Opportunity, Imagination, and Joy: Learning with Allan Jacobs, the Good City, and Street Parks

May 13, 2014
Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Walking up and down the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps and adjacent garden in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District on a daily basis brings at least three words to mind: opportunity, imagination, and joy. There is that daily reminder of the opportunity provided by a volunteer-driven community-based coalition that was strongly supported by colleagues in the Street Parks Program, a wonderfully supportive collaboration between the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. There is the tremendous manifestation of imagination displayed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher through the mosaic they created for the site. And there is the sheer joy of seeing a long-ignored space brought back to life not only through the work of Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee members, but also by the numerous volunteers and donors who supported—and continue to support—the project, and the presence of people who increasingly are arriving from places all over the world to visit and enjoy the serenity as well as the camaraderie that comes when people meet, talk, dream, and share a space they treasure.

Good_City--Allan JacobsIt isn’t all that much different than what I find in the best communities of learning to which I’m drawn. We are united by a common (learning) goal and benefit from each other’s company over long periods of time. So when I read the sentence “Cities should provide and people should have access to opportunity, imagination, and joy” in Allan Jacobs’ The Good City: Reflections and Imaginations recently, I felt as if the world of city planning, park (particularly street-park and parklet) development, and learning had all come together on the pages of an inspiring and engaging book.

Jacobs, former director of the San Francisco Planning Department and a University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus, covers a lot of ground in a book comprised of essays and short stories. Beginning with a description of two years he spent in India as an urban planner working under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, he leads us through a series of vignettes that ultimately are connected through the theme of how community and collaboration does or does not develop in a variety of settings including Cleveland, Curitiba, Pudong, Rome, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, and, in the final sections of the book, San Francisco.

His work is firmly rooted in what many of us fascinated by cities and community development have found in books by Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction; The Timeless Way of Building; and just about everything he has written since then), William Whyte (City: Rediscovering the Center), Peter Harnik (Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities), and many others who have written thoughtfully and in depth on what makes our cities work.

When he turns his attention to San Francisco, he obviously delights in exploring the themes of opportunity, imagination, and joy. There are his recollections of how he and his City Planning colleagues engaged community at a grass-roots level: “we called well-advertised meetings, often by delivering notices to all individual mail-boxes, to get people together for an effort or to confront an issue” (p. 143) just as Hidden Garden Steps volunteers began the project with face-to-face, door-to-door conversations with neighbors close to the proposed project site, and followed those efforts up with numerous postings of flyers in neighborhood businesses and bulletin boards in addition to online contact using social media platforms. Jacobs acknowledges seeing “our role as the professional staff as partners of people more than as facilitators” (p. 145)—something that increasing numbers of training-teaching-learning colleagues are embracing in the work we do, and something that is at the heart of all the positive experiences Hidden Garden Steps volunteers had (and continue to have) with our San Francisco Parks Alliance, Department of Public Works, and other City/County colleagues. As I’ve noted many times, our successful partnerships never descended into us-and-them disputes; we were unified by a common goal and that’s what held and holds us together.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverJacobs notes the dramatic results achieved through various partnerships: “The most positive, dramatic change to San Francisco over the last 30-plus years is the northern and northeastern waterfront, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the kids’ mini-baseball diamond-park at McCovey Cove, a distance of about seven miles. Crissy Field, a gem of a restoration area, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has rightfully become a huge draw for walkers, cyclists, skaters, picnickers, fishermen, beachgoers, naturalists, people of all ages, and dogs….” (p. 160). He could have just as easily been talking about the smaller-scale Tactical Urbanism efforts that fuel San Francisco’s Street Parks projects when he discusses the changes that make our—and any—city great.

He weaves the various and varied themes together as he nears the end of The Good City when he describes what that city would include: “there would be opportunities to learn and to work, to earn one’s livelihood; and places to get to with ease, places for social interaction or just to see other people, or places to be alone; and opportunities to participate in local decisions; and places for fun” (p. 176)…“People should feel that some part of the urban environment belongs to them, individually and collectively, some part for which they care and are responsible, irrespective of whether they own it. The city environment should be one that encourages participation….The public environment, by definition, should be open to all members of the community. It is where people of different kinds meet. No one should be excluded unless they threaten the balance of that life” (p. 178)—all of which, to me, just as accurately describes what is foundational to great communities of learning.

