Our Bay Area Masterclass

This summer, Gehl Institute collaborated with Gehl and SPUR on our first Tools for Change Masterclass in the San Francisco Bay Area. We hosted participants from 13 big and small cities around the world—from Fargo, North Dakota, to Passo Fundo, Brazil. Participants brought their wide-ranging experiences in architecture, education, philanthropy, public health, and more. Together, we spent an action-packed three days in San Francisco, Oakland, and San José.

Why study public life in the Bay Area?

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to more than 7 million people across over 100 municipalities, with few mechanisms for coordinating governance at the regional scale. Unsurprisingly then, the challenges and opportunities for public life vary considerably across its locales; along with the area’s natural beauty, thriving parks, and long histories of radical political life, there are also sprawling car-centric suburbs, vast racial and economic inequality, and a deteriorated public space fabric in many historic neighborhoods.

In this context of rich physical and social diversity, we sought to learn how different actors are developing new models and solutions for the enhancement of public life. The Bay Area proved a complex, confounding, and often inspiring arena to think through a multitude of overlapping issues that are also relevant in participants’ many home communities, including equitable mobility, population growth, and retrofitting suburbs.


Tools for Change

We kicked off the first day with an orientation on public life and how we measure it. Participants set out, public life tools in hand, to better understand the social activity of two San Francisco public spaces, and to get a sense for what a public life – public space survey process looks and feels like. We spoke with an interdisciplinary mix of local and international experts about temporary, imaginative public space interventions–such as the Market Street Prototype Festival–as well as approaches to masterplanning and everyday city governance. Neil Hrushowy, Principal Urban Designer for the City and County of San Francisco, described how public life data has been “a gateway hook” to get his department “to think more deeply about people and empathy” in public space, and to approach urban design as first and foremost the design of “social spaces.”

Chris Iglesias of the Unity Council speaks about the Fruitvale Village development.

Mobility & Urban Quality

Our second day centered on the relationship between form and life in cities. How does the built environment–the city’s sidewalks, roads, parks, plazas, buildings, etc.–enhance or diminish the pedestrian or cyclist experience? How can the design of public space create invitations for people to comfortably spend time together outside? With these questions in mind, the group embarked on walking and biking tours to learn more about how issues of housing, equity, and mobility relate to human-scale design in Oakland. We wrapped up the day with a panel of transit and housing experts, who stressed the importance of cultural humility and robust community engagement in making any planning decisions. Earning back trust among historically marginalized residents, they emphasized, is integral to any successful public space policy.

Workshopping next steps outside San José City Hall.

Getting Public Life on the Agenda

“What does Silicon Valley look like?” posed Allison Arieff, editor at SPUR. A lot of tourists come to the Bay Area to find out, but leave confused after driving past countless unremarkable, largely inaccessible office campuses. Silicon Valley’s built environment, Arieff told us, “does not reflect the innovation driving the local economy,” with little investment in common spaces where public life can flourish. On Day 3, our group took the Caltrain and light rail down to San José, to learn about new strategies for making the Bay Area’s largest city more people-friendly. We explored Samsung’s Silicon Valley headquarters, held a panel discussion about the importance of a strong public sector to shape urban development, and engaged with city department heads about their efforts to inspire everyday public life for all residents (see, for example, the Viva Calle event).

As the masterclass came to a close, we couldn’t have felt more inspired by the participants, their love of cities and public life, and their passion for creating more equitable, inviting, and pleasurable public spaces. We’re grateful to have extended our community through their presence, and look forward to continuing to work together.

Interested in attending a masterclass? Organizing a study tour?

We’re hosting another Masterclass in Copenhagen this summer, which you can register for here. If you would like to organize a tailored study tour for a group in the Bay Area, Copenhagen, New York City, or somewhere else, please reach out! Email us at publiclife@gehlinstitute.org.

Thank you!

We never could have done this without our incredible roster of presenters, staff, and volunteers who made this event happen. Thank you! And special thanks to Cristina Bejarano, who volunteered throughout the class.

Gehl Institute’s Bay Area Masterclass participants