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The Positive Impact of Creative, Playable Spaces

826 Valencia Tenderloin Center. Image © Matthew Millman.

As designers we understand the powerful effect of creativity on ourselves and others. We challenge ourselves to create designs that inspire and connect people. We challenge ourselves to continuously seek new sources of inspiration, to create the new and unexpected. We do it because we love it, because it’s fun, because we form connections—with clients, partners and community members—and hope that our work is making even a little bit of a difference. But there is always the lingering question: does it matter? What is the actual impact of creative space?

In her post, “Why creating playable spaces is the next frontier in city design,” Gensler Architect and Urbanist Carolyn Sponza discusses the benefits of playable cities and describes how people are more likely to change behaviors when they are motivated by their own enjoyment. In the San Francisco Bay Area today, I am proud to say that we are seeing firsthand the impact of creative and playable spaces in our community, but this is only the beginning.

In 2015, the city of San Francisco hosted the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a three day festival displaying interactive prototypes built by local designers, artists and residents that looked to improve the city’s busy thoroughfare. With the help of community design partners, the festival transformed the city’s busiest street into a place where all types of people demonstrated their unique creativity and willingness to play in an urban thoroughfare.

Market Street Prototyping Festival in San Francisco / Photography by Ryan Fetters

That same year, Gensler worked with Project Color Corps, a non-profit that seeks to create positive change by painting inner city schools with colors and patterns that impart messages of optimism and hope. The project aimed to empower Cambridge Elementary students and drive the experiential energy of the school. Both of these projects produced immediate, visible social impact on the people using these spaces.

Project Color Corps at Cambridge Elementary in Concord, Calif. / Photography by Jennifer Chaney

Our recent involvement with the 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center has allowed us to further challenge ourselves to embrace news ways of thinking about space and examine what creativity can do for a community—in this case San Francisco’s Tenderloin, a neighborhood where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

826 Valencia, a non-profit organization founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari, is dedicated to helping children and young adults develop confidence through creative writing and presentation skills. 826 Valencia is the founding chapter of 826 National, a network of writing and tutoring centers in seven U.S. cities, serving 30,000 students, ages 6-18. (Gensler also designed the space for 826CHI in Chicago.) Each center has a unique and quirky theme, as well as a street-front retail store selling student-authored publications and a collection of unusual products such as “pirate supplies.” The idea for these eclectic spaces? To break down barriers, ignite the imagination, and encourage new ways of thinking, learning and playing.

826 Valencia Tenderloin Center. Image © Matthew Millman.

For 826 Valencia’s Tenderloin Center, the creative team (comprised of design and construction professionals from Gensler, BCCI, INTERSTICE Architects, MK Think, Jonas Kellner, Office and BBDO San Francisco) had to deliver an imaginative, whimsical space that would not only be fun and disarming for students, but would be a step in the transformation of a community. The resulting storefront, “King Carl’s Emporium” (conveniently located in the “Headquarters for Navigators and Explorers”) takes its name from a globe-trotting, royal puffer fish, Carl, and sells wares collected on his world travels. It’s a playful space that creates a sense of “wonder everywhere,” where children (and adults) encounter fantastical elements, such as a “fog bank,” hidden trap door, an indoor tree house and a wall of doors. The quirkiness of the space is very intentional, creating a space that put kids and adults on equal footing and opens them up to new experiences.

The project was unique not only in its theme, but also because of the large number of collaborators—designers, builders, artists, makers, consultants, donors and community members—who donated countless hours and resources to make it all work. It required letting go of some expectations and embracing more organic ways of working and sometimes unexpected (but often magical) outcomes.

These projects, and others like them, enrich us as designers. They demonstrate the power of design in encouraging different ways of thinking, connecting us in new ways to our environment and to each other. These projects illustrate how involving and empowering the local community can amplify social impact, and provide powerful lessons to us as creative professionals to get out of our comfort zones and embrace a less controlled end result… to get out and engage, to work in news ways, to create things that do good.

826 Valencia Tenderloin Center. Image © Matthew Millman.

Janice Cavaliere is a Brand Design Director in Gensler’s San Francisco office, helping brands connect with people through compelling, well-designed communications and engaging experiences. Contact her at Janice_cavaliere@gensler.com.