Perhaps this is why so many of us are drawn to learning; to great cities; to parks and open spaces; and to libraries, museums, and so many other community resources: they share an all-important link—the magic that happens when opportunity, imagination, and joy bring us together to form, interact in, and sustain great communities that bring rewards far beyond any others we can imagine. They connect us to our past, through our present, and into a future we may not be around to see, but know will be much better for the contributions that we make to it.

N.B.: Previous articles about the Hidden Garden Steps remain available on this blog.


Tactical Urbanism: Community, Collaboration, Innovation, and Learning

April 10, 2014

Sometime, in an effort to accomplish something in our communities, we move so quickly that we don’t even take the time to slap a label onto what we’re doing—until we come across a lovely term like “tactical urbanism” and wonder why we didn’t coin it first.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverNate Berg, writing for the Atlantic Cities website, describes the term concisely: “Guerrilla gardening. Pavement-to-parks. Open streets. These are all urban interventions of a sort—quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable.” And when we begin to dive into all the loveliness behind tactical urbanism, we find something that serves us well in a variety of settings: the reminder that great accomplishments don’t have to address problems and challenges at a macro level; sometimes we help change our world through small, incremental steps rooted in community, collaboration, innovation, and learning.

The learning element, for me, was obvious from the initial moment I learned about tactical urbanism (yesterday morning, while skimming a Twitter feed): a couple of training-teaching-learning colleagues—Heather Braum and Jill Hurst-Wahl—were attending a conference presentation on the topic, and both saw connections between what keynote speaker Mike Lydon was describing and what they had heard from me about the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. After skimming notes prepared and posted by Jill and Heather, I immediately downloaded the wonderful Tactical Urban2 online manual produced by Lydon and his fellow tactical urbanists; devoured the descriptions of tactical urbanism projects documented within that manual; relished the idea that several of these projects are in place here in San Francisco or under consideration; thought about how they might inspire positive actions within libraries; and even began thinking about how the spirit of tactical urbanism flows through the best of learning projects I have encountered.

And yes, I immediately understood why Heather and Jill would think about a $467,000 project like the Hidden Garden Steps within the context of a philosophy rooted in “quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable”: the Steps, like so many of our training-teaching-learning efforts, appear to be large, complex, and daunting when seen out of context; within context, however, they are organically interwoven segments of a much larger tapestry that builds upon what is already in place and provides additional foundations for further development.

When we look at the broad brushstrokes of urban development within Lydon’s work, we immediately—if we have already encountered these volumes—think of Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961); Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written since then; William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988); and Peter Harnik’s Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities (2010). When we think beyond the explicit references to urban development, we think of how libraries increasingly engage in flexible use of their spaces for everything from community meetings addressing needs of libraries and the communities they serve to remodeling of spaces to create everything from an information commons to makerspaces. And when we stretch this even further into learning organizations, we find the sort of on-the-fly quick, often temporary, cheap experimentation some of us pursue in our communities of learning when we attempt something as simple as using Facebook or Google+ Hangouts to conduct online office hours with our learners in the hope that they will establish learning communities that last far beyond the formal end of a course we have facilitated.

Tactical urbanism in action: neighbors maintaining the Hidden Garden Steps

Tactical urbanism in action: neighbors maintaining the Hidden Garden Steps

Let’s draw explicit parallels here. Lydon and his colleagues document guerilla street tactics including painting a crosswalk where one doesn’t exist, but is needed, and shows how that simple action leads city officials to acknowledge and act upon the need. Libraries can create book discussion groups that go far beyond the traditional recreational approach to that action: by organizing discussions around a book that addresses a community need, the library can be part of a collaborative effort to substantially and positively address and act upon a community need. Those of us involved in training-teaching learning—which, I believe, includes tactical urbanists who teach by example; library staff, which facilitates learning through much of what staff members offer; and those involved in workplace learning and performance—engage in the spirit of tactical urbanism by exploring easy-to-implement low-cost/no-cost innovations that, when successful, quickly spread throughout our extended learning landscapes. And those of us engaged in projects like the Hidden Garden Steps—that 148-step ceramic-tiled mosaic surrounded by gardens tended formally and informally by neighborhood volunteers—are immersed in the spirit of tactical urbanism by building upon the example of those who came before us and inspiring others to create their own versions of these magnificent community meeting places that serve a worldwide community of visitors.

