Public Works: Public Space for Play, Learning, and Wonder
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Public Works: Public Space for Play, Learning, and Wonder

San Francisco's first Living Innovation Zone turns a sad sidewalk into a musical, electrical showcase of art and science.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo courtesy of Shawn Lani, of The Exploratorium

Photo courtesy of Shawn Lani of The Exploratorium.

“Here: take a moment. This space is an experiment. It’s a disruption in the everyday stream, a place for something unexpected to happen …”

What is that? Twilight Zone opening? Don Draper ad pitch? In a way, it’s a bit of both. It’s an introduction; it’s an ethos. It’s quite literally the writing on the wall for the potential of public space. It’s the guide to an installation at the corner of Market Street and Yerba Buena Lane in San Francisco—the inaugural entry in the City of San Francisco’s Living Innovation Zones (LIZ) project.

The Big Idea behind the LIZ is to take ordinary, boring public space—a wide sidewalk for instance—and fill it with objects of art and science that will spark curiosity. For San Francisco’s first LIZ, built in 2013, the collection of municipal departments responsible for the project partnered with the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District and the Exploratorium, a local museum of “science, art and human perception.”

It was the science, art, and perception guys who delivered the installation—a mix of the museum’s favourite artifacts, old and new, bound to provoke inquiry, interactivity, and wonder. “We put people in charge of their own learning here at [the Exploratorium], and we set the conditions so that they can succeed, in whatever way they choose to pursue their own questions,” said Shawn Lani, a senior artist at the museum. “We think these lessons can be reapplied to public space projects and powerfully support the individual and social experiences in public spaces.”

Photo courtesy of Shawn Lani, of The Exploratorium

Photo courtesy of Shawn Lani of The Exploratorium.

On opposing sides of the Market Street sidewalk are Whispering Dishes, concrete shells that amplify sound, so that if you sit in one and your kibitzing partner sits in the other, you can keep up a conversation at little more than a murmur. Then there’s the pedal-powered phone charger, created especially for the LIZ by the Exploratorium. But it’s the Singing Bench, created by the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, that’s really a gas. Two people sitting on the bench, with one hand each on the armrests, can make beautiful music together just by, uh, touching one another. The melody is “based on the resistance generated when two people hold hands.” Or something. The people at the Exploratorium explain the science far more eloquently. But however it works, the Singing Bench is a provocative piece. “We see strangers holding hands on the Musical Bench and looking strangely content as they chat away,” Lani said. “Some people get genuinely giddy while others stand shyly by working up the nerve to interact with a stranger.” Which is all part of the LIZ’s purpose—to be, as Lani describes it, a wrecking ball to social norms.

This smasher of the status quo is getting plenty of attention, too. Each day, more than 20,000 pedestrians walk down this stretch of Market Street—that’s over 7 million views of the Yureba Buena LIZ per year. It’s a promising start to a project that’s expected to get a lot bigger. The LIZ at Market and Yerba Buena is just the first of many planned along Market Street, with the ultimate goal being to pepper the entire city with them. So far, details of the future sites are scant, but there is a kinda-sorta interactive map that shows several proposed sites and promises to include information on development partnerships for each project.

What are the prospects for a LIZ in Toronto? Well, all we need is some dull public space and the will to experiment with it—fairly universal traits, you might say. “Cities want to prototype their way into the future and engage citizens to become civic makers, not just consumers,” said Lani.

By inviting people to play with public space, a LIZ reminds us that the concrete deserts of a city don’t have to be dull. They can be places for something unexpected to happen.