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Urban Prototyping and the dawn of DIY urbanism

Urban Prototyping and the dawn of DIY urbanism

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Can the technologists, artists, or tinkerers who live next door change how your city works? The Urban Prototyping Festival offers a platform to find out.

SAN FRANCISCO -- In 1980, when Tom and David Kelley started designing what would become an early Apple computer mouse, they cobbled together a roller ball (from a bottle of Ban deodorant) and a butter dish. It wasn't pretty, but it got them started. If they hadn't experimented and risked failure, they'd never have built IDEO, the global design consultancy.

"Prototyping is permission to experiment," Tom Kelley told attendees of the first annual Urban Prototyping Festival in San Francisco, on October 20. "It's a way to unlock creativity."

The festival was instigated by the Gray Area for the Arts Foundation, an organization working at the intersection of technology, art and urban issues, and other groups that want to bring this kind of entrepreneurial, try-it-and-see attitude to urban development.

The Urban Prototyping Festival (or "UP Fest") started with a call for citizen-sourced prototypes for addressing a specific urban need or problem and offer a solution that integrates both physical and digital elements. The projects were to utilize existing infrastructure -- fences, fire hydrants, et cetera -- and be replicable in any city, with a prototype budget of $1,000 or less.

Nearly 100 teams submitted prototypes and a panel of judges selected 18 of these, providing the teams stipends for materials and giving them a platform for sharing their ideas at UP Fest.

The Standouts
As the sun broke through the fog, the festival streets filled with groups of chatty friends and families with small children, and the prototypes drew eager, smartphone-photo-snapping crowds. Some of the prototypes, such as a setup that converts a public staircase into a musical slide, were focused on fun over function. But others could address real issues around sanitation, urban greenery and traffic.

A project called DIY Traffic Controller, developed by Theodore Ullrich, an industrial designer from Tomorrow Lab and his partner Aurash Khawarzad, is comprised of off-the-shelf roadway sensors linked to software that tracks the speed and volume of vehicles – either cars or bikes – moving over the sensors. You've likely seen this type of traffic-tracking setup in your own town. But with Ullrich's iteration, a local cycling organization could track existing throughways for bike traffic, as a means of designing user-friendly bike lanes and better understanding vehicular traffic flow. "A bike-sharing company might use it, too," offered Ullrich, "to figure out where to site their bike racks based on existing bike traffic patterns. You could deploy a bunch of these around a city and gather than data in one day, instead of someone standing around with a clicker, manually counting each bike they see."

One of the most innovative ideas on display was the P-Planter, a hack of the traditional Port-a-Potty but one that could address the need for more public urination facilities while also solving the stink issue and adding more plant life to city streets. UP Fest participants made use of the P-Planter urinal at the event (thanks to disposable pee funnels, both male and females could use the outhouse). The urine is routed through a biofilter before being mixed with water and made available to the adjacent plants (large bamboo stalks, in the prototype). Sensors measure the amount of urine entering the urinal and monitor ammonia levels.

To determine where P-Planters are most needed, the developers created a smartphone app that lets citizens select desired locations on an online map. You will not see a P-Planter in your neighborhood any time soon – for one thing, they're far from ADA-compliantapproved – but the P-Planter team tells me the urinals could be used at festivals as long as they're deemed "experimental." Update: P-Planter developer Brent Bucknum wrote to tell me the urinal does, in fact, meet ADA dimension requirements and that he is working with community groups in SF and Oakland to start pilot programs with the P-Planter, so it may, in fact, come to city streets.

A very different kind of planter, the Fruit Fence, converts the ubiquitous chain link fence into an urban plant nursery. Planter bags made of recycled Tyvec building material could be slung over or hung from fencing and used to grow, say, strawberry plants or lemon tree starters. Sensors in the bags alert passersby that the plant needs water or fertilizer, or these signals can be sent to community members via text message. The idea is that people who live in the neighborhood and walk by the plants every day would be encouraged to act as stewards for the plants and ensure they remain healthy.

The Underwriters
San Francisco has been drawing attention as a kind of Petri dish for re-imagining urban infrastructure, through efforts such as parklets, which swap parking spots for platforms for people and plants and social interaction.

"We don't just need parklets, we need 20 more ideas like parklets," said Alex Michel, director of the 5M Project. Established in 2010, the 5M Project has set up shop in a four-acre parcel of downtown San Francisco, which also hosted the UP Fest and serves as home base for a number of groups involved in UP Fest. 5M is developing the parcel as a live-work hub where "artists, makers, students, changemakers, entrepreneurs, local food, and technology are coming together day and night."

5M Project is also part of Forest City, a $10 billion real estate developer that we can thank for erecting strip malls across the country, but that more recently has been focused on a plethora of mixed-use redevelopments in rusty urban corridors. Update: I should have noted that Forest City is also focused on adaptive reuse of historic locations, such as the residential project Presidio Landmark. And should the word "rusty" be misinterpreted as referencing the rust belt, it doesn't. The company has developed mixed-use projects across the country, from University Park at MIT, to the LEED-certified Uptown, part of a recent revitalization project in downtown Oakland, Calif.

IDEO and Rebar, which creates public art and infrastructure and has developed many of the city's parklets, and SF's arts organization Intersection of the Arts also collaborated on the festival.

GAFFTA's executive director Josette Melchor said the group didn't have a specific model for the UP Fest, but noted the World's Fair as an inspiration. The event grew out of work GAFFTA had been doing with the City of San Francisco to help redevelop the beleaguered Mid-Market Street. "We were starting to build all these digital tools, but we weren't impacting the city," she said, and hopes UP Fest offers a more direct, hands-on approach, and that it will give citizen-sourced solutions a platform.

Melchor also says the fun, and the work, won't stop here: GAFFTA is partnering with Imperial College to host UP London in April 2013.

Images: Strelka Institute (top); Mary Catherine O'Connor

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure