How do you take a part of town that's struggling and jump-start economic activity, foot traffic and utilize boarded-up space? How do you take a part of town that seems un-loved and show how vibrant and exciting it might be?
An innovative approach to this challenge is SQFT (Pronounced "Square Foot"), one of the winning projects to emerge from Creative Currency, a civic incubation program spearheaded by Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, The HUB, The San Francisco Mayor's innovation office and American Express. SQFT developed a platform to rent temporary space that otherwise would go unused. It makes a market between landlords and entrepreneurs / community members who want to create "pop-up" businesses. Then, using social media techniques it brings these merchants together and promotes their businesses, helping to drive traffic to these newly enlivened neighborhood projects. Local labor is hired and the process is repeated, accelerating development of a neighborhood and allowing merchants and landlords to prototype how a more vibrant neighborhood would work.
The project was first tested in San Francisco on August 1st, 2012 and featured five "pop-up" activities including a sidewalk library, a clothing store, free bike repair, a chess club, games night and yoga class. The team that created SQFT first came together at the Creative Currency Hackathon where the idea was hatched and went on to win $3750 in incubation funding. A few months later the project was prototyped in San Francisco's Mid-Market neighborhood. The results demonstrated that foot traffic increased several fold, and that projects were an economic success for participants, landlords and businesses. It is now being scaled up as a resource for multiple cities to draw on.
Key to the project's success was the experience of its team members. Events like Creative Currency draw together coders, designers, urbanists, real-estate developers, city officials, and experts on urban problems. Such a rich experience base seldom has a chance to brainstorm new projects, much less compete to test them out on the canvas that is a city. The SQFT team included Emily Eienhart, an urban planning professional and anthropologist from IDEO, Patrick Keenan a software developer with experience in both startups and social innovation activities, and User Experience designer. The team was paired with community mentors including real-estate developer Brian De Lowe from Viceroy Hotels which has a property in the neighbor and participated as a pop-up space host and Bay Area Hub Board President Penelope Douglas.
So often we look at a blighted neighborhood and think, "That's blight. It'll never change." By prototyping what vibrant neighborhood activity looks like, SQFT demonstrates what's possible and helps to overcome the predisposition and imagination gap we often bring to challenged neighborhoods .
Post by Peter Hirshberg
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