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Westlake park (pictured) continues to be used as a democratic space even with other activation strategies. Photo by Vinita Goyal

Creative Placemaking as a panacea for economic revival and neighborhood reinvigoration has blossomed in the last decade or so, since the earlier seeds of art and artists coalescing in the urban realm were planted. We no longer celebrate the glitzy boulevards of Haussmann’s Paris or even more recent institutional settings of a Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Center in New York or a Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis that channeled grand public, philanthropic and corporate investments. We instead fashion our intimate public realm with nimble art interventions that interweave several strands. These interventions celebrate local culture through creative marketing and advertising; they render derelict or nondescript plazas and streets as a vibrant public realm and attract tourists and residents in increasing numbers; they drive and reinforce lifestyle choices of hip cafes and boutique stores and they leverage the mantra of place vitality equals revenue generation plus community cohesion.

The actual impact of these resource efficient art installations, as studied by theorists and practitioners has, however, often only partially matched their lofty goals. Although the economic boost following these interventions is well realized, often above expectations, the community cohesion has not always followed course. As metrics on attendance reflect, these revitalized public spaces are inviting more visitors, tourists and residents who are increasingly trading their private time to explore public art. The mix of race and class among these patrons, however, reflects a tricky dilemma. The current users include a dominant demographic - more whites and Asians, more middle-income groups and more millennials. As such, critics have often spelled out the vested private interests of economic development planners and local businesses within these creative placemaking projects that strategically target an exclusive audience.

The two revitalized park projects in Seattle, Occidental and Westlake, are refreshing new examples, because while they have generated economic value in the community, these projects went much further to develop community cohesion with the most vulnerable group of our society, the homeless. As the improved parks have brought in more people in increasing numbers, they haven’t, even to the advocates’ surprise, displaced the homeless. The park improvement efforts never attempted to in the first place. These cases provide a compelling opportunity to explore and understand the possibility of inclusive creative placemaking in the context of other experimentation taking place in cities across United States. This piece makes this inquiry through a comparative analysis of the Seattle case studies with a concurrent project in San Francisco, the Market Street Prototyping Festival, and closely focuses on the inclusion of homeless people in the process of creative placemaking.


The Market Street Prototyping Festival in San Francisco and the Occidental and Westlake parks in Seattle are a result of public-private partnerships that also involved prominent local and national non-profit institutions. Both employed temporary art installations to (re)activate the public space, and both selectively touched hotspots of illegal activities that are symptomatic of neighborhood disinvestment, criminalization of drug use and limited employment opportunities in urban neighborhoods. However, there is evidence of only one city being successful in including the homeless as an active audience.

Market Street is almost as old as San Francisco. Its character has remained the same for a century and a half, while many historical moments and spaces have been celebrated along its physical spine. The street has been a popular place for organized protests, from the labor riots and strikes in the early twentieth century and the Civil Rights era up to the more recent anti-Trump marches or the theatrical protests against Google buses that took place at the height of gentrification in the City. Between 2014 and 2016, municipal efforts focused on ‘activating’ the eastern section of the street through creative placemaking, and leveraged the familiar power of arts to increase revenue from the vitality of the corridor. The Market Street Prototyping Festival was held for three days annually during which temporary design prototypes were developed in partnership with artists and designers, with the plan of making some of these prototypes permanent in the future. There were play areas for kids, exercise stations for adults, installations with kaleidoscopic and other whimsical qualities and several that allowed forays into nature. During the festivals, the prototypes were displayed and civic participation was observed and measured.

Market Street Prototypes from the 2016 festival. Photo by Vinita Goyal.

Market Street Prototypes from the 2016 festival. Photo Vinita Goyal.

In downtown Seattle, Occidental Square and Westlake parks have served many uses over the years. While the City and its partners have made interventions to address the root causes of existing drug use and crime including physical repairs and career advancement opportunities more broadly, since 2014, in a similar creative placemaking genre but more permanent than the Market Street interventions, a variety of installations and activities at the parks now attract a broad cross section of people, including women and children, and the homeless.


Critical theorists have long dismissed public space activation/revitalization for its neoliberalist agenda that primarily promotes the interests of the bourgeois beneficiaries, who dominate over the needs of the marginalized. Criminalization of the homeless is a common framing in these theories.

