Rehumanizing the City

Posted by on November 14th, 2016

By Arjanna van der Plas

“I feel afraid”, a sixty-something man with red backpack confides. “I’m worried about the elections, and the growing social inequality in San Francisco.” He adds a purple ball to the display of the Metro Moods on Market installation to express his fear. A woman in a Dreamforce T-shirt, who holds a yellow ‘happy’ ball in her hand, tries to comfort him. “You know, the news always has a negative bias. But there is so much great stuff happening too! Just look at all these people that are making Market Street a nicer place with their installations. And look at this installation: most people added ‘happy’ and ‘peace’ balls!” The man nods, and continues his way, seeming a bit more cheerful.

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When you are in a public space, how often do you really see others? Do you engage with them, talk with them about how they experience the city? Most of the time, we are preoccupied by our phones, our thoughts, or our next meeting. Deborah Cullinan, the vibrant director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), wants to change that. She is on an exciting mission to turn the streets of San Francisco into dynamic meeting places where people cocreate a positive future for their city. The Market Street Prototyping Festival, of which the Metro Moods on Market installation was part, is a powerful example of her approach.

Reviving Market Street

deborah“For too long, city planning has been top down and focused on infrastructure. We almost forget that we created cities for people to live in; we didn’t create cities for cars”, says Cullinan. About 50% of the public space an American city is dedicated to streets, parking lots, service stations and other things that facilitate cars. Could art play a role in rehumanizing the city? “It can, and it should.” Cullinan states. “The Market Street Prototyping Festival that we organize with the San Francisco Planning Department  is a great example of how collaboration and rapid, citizen-driven experimentation can help solve our biggest challenges. The Prototyping Festival was born out of our shared desire to make Market Street a more inspired, connected destination. We wanted to bring together different people and communities. Initiatives like the Prototyping Festival allow all those who are passionate about our city to engage in the civic process and to provide hands-on contributions to solving our community’s biggest challenges.”

Inspiring citizens to envision their future

Currently, public meetings are the default approach when the city wants to collect data. These meetings are open to all, but often only a few people feel inspired to come. Cullinan believes that a major shift can happen when we let artists do the work. “We can’t make things happen behind closed doors, with only a few people thinking about the problems that affect so many. We need to meet the citizens of San Francisco where they are. And, we need to ensure that people everywhere are living lives infused with inspiration. Without inspiration, how will any of us be able to see a different future for ourselves and our city? Artists can remind us of our ability as human beings to imagine new possibilities and to collaborate around those possibilities in order to build our future together.”

The Market Street Prototyping Festival is part of a larger San Francisco effort to enhance and improve Market Street by involving the community to help create meaningful public spaces. More than thirty interactive installations comprised the 2016 festival from Steuart to Seventh Street, ranging from a peaceful pop-up forest, an installation inviting pedestrians to vote with their feet on hot topics, to a dance studio. Based on the experiences during the three day festival in October, the installations will be improved, and some of them will be installed throughout San Francisco. Cullinan: “I am proud of our ongoing collaboration with the City. Together, we have changed the culture of planning in San Francisco and we have inspired prototyping festivals across the country and the world. People are actively participating in determining how our cities are changing through festivals in Australia, Columbia, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and beyond.

Learn More: Watch Deborah Cullinan at SOCAP16

Deborah Cullinan spoke on the powerful role the arts plays in shaping culture and driving social impact alongside Marc Bamuthi Joseph, spoken word artist and Chief of Program and Pedagogy at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Rha Goddess, cultural innovator, artist, and Founder of Move the Crowd as part of the Shifting Culture Toward Equity panel during the closing plenary at SOCAP16.

About the author

arjanna-at-lowlandsArjanna van der Plas is a social impact focused author, yoga teacher and workshop facilitator. She currently spends most of her time in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, teaching yoga and meditation at the Healing Well, and writing a book and blog series called Stories Behind The Fog together with the Free Range Puppies. With Stories Behind The Fog she wants to challenge the single-minded view of homelessness by rendering its entire spectrum, one story at a time.

Before Arjanna moved to San Francisco, she was communications manager for the Amsterdam based sustainability startup Circle Economy. Prior to that, she was a lecturer at the TU Delft, innovator at TNO (the largest independent research organization in the Netherlands) and freelance science journalist. Arjanna holds two MSc. degrees from the TU Delft, one in Industrial Design Engineering and one in Science Communications. Follow her on Medium, Linkedin, and Twitter.