A Vision For Transforming San Francisco’s “Unaccepted Streets”

Local_Code.jpgA proposed design for an unaccepted street, from Local Code, courtesy Nicholas de Monchaux
Throughout San Francisco's history, from the early street grid to the more recent expansion of freeways, slivers of land that don't fit into the master plans of architects and designers have been cast aside, lumped into a category the Department of Public Works (DPW) refers to as "unaccepted streets." These "paper streets" are mapped but not maintained by any agency. As Chris Carlsson so beautifully chronicled in his Ghost Streets tour, many of these alleys and street stubs are cared for by neighbors and transformed into small gardens or pocket parks.  Many more, however, are forgotten urban scars and latent public space.

Berkeley Professor of Architecture Nicholas de Monchaux estimates that there are 529 acres of unaccepted streets, just over half the land area of Golden Gate Park. In Local Code [PDF], one of six finalists in UCLA's WPA 2.0 design competition ("Whoever rules the sewers, rules the city"), de Monchaux details his vision for replenishing 1514 of these unaccepted streets by linking contemporary geospatial planning tools with existing public processes through the DPW to implement  "a range of local infrastructural gestures, from soil remediation, to victory gardening, to playgrounds and pastures."  

Local Code borrows from the work of  "anarchitect" Gordon Matta-Clark, who in the early 1970s discovered that New York City auctioned off pieces of unusable land that resulted from surveying anomalies and public-works expansion, so called "gutterspaces," fifteen of which he purchased and developed for Fake Estates, an architectural intervention meant to dissect notions of materiality, property ownership, and prestige.

With Local Code, de Monchaux hopes to accelerate the pace of converting streets into green spaces, particularly in the underserved neighborhoods in the shadows of freeways, where unaccepted streets are abundant.  "If you look at the unaccepted streets, it is like heat map of all the areas with health problems, pollution issues, and neglected spaces," he said.

unaccepted_streets_small.jpgA sampling of DPW's map of unaccepted streets. Click image to enlarge. Download PDF
"Right now San Francisco has taken a very enlightened view on theses sites," added de Monchaux, who worked with DPW staff while developing Local Code.  "Not only are we not going to stand in your way and tell you that you can't do it, but we may even be able to dedicate DPW resources to help you."

Professor de Monchaux hopes to capitalize on the DPW's Street Parks Program, which encourages community members who are dedicated to greening and maintaining an underutilized street to turn it into a park. In early September, after a surge of new parks over the past year, the Street Parks Program completed its 100th Street Park with the completion of a community garden at the corner of Broadway and Himmelman streets in Chinatown.

He sees his parametric design concepts as shortcuts to facilitating the conversion of these spaces. "One of the stopping points is that the community often has to hire a designer for each case. I would love to hire top-notch landscape architects for every one of these projects, but we can't afford to do that."

Rather, de Monchaux has developed general classifications for the sites based on elevation and topography, microclimate, soil type, hydrology, population density, crime, and access to existing networks of open space and bicycle routes. Using these general ratings, Local Code would provide the building blocks and general principles for transforming the spaces, but would leave the specifics up to community input and process.

With the project, de Monchaux asks how technology might be used to open the designing of the city to its residents: "How might you use important tools like GIS to work the kind of change and hack the city in accordance with the way the city wants to be?"

DPW Director Ed Reiskin, who saw the project for the first time after Streetsblog brought it to his attention, thought the concepts were good. "In the big scheme of things, any idea or process that would turn underutilized spaces into better space, I'm all for.  I think that would be fantastic."

Reiskin reiterated that "unaccepted" does not imply "unused," that even when the city doesn't maintain a street or alley, the people who live on it often do. Reiskin also placed the Local Code vision for unaccepted streets within the parameters of work the city is doing to reclaim street space for green space.

"There's a larger theme of things that we've been doing independently and ad hoc," said Reiskin. "From Sunday Streets, to Pavement to Parks, to sidewalk landscaping, there is all this public space that has the opportunity to be more useful, more pleasant, all around the city. I kind of see it as all somewhere within the larger realm."

Professor de Monchaux, who is also a regular contributor at the Santa Fe Institute, where he studies complex systems and emergence, sees parallels from biology in the sustenance of urban centers and suggested that the more diverse the uses of urban space, the better it would be for the long-term health of a city in flux. He hoped the tools presented in Local Code would not be used to gentrify the neighborhoods where they are implemented.

"A gentrified neighborhood is a complex ecosystem becoming a monoculture," he said. "Monocultures are fragile--they may be good in the short term, but not forever. When we have cities that are theme parks, they are not going to be able to accommodate change."

"When there is change in living systems, to accommodate these circumstances, the things that were least valuable become the most valuable."