Michael’s Sorkin’s early thesis on the “Variations on a Theme Park” made the claim against the artful playfulness in the theme park version of the urban landscape, which robs the public realm “of its sting, of the presence of the poor, of crime, of dirt, of work.” Such public space is neither democratic nor inclusive.

David Harvey, Richard Sennett and others began to theorize similarly about 19th Century Paris, where Haussmann had fashioned the capital into a ‘spectacle’ that resulted in a certain class homogeneity within public space. The spectacular City brought the bourgeois to enjoy the City center on display, its department stores as much as its grand boulevards, while relegating low-income and poor people to the City’s margins and thus excluding them from the enjoyment of the center. Such a divisive strategy is also central to Neil Smith and Setha Low’s provocative claims in the ‘Politics of Public Space’ that include a ‘sharpening of social divisions’ via the ‘control of the public space’.

In probably the most dystopic “end of public space” thesis, Don Mitchell presented the public space as a “battle ground over the homeless and the poor and over the rights of developers, corporations and those who seek to make over the city in an image attractive to tourists, middle– and upper-class residents, and suburbanites” that ultimately raises the question “who has the right to the city?”

These claims resonate with the multiple conversations and struggles over public space that we have seen emerge recently in cities across the world, from the popular Occupy movement of 2011 to the growing presence of homeless encampments in public spaces everywhere.

The above theoretical perspectives have been severely critical of the unrealized claims within placemaking projects, i.e., while the projects successfully marry art and urbanity, they often only benefit a few and punish many others in the process. The following sections, in contrast, highlight how theory also provides nuances to better understand the park activation examples in Seattle, for instance, that seek to break away from such suspicions and identify potential opportunities that creative placemaking presents.

Harvey et al have called for an urgent change in “the intensity of private property arrangements and the organization of commodity as spectacle” to foster true civic responsibility in our urban design projects, a point I revisit later.

Similarly, Don Mitchell’s belief that “production of pseudo-public spaces” do not have to be “regressive” is a retreat from his dystopic pessimism. Such examples, he says, “can open up opportunities for different kinds of sociability and can invite in those—like women or gays—who may be excluded from the public spaces through the exercise of violence”

These thoughts reflect optimism about a potential within placemaking that doesn’t need to foreclose certain populations’ access to accommodate others. Such an evolution of theory on public space is invigorating and inspires and guides us to design placemaking that opens public space for all.

As an example, Neil Brenner’s encouraging thesis on the potential of tactical urbanism provides an alternative pathway. An inclusive and democratic placemaking, he says, needs to be more than a mere facelift.

“The goal cannot be realized simply through the redesign and re-appropriation of specific physical sites with the city…it also requires the creation of “a new role for progressive policy, [and] a more efficient, transparent, inclusive, and collaborative form of government.’’

Such a collaborative government, Brenner says, will have designers not just ask spatial questions but reimagine

“how such basic institutions as private property, profit-oriented real-estate investment, urban land markets, and municipal bureaucracy might be transformed and even superseded to serve social needs, to empower urban inhabitants, and to contribute to the creation of a genuine urban public sphere.’’

What were the questions in San Francisco and Seattle? Are these cities’ designers and policymakers asking these alternative questions and challenging existing power structures? Or are they merely designing a ‘theme park’?

A temporary ice sculpture installation. Source: Downtown Seattle Association (DSA).


Ann Markusen, Professor Emerita at the Humphrey School at University of Minnesota, and others elsewhere have highlighted the inherent challenges in assessing the impact of placemaking initiatives. These include definitional challenges: when we measure vitality, vibrancy and livability, who are we measuring it for, women, children or the homeless? Also, sophisticated longitudinal models, which can effectively measure intangible outcomes such as civic participation and other objectives defined in these efforts, currently do not exist. For the purposes of this study, I decided to evaluate the planning processes that were at play in San Francisco and Seattle. What partnerships were formed? How were the broader projects designed? How did outcomes compare to goals?

The project goals as laid out in their marketing brochures in both San Francisco and Seattle had a very similar tone. They were conceptualized around meanings of community building and as “places to connect, relax, revitalize and discover” as noted in Seattle marketing materials.

