Article | 8 min read

Placemaking spaces—from Muni buses to Apple’s town squares

By Suzanne Barnecut

Published October 5, 2016
Last updated October 5, 2016

When you visit San Francisco, it’s unlikely that a Muni bus will be on your list of notable must-see attractions. But if you live here, or are an explorative visitor, you’re apt to find yourself on one. Though the fleet of electric trolleys and hybrid buses tap into the city’s extensive electrical grid and contribute to cleaner air, they often take a lot of heat. For being late. Or dirty. Or too crowded, packed to the gills by a wide cross-section of the city’s population and tourists, all staring at their phones.

Peter Clarke was one such Muni rider, but one day he took a look around and realized he wanted to get people off their phones and interacting with each other. That sounds like something of a Herculean task except that Clarke works for SF Beautiful, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the city’s beauty and livability by providing community-centered design and public benefits.

“I sat with the team and asked, The team followed a “winding path” which ultimately led to the Muni Art project. Today, Clarke is program director for the now-annual project, which replaces ad space on buses with art by local artists, as voted on and chosen by the public.

A domino effect

The ways we interact with our environments, including the ones we take for granted—a bus ride across town or the office we trudge into daily—can have far-reaching effects.

The ways we interact with our environments, including the ones we take for granted—a bus ride across town or the office we trudge into daily—can have far-reaching effects.

When Clarke embarked on this placemaking journey—a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces—he couldn’t have foreseen the domino effect the program would have. At first, he shared, “It was fun to go on a Muni Art bus and see people actually looking at the art. That was pretty cool.” That riders might look up and notice and appreciate the art achieved the program’s goal.

For the general public, placemaking is often subtle, as it takes advantage of a local community’s existing assets, inspiration, or potential. The Muni Art buses, for example, simply offer a more interesting and more pleasant rider experience. The artists who participated in the 2016 pilot program also saw their work get exposure in a variety of unanticipated ways. Artwork was included in the Municipal Transportation Agency’s (MTA) annual report, as a limited run of paper tickets at train stations, as bookmarks, and even for sale to the public. And for one local artist, the chance to participate was life-changing and led to working with a major fashion brand.

“It’s been a win-win for everyone involved with the program,” Clarke said. “The SFMTA can’t express enough how excited they were because this program brought in virtually zero negative feedback.”

These are clear markers of success, and yet the type of work SF Beautiful does can be hard to measure in tangible ways. While they do gauge the impact of their projects through surveys, social media engagement, and other traditional methods, Executive Director Darcy Brown emphasized, “You can’t data analyze human nature and a human response. I’m a human being, and I have experiences as a human being. We’re going on our instincts about what we would appreciate seeing, and how we would respond.”

Who has the last word?

What’s remarkable about the Muni Art project is that it was undertaken by an independent nonprofit to the benefit of the featured artists, the general public, and the SFMTA. There was no private committee behind the selection of art or artists. Instead, what the public liked, the public got.

But when there isn’t an organization like SF Beautiful around to supplement a city’s own planning and beautification efforts, where does the responsibility for community spaces fall? The people who inhabit the space? The entity with the most money?

Brown would say it’s everyone’s responsibility, and no doubt she’s right. But more and more, the lines are blurring between the work of traditional, civic-minded organizations and commercial, private enterprises. In another example from San Francisco, lower rent and tax breaks made it attractive for high-tech companies to move into a blighted neighborhood. In exchange, the companies each signed a community benefit agreement, promising to invest manpower and money into local community-based organizations. It’s another win-win, though particular community improvements are left to the discretion of each company.

The rise of conscious consumerism

Corporate do-gooding isn’t specific to San Francisco. The rise of the conscious consumer has given way to a whole breed of businesses working to offer consumers more transparency as well as to tie a percentage of profits to charity. This is particularly prevalent in retail. Consider brands like Bombas, Toms, or Warby Parker, who all operate on a “buy one, give one” model and donate products back to a population in need. There are, it turns out, many ways a company can think about and give back to their communities.

In examples like these, the benefits to the public are clear, and yet there are benefits to the business, too. Research has shown that, globally, 90 percent of consumers are likely to switch brands to one associated with a good cause, and 88 percent remain more loyal to these kinds of companies. Consumers want businesses to be more ethical and mindful of social and environmental issues.

It seems we’re all aligning around a desire to do better and give more, but as consumer brands rise to the occasion, we sometimes put our communities into the hands of private enterprise. Who, then, gets to decide what improvements are made? And what does community mean when it’s so closely tied to consumerism? Or does it even matter if, in the end, everyone comes out on top?

Apple’s town squares

From their sleek products to their iconic minimalist stores, Apple is well-recognized and often mimicked. Yet Apple’s physical presence in our shopping centers is undergoing a reinvention. In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve and to re-up the customer experience, Apple has reenvisioned the buyer experience in the context of community.

In May 2016, their flagship location opened in San Francisco’s Union Square, featuring enormous sliding glass doors that transform the store into an open-air space. The store itself has been divided into areas that serve a specific purpose, much like rooms in a house. For example, you’ll browse and buy devices in “The Avenue” or you can saunter over to the tree-lined “Genius Grove” to engage with product experts. The company will use “The Boardroom” as classroom space to engage with small business and startup leaders, and what’s known as “The Forum” could potentially become your new favorite concert venue. The Forum is intended as a community space where the store can host screened and live events. Some stores will even have an adjacent outdoor plaza with free Wi-Fi and additional performance space.

If history repeats itself, we’ll soon see other retail giants jump onto this bandwagon. For better or worse, Apple has just given us a glimpse at a future where stores aren’t solely places of commerce, but also something experiential and built around community.

Placemaking—a process

It’s not a small thing to build a community. And it’s curious that as much as the ways we engage with one another have changed, we still want to create an opportunity for engagement, whether that’s online or in person, in the physical world.

As much as the ways we engage with one another have changed, we still want to create an opportunity for engagement, whether that’s online or in person, in the physical world.

If you visit the website for the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization, you’ll read that “It takes a place to create a community and a community to create a place.”

The two walk hand-in-hand. The organization’s Placemaking approach “inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community.” In truth, it might not matter so much who foots the bill for a shared, public space so long as the space is actually in service to the community.

Key to the placemaking method is community involvement. In another project, SF Beautiful did just that—they engaged the community with a simple question, asking how a specific plaza might be made better. In this instance, the answer was rather inspired. The organization brings in grand pianos each Friday and transforms the plaza into a space for music, performance, art—and engagement.

Only time will tell how Apple’s town squares impact our communities—or our relationship with Apple—but in the meantime, look around. Is there a place for a grand piano, or some local art?

Suzanne Barnecut is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. Fascinated by technology, but a diehard reader of paper-made books and sender of snail mail. Find her on Twitter: @elisesuz.