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Town Square: San Francisco

Image © Gensler

The Town Square Initiative is a yearlong volunteer effort in which Gensler designers set out to unearth and re-imagine unexpected open space in cities around the globe. All 43 Gensler offices were invited to participate in the conceptual project, in which we challenged our designers to identify open space in the city and re-imagine it as a town square.

San Francisco, a city of 800,000 people within 46.9 square miles, has a historical centerpiece whose revitalization can create a new platform for civic life, amplify a voice for human progress, and call for community engagement.

Image © Gensler

This is the existing San Francisco Civic Center. Can you imagine it? The important open space, home to City Hall, Civic Auditorium, Asian Art Museum, Public Library, as underused, abused, and desolate in non-business hours?

When’s the last time you’ve been to the Civic Center? Does it feel like a Town Square?

Image © Gensler

Through in-house forums, surveys, and on street interviews, the Gensler SF team discovered that our Civic Center needs a make-over. The Civic Center has served as a community gathering spot for not only festivals and parades, but also protests and demonstrations. While a true central intersection of government and cultural institutions, the formality and scale of the many classical architectural buildings in the area tend to overshadow any real sense of community and socialization. And, there’s also the challenge of its well-established reputation for being a homeless encampment and high crime area.

So, how can we change the perception and experience of the Civic Center area? What would make it feel more like a Town Square? How can we design an exciting and relevant space for San Franciscans to gather, protest, live, love and just generally be merry?

Image © Gensler

San Francisco’s Civic Center is a social phoenix, the epicenter of rebirth and reinvigoration of a great community, and the foundation of deep cultural learning and expression. We now have an opportunity to make it a more physically attractive, culturally engaging, and economically thriving 21st century environment.

Imagine this: When you are walking on Market Street from the ferry building, a tower arises on your right. It is so symbolic, activity-driven tower where four steel faces rise above the city skyline to serve as a point of reference for the city that you are definitely not going to miss it. The tower dynamically changes, illuminated by foot traffic in the town square, to reflect the community activity. Representing three branches of government and the fourth branch, the people, the tower represents the new dynamic of civic life in San Francisco. You see people gathering on the podium and the stairs of the tower, interacting with their hands, their smart phones, their voices, finding themselves in the great community.

Image © Gensler

When you keep on walking through Fulton Street, a grand promenade activated with new residential units, a Mid-Market business hotel, and small scale retail will lead the way to the civic center plaza. This two block district will celebrate the power of the procession, provide a venue for social passage, and a place where our environmental activism can be shared. It is an urban space where patrons can congregate, share a fusion of gourmet foods, and celebrate the rich cultures of this great city. At the west end of the promenade, a pedestrian bridge rises above the street serving as a connection to the civic grounds and a panoramic outlook to the historic City Hall.

Image © Gensler

Arriving at civic center plaza, the town square green you see is a malleable platform for events, daily activation, and social opportunism. Re-imagine the Civic Center green as a dynamic and fluid space able to accommodate the ever changing needs and desires of the city. Street edges activated with lively retail and markets; a landscape that evolves to meet programmatic infrastructure for personal and social expression, engagement, and celebration; and spaces that accommodate civic functions while enticing daily workers, families, and tourists to gather and enjoy this culturally-significant urban space.

Image © Gensler

The space you’ll see in the future will no longer be the political no man’s land. It will truly become a platform for civic life - amplified voices and a renewed call for social engagement where you can FIND yourself in this great community, UNITE with the city’s people and culture through enhanced programs and attractions, and GATHER on the landscape that reflects the energy of this great city.

Image © Gensler

The collective ideas from eight months of work are stored in the cloud: we developed a Tumblr site to collect research items, images, ideas, and brainstorm live. Join us with the continuing discussion on: redefcities.tumblr.com.

Image © Gensler

Jim Jacobs is a landscape architect in the San Francisco office. Jim lives in the city, where he commutes two miles on his fixed-gear Bianchi to the office. He believes in living a healthy, simple lifestyle, eating organic local grown foods, and spending time exploring city streets, alleys, and open spaces. As our cities get more dense, the demand for well-designed, adaptable open spaces – in all scales – is essential for human interactions. To escape from his urban lifestyle, Jim enjoys trail running and ultra marathons. Always take the road less travelled! Contact him at Jim_Jacobs@gensler.com.
Xiao Wu is a planner and urban designer in Gensler’s San Francisco Office. Focused on mixed-use design for sustainable neighborhoods, masterplanning for promoting the uniqueness of cities, and the redevelopment of inefficiently used urban areas, her work is marked by the firm belief that shaping the built environment can have an active and positive influence on people’s daily lives. Growing up in Beijing, China, she loves to travel and has a particular interest in the history and culture of ancient cities. Contact her at xiao_wu@gensler.com.

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