While the Market Street Prototyping Festival was primarily a partnership between the San Francisco Planning Department and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, they also collaborated with other City Departments, art organizations and some non-profit research organizations. In Seattle, the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation contracted the management of the parks to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), a members-based non-profit that is working on several urban issues focused in downtown Seattle. These include transportation, economic competitiveness, the public realm, affordable housing and homelessness. DSA, funded by the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID), collaborated with other non-profit partners working in downtown on the project. This difference in collaboration triggered unique differences in subsequent project design in the two cities.

The Prototyping Festival was focused on elevating the expectation of what Market street could offer, even along its troubled sections, that symbolized familiar stories of concentrated disadvantage, drug markets, and violence. The language in the request for qualifications on poster designs notes: “It’s too wide and yet too crowded, too empty and yet too chaotic, too dangerous and yet too bland. We just cannot seem to get it right. But in true San Francisco fashion, our collective desire to transform Market Street into a wonderful, vibrant place endures.” The project involved an extensive public engagement process including going to places where people were. It was, however, also limited, as it solicited proposals from participants who were professionally trained in design—schools, independent artists and designers, and architecture consulting firms. In contrast, Seattle included a three-step process to ensure participation of diverse users, including families as well as the homeless. DSA organized stakeholder meetings to take broader public input about these users’ concerns and their ideas on programming. They improvised and experimented with several design features, which was informed by Dan Biederman’s Bryant Park redesign strategy in New York. After a year of activation, the marketing team interviewed park users and several homeless advocate groups--Real Change, Public Defenders Association, ACLU—to assess people’s perceptions about the overall park changes.

After the implementation in San Francisco, practitioners and advocates perceived Market Street prototyping as a placemaking strategy serving tourists even if it touched the low income Tenderloin, a neighborhood in the City that was home to the chronically jobless and isolated urban poor and where the police have cracked down on drug dealing and use as part of America’s “war on drugs.” According to one homeless advocate at the Coalition of Homelessness, “homeless people weren’t being asked to leave. They are not necessarily including the homeless.” Another practitioner associated with the project has confirmed how her experience in similar projects elsewhere has been that “there is a cultural disconnect with the homeless.” The block-by-block installation from the Prototyping Festival that was briefly installed as a permanent seating feature in the Tenderloin section of Market Street was taken out in 2016. While it was actively used by a group playing music, in the lack of effective stewardship and absent other supports such as injection sites and health services for individuals involved in drug activities, the area quickly ceded to drug use and was eventually removed from the street. The exercise equipment and tiny home prototypes that were designed for the homeless and low-income residents in mind, were never implemented as permanent installations.

In contrast, the Occidental Westlake park strategy has over the years appealed to a diverse set of people. The most familiar narrative is that of “homeless people playing chess with office workers.” According to Tim Harris, editor of the progressive newspaper, Real Change, homeless folks “use programming as anyone else. I have certainly ratcheted down my concern level” about park improvements removing the homeless.

DSA staff has stated that they try to make sure that their programming—installations and activities—serves everyone, particularly through a process of centering the needs of low-income park users. Be it through the graphics-based wayfinding signs designed for those who cannot read English, or the movable furniture and activities that can satisfy specific preferences identified through the public participation process. The infrastructure for bocce playing was installed after a request came from low income and homeless users. In hearing Thatcher Bailey, the Executive Director of the Seattle Parks Foundation, at a conference, the motivation of DSA becomes clear. Through its mission to serve its members—local businesses, non-profits and residents—DSA is also testing and employing a new park strategy, where inclusion of all populations benefits the nearby businesses.

Another reason for the larger positive presence of the homeless in Seattle are park ambassadors who are intimately involved with making the parks work as “safe and comfortable environment(s) to everyone, with no discrimination,” as noted by one I spoke to. Park ambassadors are the informal park rangers without uniforms and arms, employed by the MID. In my interviews with them, they have shared how they prioritize homeless peoples’ needs over the inclinations of other users to remove or harass them. They understand that circumstances and income inequalities have made people homeless and unless they are breaking park rules, everyone has an equal right to enjoy the park. They are often engaged in educating park users who may be unfamiliar with these ideas. There is almost no police presence in these parks and park ambassadors have for the most part been able to resolve conflicts that have come up. Drug use is not allowed in the parks and park ambassadors have politely persuaded drug users to leave.

