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Imagining the Cities We Want

What is a city people want? Let’s begin with the basics: health, housing, justice and jobs. Dignity starts there. Transit that’s cheap and streets free from congestion. Add to this beauty, clean air, water and land, community and public commons where we meet each other and talk about building this ideal city.

In the Bay Area, our cities struggle to meet the basics. It’s hard to imagine imagining more when the foundations of dignity go missing. The statistics locally prove it (as we have written), and nationally, as George Packer has chronicled in The Unwinding, the wave began crashing years ago.

A full house at SPUR gathered to imagine “Making Cities People Want,” a discussion of how “to create magnetic urban centers that support economic integration as well as civic engagement.” The panel’s premise: the space for engagement, the public commons, could be the mechanism for moving from imagination to action.

The talk marked the announcement of the Gehl Institute and an infusion of $1.6 million in support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Institute, affiliated with design firm Gehl Studio, will use funds to help create public spaces that foster expanded community participation, and, ultimately, economic opportunity.


Moderator Carol Coletta of the Knight Foundation began by asking each panelist to identify a favorite public space. They named Alemany farmer’s market, Venice Beach, the 5M Project, and a popular boulevard in Copenhagen.

Panelist Alexa Arena of Forest City asked, how do you build into these public spaces practical mechanisms for keeping the vision alive years after build?

Jeff Risom, the new head of Gehl Institute, described ways that the Market Street Prototyping Festival was a catalyst of exchange, where people from different walks of life connected in ways they may not have otherwise. But, he also challenged himself and the audience to ask the question: How can we expand tactical engagement, like the Market Street prototyping, to address “really big problems” like gentrification?

If feels late to be asking these questions. The pressures our Bay Areas cities are under surpass those of most urban centers in the nation.  These tests of public engagement feel small compared to the vastness of the problem.

Panelist Crystallee Crain played a portion of this piece on the human consequences of urban displacement  –“What it’s like to get kicked out of your neighborhood?”

She and others on the panel and in the audience asked about naming the barriers to public interaction. Who is involved in the planning process and at what stage? How is money being allocated and how easy is it to follow the money?

Neil Hrushowy of the San Francisco Planning Commission and others talked of overcoming silos in government, and between government and community, instead of blaming planning. But, how is it that a city with such a history of civic innovation has no precedents to draw from to tackle these “really big problems” and the silos in the way? Perhaps the massive infusion of Knight funds will surface solutions.

Someone asked a related and essential question – Who is focusing on innovation in institutional design? In the audience, Popuphood and and Deborah Cullinan of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts shared their experiences with cross sector collaboration, offering to share these experiences in an ongoing dialogue.  I look forward to following it and the work of the Gehl Institute. I don’t want to believe it’s too late, though for many displaced Bay Area residents, it is.


For more on the Knight Foundation grant to launch Gehl Institute, see this.



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