Hacking the Streets of San Francisco at the Market Street Prototyping Festival

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Hacking the Streets of San Francisco at the Market Street Prototyping Festival


Hackers took over Market Street in downtown San Francisco this weekend. Not Anonymous-style protesters, but urban makers, who brought 50 prototypes, custom built to modify the urban environment and make it more interactive.

The variable, manic identity of the street, which cuts a diagonal swathe across the city, is a frequent topic of discussion among San Franciscans and urban planning thinkers. It’s one of the most traveled streets in the city, filled with pedestrians, public transit, and tourists, so it’s ripe for experimentation. That was one purpose of the Market Street Prototyping Festival, held April 9-11, in five different blocks of the street.

The making began far earlier, though, last October when 50 teams were selected, based on their proposals for installations, to spend six months working in partnership with local organizations like Autodesk and the Exploratorium to build prototypes to strengthen the community through physical builds.

It was difficult to tell who was on Market Street for the festival, and who happened upon it by chance, but that’s kind of the point — the artists and makers who were there with their creations talked about how people would come together to interact with them, as well as how the makers would adapt their prototypes to be more easily used.


Perhaps the best example is the PPlanter, an outdoor public urinal that recycles wastewater through biofilters into planters that make up the structure. It was first rolled out three years ago, at the prototyping festival’s predecessor. Since then, says team member Marisha Farnsworth, they’ve had to adapt it a lot, making it ADA compliant while balancing privacy with safety. They’ve received a lot of interest, including some limited-term trials, but as with many of the prototypes on display, they’re hoping for a larger rollout, and possibly permanent placement, in San Francisco or elsewhere. “People have been super excited about PPlanter since the beginning,” says Farnsworth.


Many of the other projects veered more toward public art, like Yael Braha’s Tree of Changes, a life-size metal tree with a CNC milled base and welded metal branches, covered in fabric held on by binder clips and inspired by the I Ching, neural networks, and Japanese wish trees. Her teammates programmed a recording device and speakers to listen to wishes of passersby and project them via LED strips running up the branches. “Every wish that is spoken gets analyzed and visually travels through the branches and aggregates on the tree based on sentiment,” she says. “I kind of view it as an organic, live organism.”


Other installations featured actual organic, live organisms, like Relax, a rocking platform seeded with drought-resistant, aromatic plants like isotoma, thyme, and mint. “It’s kind of like a hammock, or something you’d have in your back yard,” says Max Obata, one of the makers. “It’s honestly been more of a playtime thing, which is good, but the grass has taken a beating.”


Also designed to be climbed on, Peak Experience featured vertically exaggerated scale representations of three of the city’s notable hills, cast in bright pink from mulched rubber, like you see on high-school tracks. “The idea is to use it however you want to, whether for lounging or for play, that’s kind of the point is to interact with it,” says Kimberly Garza, who worked on the project. If they got their way, she says, they’d install representations of all 53 of San Francisco’s hills, stretched out for blocks and blocks, “stripping the urban fabric off of these hills and showing the true forms.”


Many of the projects featured light and/or sound. Ruby Chen installed Arduinos with photinterruptor circuits in newspaper boxes, calling it Unsilence the Newsbin. Tug on a handle, and it lights up in a random color. Dan Gottwald and crew built Chime SF, a sort of tunnel of chimes and hammers that ring when people press on the broad, flat wooden sides. Originally, it was to be a sound wall, but Gottwald decided something self-contained would be more robust, and get more interaction, without being easily damaged. “It was a matter of several different iterations to make all the sound-making components internal and all the interaction external,” Gottwald says.


The ultimate question with each prototype is, what becomes of it now? Some will certainly be relegated to warehouses, or disassembled for parts. Some may live on, repurposed in other situations, and some may even become the foundation for later, permanent installments or products. How that happens depends on the conversation that happens around these pieces. Chime in here.

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Nathan Hurst is an editor at Make. He loves anything having to do with science or bicycling. He tweets as @nathanbhurst.

View more articles by Nathan Hurst
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