I wondered during my exchange with park ambassadors if this is intrinsic personal motivation at play, or if there were organizational values guiding them such as MID’s theory of change. The MID, supported through funding from the business district, provides outreach to social services for the homeless and chronically ill street population. Among a suite of recovery strategies MID’s person-centered approach centers on identifying career pathways for the community it serves, for instance employing homeless people as park ambassadors.

One critique of the park improvements comes from Harris, who is concerned about Westlake losing its status as an area that permits group assemblies and protests in the context of its countless chairs and tables that dot the park every day. I encountered several successful organized actions taking place during many of my park visits. It seems to be an issue only with last minute events since DSA staff shared that moveable furniture is always cleared away to accommodate larger groups.


First, in reflecting on Mitchell’s contention that pseudo-public spaces do not have to be regressive, a look at the divergent cases of San Francisco’s Market Street Prototyping Festival and Seattle’s-Occidental and Westlake Park points to some of the strategies needed to counter exclusionary planning of public spaces. As the Seattle examples illustrate, marginalized populations, such as the homeless, can very well be an active audience in revitalized parks. In San Francisco, serving the homeless was never the inherent goal, activating the public realm was. While on the surface the goals appear neutral, in the light of popular critiques of creative placemaking, not centering those who are most marginalized in the design process does illustrate a regressive tendency.

However, there are always the enduring challenges of inclusion, visible even in Seattle where drug use is banned in Occidental and Westlake and homeless people are being included as long as they don’t break the park rules. Proscribing or limiting uses, activities and users, without accompanying spaces and supports such as the provision of safe injection sites (that the City of Seattle is currently pursuing to implement) can lead to further criminalization and risk new sources of inclusion, depending on 'who' decides what rules to enforce and how they are enforced. Ensuring access to public space may not in and of itself ensure 'inclusion', but greater input from those hitherto marginalized and excluded is a key first step.

Second, Seattle’s inclusive placemaking that invited homeless advocacy groups, is well reflected in Brenner’s call for collaborative spaces being central to any design process. Also, in contrast to San Francisco prototypes that align more closely with Harvey’s spectacle characterization, Occidental and Westlake parks take up Harvey’s challenge that for true civic participation, the “intensity of private property arrangements” needs to be reworked. Harvey posits a ‘symbiotic’ or a “relational connectivity among public, quasi-public and private spaces that counts when it comes to politics in the public sphere.” In that regard, Occidental park enjoys that connection with the several service organizations and homeless shelters that exist in the neighborhood. Westlake, although to a lesser extent, is also an extension of the surrounding quasi-public businesses that cater to the low-income demographic. These public and private uses continue to co-exist with other high end restaurants and businesses near the parks and the topic invites a separate study and exploration of its own.

Occidental Square Park (pictured) serves to a variety of audiences including the homeless. Photo by Vinita Goyal.

Finally, there are questions about the dignity we can continue to offer to our homeless population in our future efforts and the state of homelessness more broadly. Academic work like Don Mitchell’s continues to make visible the incessant criminalization of the homeless in our public spaces. In such a political context, I am very much interested in finding out whether the Seattle examples that integrate economic development strategies with social inclusion, as articulated by Bailey, can be replicated in other places and if the examples are scalable in Seattle itself. Is a paradigm shift plausible in how we plan for and interact with homeless people in public spaces? Can we truly engage them in park design? What is the potential to include other marginalized populations such as people with disabilities?

Through my ongoing research in San Francisco, I am learning that creative placemaking in park spaces in San Francisco has much evolved since the Market Street Prototyping Festival. The City is experimenting with newer approaches not totally dissimilar to DSA’s, which include park stewards’ engagement with the homeless, outreach to homeless advocacy organizations, art installations that are inclusive and engage everyone, and site locations in troubled areas of the city such as the Civic Center. The Civic Center initiative opened recently so it is yet to be seen how well it is serving the homeless population in the area. My initial reading from homeless advocacy organizations is that there is much skepticism among them at this initial stage (similar to what Seattle experienced) in the context of the recent crackdown on homeless people from other public spaces in the City, including the nearby Civic Center subway station. When I visited the area recently, I did not see any homeless people using the art installations. The newly installed children’s play areas had been barricaded from the surrounding greens where a few homeless can be occasionally spotted lounging. In Seattle there are no such walls.

Vinita Goyal is an independent researcher and Program Officer for Housing and Transportation at Silicon Valley Community Foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area.



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