The punchline remains one I frequently recite: all we have to do is dream.


Peter Harnik, Innovation, Community, and Parks: Going for the Green

March 26, 2014

Working on the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco and joining the San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) Parks Policy Council recently has, naturally, made me even more of an advocate for accessible and welcoming public spaces than ever before.

Harnik--Urban_GreenMy love for public parks and public spaces is nothing new. Having grown up in a California Central Valley town where one of the most accommodating and appealing resources was a well-maintained park along one of the town’s natural waterways, I’ve appreciated and benefitted from the availability of those areas as places to sit with friends, take a walk, or read and write and think. Visiting and working in a variety of large and small cities throughout the United States and other parts of the world, I consistently find myself drawn to parks and libraries as places that reflect the best of a community’s values and aspirations. They are the places I first turn to in an effort to develop a sense of cohesion or isolation within the communities they serve.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that I was completely fascinated by and immersed in Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities (2010), an engagingly concise exploration of innovative approaches to developing urban public spaces. Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land, does a magnificent job, in 160 pages of text and additional resources listed at the end of the book, in exploring two significant themes: issues to consider in discussing the creation, nurturing, and maintenance of urban parks, and how successful parks advocates across the United States are finding ways to create more open space and to better use the current spaces we have.

The table of contents itself serves as a resource for inspiration and a checklist for those of us interested in seeing how well our cities stack up against other’s as we review the list of ideas for “finding park space in the city”: buying it; utilizing urban redevelopment; community gardens; old landfills; wetlands and stormwater storage ponds; rail trails; rooftops; sharing schoolyards; covering reservoirs; river and stream corridors; cemeteries (now there’s  topic worthy of open discussion for all it invokes in terms of our attitudes toward life and death and how normally-separated uses of a space might work in complementary ways); boulevards and parkways; decking highways; closing streets and roads; removing parking; and adding hours rather than acres.

Harnik comes across as both realistic and visionary: “To be fair, none of us can fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth. It may be possible to construct something visually pleasing with evenly spaced green polygons on a color-coded map or to arrange artful golf courses in a ‘simulated city’ computer game, but real-life cities have too many physical impediments, political interferences, and cultural and economic exceptionalities for simple standards to rule (pp. 1-17),” he writes, then returns later with the idea that “Cities change all the time and every change holds opportunity. If there is room for a single new building, or even a new parking lot, there is room for a new park, as has been seen recently in Kansas City (Ilus Davis Park), Cleveland (Whiskey Island), San Francisco (Visitacion Valley), Washington, D.C. (Canal Park), and Newark, New Jersey (Nat Turner Park)” (p. 71).

He’s a realist, reminding us that dreams have to have concrete foundations including budgets and specific timelines for completion: “The budget elevates the plan from platitude to reality.…A plan without a timeline and a budget should more accurately be called a ‘hope.’” (pp. 57-58). He also is an inspiration as he helps us examine the use of public spaces through a three-way classification system developed in Portland, Oregon: “people-to-people” places, “people-to-nature” places, and “nature-to-nature” places (p. 23).

Trust_for_Public_Land--LogoBut one of Harnik’s most encouraging achievements is his ability to make us look at what he documents and then see our own communities through the framework he provides. Which, for me, produced encouraging results: looking around San Francisco, I see that the incredible collaborations supported by our colleagues in City/County government, local nonprofits including the San Francisco Parks Alliance, neighborhood associations, and thousands of individual volunteers who become engaged in specific projects they adore. I see the innovative approaches fostered by the San Francisco Pavement to Parks program and the San Francisco Department of Public Works/SFPA Street Parks Program collaboration and marvel at how relatively small and underutilized or long-ignored spaces are transformed, piece by piece, into a cohesive pattern of public spaces that bring local and extended communities together in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

We may not be able to “fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth,” as Harnik has suggested, but through our individual involvement in developing, supporting, and sustaining community collaborations, we make the urban labyrinth less difficult to navigate. And we find yet another opportunity to reduce conflict and divisiveness by working together upon the common ground we find and cherish.

N.B.: For more information about urban parks across the United States, please visit the Trust for Public Land ParkScore® index online.


%d bloggers like this: