarly reanimate public life and public space, and measure the impact of such placemaking initiatives.

Date added 5 October 2021
Last updated 5 October 2021

The 2015 Prototyping Festival in San Francisco formed part of the broader Better Market Street project to transform the area into a destination in itself, rather than just a travel corridor. It was a collaborative project between the San Francisco Planning Department, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and included engagement with local communities, with funding provided by the Knight Foundation, amongst others. It introduced the idea of a Street Life Zone – a multi-use area on the existing street encouraging diversity, activity, and place identity. The key goals of the placemaking initiative were:

  1. Community- reimagining and activating the street through community engagement.
  2. Capacity- linking designers to a professional network and building knowledge of effective community engagement.
  3. Connection- designing public spaces to encourage lingering, socialisation, and place identity.

The temporary festival involved a process of ‘prototyping’, whereby a range of stakeholders are involved in “generating many potential solutions to a physical design challenge in a temporary setting” which can “show the public the many potential ways that a public space can be transformed, and lets them experience those possibilities in real life” (p. 9). Examples of the prototypes experimented with during the festival, generated through community engagement, includes cultural programming (e.g. art, music, lectures), a climbing wall, selfie booth, ping-pong tournament, wildlife habitat, and creative seating, amongst others.

The festival was evaluated in five key areas by Gehl through engagement records, social media analysis, online and intercept surveys, observations, in-depth interviews, photo surveys, and prototype evaluation, with key insights summarised below which other places could learn from to reanimate public life and public spaces:

1. A street for people

  • Instagram posts increased by 38%.
  • Lingering increased on average by 176% at weekends and 55% on weekdays.
  • 30% more people on average walked down the street.

2. Engaged communities

  • Community cohorts formed for each district, with opportunities to co-create the designs.
  • Online tools used for local citizens to provide feedback on favourite prototypes.
  • 73% of those surveyed encountered the festival by chance.

 3. Shared civic spaces

  • 65% of those surveyed on average interacted with somebody new, though this differed by ethnicity.
  • Increased presence of younger (40%+) and older populations (25%+) on the street.
  • Many of the prototypes encouraged community interaction.

4. Opportunity and access

  • Brought new services and activities to the street not always otherwise accessible to all (e.g. education, play, and exercise).
  • Helped to restore historic centre of the city as a civic commons.
  • Brought necessary resources to where people are.

 5. Building capacity

  • Helped multiple stakeholders to work together in new ways.
  • Created a platform for building skills, networks, and efficiencies between groups.
  • More scope identified to further include non-professionals to get involved with street design in future.