Observing People and Prototypes on Market Street

Things I learned at the 2015 Market Street Prototyping Festival in San Francisco

by @stevepepple

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in the Market Street Prototyping Festival in San Francisco, CA. The festival was launched by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and City of San Francisco’s Planning Department and was funded in part by the Knight Foundation. It covered two miles of San Francisco thoroughfare and featured 52 art installations or prototypes on the public street. You can see all of the projects onNeighborland.

Sights at the 2015 Market Street Prototyping Festival. Hashtag #MSPF

I was an on-the-street volunteer and helped Gehl Architects Public Life Research Corps, a community of engaged urbanists with an interest in evaluating the quality of public spaces, with their public life research during the festival. I learned about and practiced the Gehl approach to studying and designing for public spaces. As part of this work, I observed the same block of Market Street at Civic Center the first day of the festival and exactly one week later, on a typical weekday. Additionally, I had the chance to help build the Bookmark prototype on the same block the night before.

Street reads. #sanfrancisco #bookshelves #streetlibrary #mspf

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Gehl’s public life methodology uses human observation to understand the relationship between human activity (life) and urban design (form). Here’s a complete training on the methodology, which shares many concepts with user-centered design. The Market Street researchers counted how many people were moving on the street, their approximate age and gender, and what their activities were. This research will give the city a better understanding of how pedestrians use Market Street and how planners can improve spaces for walking, standing, gathering, and other activities.

“Once we begin observing city life and its interaction with physical surroundings, even the most ordinary street corner can provide interesting knowledge about the interplay of city life and form — anywhere in the world.” — Jan Gehl

I look forward to more automated systems for measuring pedestrian and other traffic like the Market Street bike counter, but personal observation allows the researcher to see all the human activity that does not go into models of pedestrian flow and traffic statistics. I’ll remind myself of this when working with future data.

Here are some of my observations.

While some of these observations and related anecdotes make common sense, they were remarkably truthful for me and enriched my understanding of Market Street and other public places. I expect to see some of the same findings in the report from SF Planning, and I’ll make sure to check my assumptions with their data and analysis.

People engage on Main Street when they have time and space.

The most striking realization I had is that neighbors and acquaintances too often pass Market Street like ships in the night without connecting with one another. The street is the intersection of several populace neighborhoods, and is too often a place of transit where people simply pass through, as artist Sameena Sitabkhan said in the SF Chronicle.

When people linger on Market Street or have a reason to go there, public spaces become meeting spaces and interactions between friends and strangers abound. It becomes an exemplary example of what Ray Oldenburg calls a ‘third place’ away from home and work: a free and safe place for people of different backgrounds to gather, converse, and play.

“The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres.” — Ray Oldenburg

Six neighborhoods intersect with Market Street
People meet at 6-sided ping pong table at Embarcadero

Arena | Play #mspf #mspfarenaplay

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People stop on the street to look at ‘weird’ art, of course, but I also talked with several people who saw the festival preparations and activity from their office or apartment window and wanted to see what was happening.

I talked with a women who associated the changes with gentrification and pointed to the art deco build at 1355 Market, better know as the Twitter building, as the reason for the changes. She didn’t know there was a festival, but certainly noticed the change. (Maybe she wasn’t wrong about gentrification, but I didn’t observe many Twitter employees participating in the festival on that day.)

#mspfpplanter #mspf from above: pplanter looks right at home with the market street infrastructure!

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People are attracted to other people and activities.

This fairly obvious, but we too often take it for granted. Once people stop to notice new things, they interact with strangers and attract other people.

While it is less common to talk to strangers, it is easier to strike up a conversation with people standing nearby, even strangers, if you experience something together in common space — Jan Gehl, How to Study Public Life

Mingling around Three for Life at Civic Center

The stage at Show Box was particularly good example of how a few people, especially performers, can draw a crowd.

Musicians and entertainers draw people together, but it is not the excellence of the act that is important. It is the fact that it is there that bonds people, and sometimes a really bad act will work even better than a good one. — William Whyte

#mspfpplanter #mspf from above: pplanter looks right at home with the market street infrastructure!

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Drawn to the light of Data Lantern at Financial District

People of all ages are willing play; They just need a good excuse.

For example, I watch people young and old climb on the Three for Life prototype. I was taken by surprise at how much fun people had just sitting on an oversized table and chair. (I should mention that they were also encouraged to climb by a oversize jar of sun-warmed chocolate chip cookies.)

Street Sketch prototype at Central Market
Ping pong table on Market Street

Don't let her age fool you.... #mspf

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Three for Life at Civic Center

#mspf #marketstreetprototypingfair #sf

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People are more willing to linger after lunch than during rush hour.

Time of day, weather, light, and shade play an important role in how people behave on the street. I enjoyed seeing the lifecycle of the street on a weekday. Both during and after the festival, people were more leisurely and interactive during the lunch hour and sunny afternoon hours.

Example of how shade alone results in microclimates at Civic Center at the 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and 5pm hours.

Now, in the case of Market Street, sidewalks were intentionally designed to be very wide. This allows the space for more permanent places and activities at all times of day, while still allowing for large streams of pedestrian traffic.

Time to ‘Relax’ in the afternoon at Embarcadero

#mspf #marketstreetprototypingfair #sf

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People are more willing to linger in public space, when they know where they are.

Many people would ask festival volunteers and prototype makers for directions. Once they found their way, they would often stick around.

Physical maps of the festival were not readily available, and this was a predominant point of feedback from festival goers.

Walk Your City wayfinding signs at the festival

Imagine the possibilities. #mspf

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People are discouraged from interacting with places and object that seem too nice.

I noticed that some prototypes didn’t receive attention from people because they seemed to nice to sitting or touching. People said they were afraid to damage the prototype or didn’t know that they were allowed to.

Many of the Instagram posts throughout this piece show prototypes that encouraged interaction. Here are a couple particularly engaging examples:


The festival is part of the broader Better Market Street initiative. I’m very much looking forward to learning which projects will become long-term or permanent fixtures on Market Street in 2018.

The artists and makers that made the festival happen designed for both the Future and the ephemeral Now. That’s a pretty audacious undertaking and it worked! In spite of my own biases, I found that prototypes simply offering a place to rest, watch, meet up, and play are the best candidates to help make Market Street more vibrant and engaging for years to come. And those are not simple design challenges. Still, I like some of the more abstract, cerebral, and mechanically intricate prototypes, but they will need refinement and citizen testing if they’re going to work for a diverse group of future San Franciscans.

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