Tag Archives: San Francisco


Unsanctioned but tolerated

There’s a lot of talk these days about DIY (do it yourself) approaches to urbanism, with everyone from taggers to neighborhood residents taking control of their built environment and bypassing the authorities to do so. This interesting article in The Atlantic Cities talks about crowd sourcing techniques in the urban setting, and how some cities are starting to rewrite their rules to take advantage of this grassroots civic energy (above is one of many tree wells scattered through public right-of-ways in Birmingham which, in the absence of trees or sustained municipal care, have been unofficially adopted/planted/maintained by adjacent merchants or residents).

Channeling the energy and sanctioning it

Graffiti is an ancient method of transforming public space without official sanction; above is the announcement of the next phase of an art project at 20th Street North and First Avenue at the vacant Brown-Marx building  coordinated by Space One Eleven and Operation New Birmingham (see our earlier post). Blank sheets of plywood that would have been prime targets for random graffiti are instead sanctioned for graffiti.

They paved paradise…and then they changed their minds

In San Francisco, that bastion of “people power” with its history of bucking societal norms, it is perhaps no surprise that the city has taken DIY to a new level of seriousness and sanction. Back in 2005 an art project consisted of feeding a city meter, then rolling out some grass into the parking spot to reclaim that little piece of asphalt as green space. Today the city’s “parklet” program allows neighborhoods to petition to officially–and semi-permanently– close down parking spaces and design and install (at their own expense) tiny park spaces (above). Permits are renewed yearly, so if the neighborhood decides it really needs that parking space back, they can do it.  It’s been a fascinating example of how grassroots DIY ideas have broken through the “system” and changed the rules. And in this case, an illustration of the triumph of human needs over those of the automobile–a few spaces at a time.

[Parklet photo courtesy of Wells Campbell via Atlantic Cities)

West coast inspiration

That's what it's all about

As we continue to ponder our own City’s destiny (please consider attending the imminent round of public workshops regarding transportation, green systems, community revitalization, and economic development as part of the new City Comprehensive Plan), it’s always instructive to recall what’s compelling in other cities–in this case, San Francisco and the Bay Area, which was a holiday trip this year. Above is a shot taken in San Francisco’s Mission District: density is a fundamental aspect of this city, enabling walk-ability,interesting streetscapes, and healthy public life.

Only NYC is denser

A good mix of mid-rise and high-rise buildings define the downtown area, above.

Consuming the city

Above is the main shopping area downtown near Union Square, which manages to feel authentic–even a bit gritty–despite the very expensive chain stores. It was great to see huge crowds out on the sidewalks.

...and more shopping

It’s important to remember that San Francisco has one of the higher per capita incomes in the US, and is considered one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Hence the preponderance of luxury stores downtown, from Neiman Marcus to Diesel, above.


Chinatown, above, is unique in this country as a large, tight-knit ethnic community with a very old history. The projecting signage, fruit stands, and shoppers make for a superb walking environment.

How can you beat it

In the Russian Hill neighborhood, we stumbled upon the original Swensen’s ice cream parlor, a quaint corner shop with a lunch counter. This neighborhood is filled with corner coffee shops and dry cleaners.

Good edge

Across the water in Berkeley, the university campus is edged with vibrant streets lined with retail and restaurants, above. It’s a great urban amenity for staff and students alike.

Is it real?

Over at the edge of Oakland, the Bay Street Mall is an urban mall with all the right elements of good urban planning–lots of shops lining sidewalks, housing above, parking hidden away in garages, bike racks, etc. (above). Yes, it all feels mall-ish and homogenous. But if you do new construction malls, this is a really good effort.

Keeping fares low

Back in San Fran, the subway system, like many others across the world, is getting creative with selling ad rights. Above is the Union Square stop, which a bit jarringly feels like the “Banana Republic” stop when you leave the train. But it helps keep fares low. And with such a relatively comprehensive transit system, I guess we can’t complain too much about corporate branding like this.

Inspired by a great trip, it’s good to be back in Birmingham, ready to work to improve the city.

The Sheltering Sky

Before there were shelters, there was excellent transit

Our opening photo takes us back to the late 1940s (courtesy Birmingham Public Library) where we see people queuing to board a streetcar on Third Avenue North downtown. While most of us are aware of the ghastly state of our city’s current transit system, today I’m focused on a smaller but important issue: bus shelters.

Where's the design in Birmingham?

A relatively recent invention, the bus shelter has become an important piece of street furniture: a well-designed bus shelter can enhance the pedestrian’s (and transit-user’s) experience of the sidewalk and street environment. It can also convey the city’s attitude about urban design. Perhaps 8 years ago, the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) announced they were replacing old bus shelters across the city. There was talk about holding a competition among local designers for the new shelter. Instead, as illustrated here, what we got was something so banal and un-urban, it boggles the mind. And many, many dozens of these were constructed. The metal members form a claustrophobic, prison-like enclosure, with no panels for signage, advertising, or route information. All normally basics for a bus shelter.

Forward design in San Fran

As a counter example, consider the new prototype shelters going up in San Francisco. Simple and elegant, one side contains space for advertisements (an important source of revenue for most transit systems) and the other side has info panels, maps, and in most cases updated electronic MUNI schedules. I love the design of these shelters–not only do they have red, translucent undulating tops (created out of recycled resin by 3-form), but there are solar panels embedded in these roofs that power the illumination of the shelter at night. Note also the large, graffiti-proof and shatter-proof resin panels at the rear, unencumbered by fussy, prison-like metal bars. It’s all very open, airy, and inviting.

Solar power at work

User-friendly and inviting in Chattanooga

And lest we think it’s silly to expect the same sort of thoughtful design here as they get in a big city like San Francisco, turn to Chattanooga, a metro half our size to the north. The shot below shows a shelter on Market Street. Not quite as integrated in design as SF, but still good. And not only does it have electronic schedule info, but it conveys to users and visitors that the city cares about design and the urban experience. There’s thought behind it.

If you gave me a choice between good bus shelters and a good transit system, of course I’d take the latter. It’s a pressing need for our region. But part of making a transit system attractive is making its accessories attractive. I earnestly hope that when we do get the long-overdue overhaul of our transit system, we’ll also find the best designers to develop graphics, way-finding, and bus shelters. It’s one more piece of the urban puzzle we shouldn’t overlook.

Just like there’s a synergy between good transit and good shelters, the opposite is true. Our poorly conceived shelters are predictable given our poor transit. I mentioned earlier there is no panel on our standard shelter for signage, graphics, or info displays. However, as an afterthought, the BJCTA slapped some vinyl stickers on certain shelters warning “NO LOITERING”. That’s the only message conveyed in writing on the entire shelter. Here you see someone doing just that–loitering in a shelter. How do I know he’s loitering? Well, it’s just a good guess, because it’s Sunday afternoon. And a quick check of the BJCTA schedule shows no Sunday routes except the DART. If you look closely you can see the warning printed over his head…(thanks to richmondsfblog, almonroth, and zekumedo for the SF and Chatta. pics)

Emblematic of a culture of neglect