s other contributors in this thematic issue discuss, the notion of critical spatial practice springs from Michael de Certeau’s distinction between tactics and strategy. This is often interpreted as implying two scales of action, typically understood as oppositional. For Jane Rendell, credited with coining the academic term “critical spatial practice,” de Certeau’s tactics are closely associated with Henri Lefebvre’s emphasis on the “right to the city,” which frames urban space in general and public space in particular as a terrain of political conflict (Rendell 2008). For the purposes of this analysis of critical spatial practice and the role of public space in urban politics, Manuel Castells, another soixante-huitard, is an important reference point because he provides a framework for understanding how questions of urban-environmental quality and cultural identity intersect with each other and larger political structures in the production of urban space (Castells 1983; Castells 1992; Abramson, Manzo, and Hou 2006).  For Rendell, whose focus has generally been on public art, tactical measures seek to critique and question existing social orders that are maintained and reinforced according to the linear problem-solving logic of the strategic that is associated with modernism. Towards these ends, Rendell draws on the Frankfurt School, as well as post-structuralists, post-colonialists, feminists, and others to identify creative design practices that seek to enact (or at least project or narrate) social change. As is implicit in her terminology, Rendell shares a critical understanding of tactics that implies an opposition vis-à-vis “top-down” state strategies that would correspond to the conceptualization of critical geographies in action. The contemporary question for advocates of critical spatial practice is: what happens when the tactic becomes the strategy?

Through and beyond De Certeau’s tactics, architecture historians have identified a ”second  modernism” following the breakup of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne and becoming firmly rooted after 1968 (Krieger and Saunders 2009). An increased focus on civic space and participatory and community planning procedures reflected the rise of new social movements, during which time the professions of urban design and environmental design emerged to incorporate a variety of ecological (Knuth 2019, Anker 2010), social (Dutta et al. 2013), and cultural (Akcan 2018; Scott 2016) critiques and counter-designs into a regime of “best practices” for  “urban livability” (Peck, Theodore, and Brenner 2012; Krivy and Ma 2018). Indeed, as other papers in this special issue attest, tactical thinking is a core component of normative resilience strategy, which shares a risk-oriented conceptual framework with the FIRE (Financial, Insurance, and Real Estate) industries that structure the global economy. This paper explores how the foundations of this urban transformation took form in the 1970s and accelerated with global economic liberalization of the 1990s. In terms of public space, these developments seemed to usher in a contradictory phenomenon, characterized by a simultaneous proclamation of the death of public space (Low and Smith 2013; Mitchell 2003) and a fixation on the triumphal return of human-scale urbanism of everyday life (Krivy and Ma idb. Bodnar 2015). While much of the most explicit urban triumphalism of creative cities discourse has been roundly critiqued (Peck 2005), the boundary between the crass commercialization of urban lifestyles (Zukin 1989) and an ethnographic emphasis on the creative capacities of the “everyday” (Chase, Crawford, and John 2008) and “assemblage” urbanism (McFarlane 2011) can become murky, especially for “scholar-practitioners” in the design fields (Bela 2014). For this reason, more empirical examination is needed to clarify the ways in which the millennial focus on multicultural public space and place (Low, Taplin, and Scheld 2009), intersects varying scales of urbanization and capital accumulation, even though they may have grown out of explicitly political movements to establish participatory and pluralistic planning (Hayden 1997; Sandercock 1997).  Finally, Rendell’s conceptualization of critical spatial practice, grounded in public art, may be reconsidered in relation to recent critiques of participatory and political art (Bishop 2012; Lee 2013).

However, in the spirit of the forum Critical Geographies in Action, the goal of this paper is not to definitively resolve these complex theoretical issues, but rather present reflections on how collaborative community-engaged design research practice can open up questions for scholarly research. In this case, a brief inquiry is made into the historical relationship between critical spatial practice and the design of privately-owned public spaces (POPOS) using the case of San Francisco’s South of Market District. The empirical case of San Francisco and the design of its South of Market District is useful as a unique individualizing comparison, a well-documented and extreme spatial manifestation of global urban processes. The broader emergence of Silicon Valley as a regional, national, and international force has been extensively analyzed  (Saxenian 1991; Hall and Preston 1988). More recently, local gentrification scholars have layered the analytic lenses of racial capitalism and settler-colonialism to describe changes in neighborhoods like the Mission, long beloved by academics, activists, and tech workers (Maharawal 2017).  Stehlin (2015) has taken a more nuanced view that also explicitly focused on public space, and SoMa in particular. For him, public space in the neighborhood has been reconfigured as a “shop floor” of the innovation economy, a space of productive consumption, an urban logic reflective of the user-generated Web 2.0 economy. However, in order to explicate this development and why SoMa is a particularly important empirical case of these multi-scalar dynamics, a brief overview of the historical politics of public space in the neighborhood is in order.

A Brief Introduction to Public Space Politics in SoMa

Historically an industrial district between the waterfront and downtown, a landscape of warehouses and open lots interspersed with back alleys of working-class tenements, hemmed in by railyards and then freeways, SoMa has long lacked public open spaces. With post-war urban restructuring and the containerization of the docks, its downtown-adjacent location was an early target for post-war efforts at urban renewal. However, as Chester Hartman documented, the militant history of the labor movement on the waterfront provided an important basis for the formation of the urban social movement to defend the neighborhood from urban renewal (Hartman 2002). Residents of single room occupancy hotels in the neighborhood formed Tenants and Owners Against Urban Renewal (TOOR) and waged a series of drawn out court-battles against city officials, becoming Tenants and Owners Development Corporation (TODCO) in 1971. TODCO forged an important model of non-profit development and community advocacy in San Francisco and beyond, negotiating city and developer concessions in the urban renewal process. In the case of SoMa and the public space inserted by urban renewal schemes, TODCO lawsuits over subsequent decades resulted in substantial design changes for what became the Yerba Buena Gardens development, including the incorporation of more open space and amenities beyond the initial proposal centered on a convention center. TODCO remains an important anchor for poor and working-class people in SoMa, going on to develop eight residential buildings and sponsoring a number of community services and initiatives. TODCO therefore reflects a broader trend of non-profit organizations becoming an increasingly important economic and political base in the neighborhood and the city more broadly, especially as progressive Mayor George Moscone restructured the city council to empower neighborhoods in the 1970s.

While TODCO has maintained a constituency, decades after initial lawsuits, the population of the neighborhood had shifted over the 1970s and 80s. Many of the retired maritime workers who formed TODCO’s initial constituency, single elderly men, gradually passed away. While Filipinos had long had a presence in the neighborhood, reflective of San Francisco’s status as an imperial gateway to the Pacific and the Filipino presence in the maritime industries more generally, their numbers increased following federal liberalization of immigration regulations in 1965. Populations gradually clustered in SoMa, especially after the destruction of the old Manilatown between Chinatown and redevelopment zones along the waterfront north of Market Street. TODCO would go on to collaborate with the Filipino-American Caballeros-Dimasalang, a free-masonry group with a presence in the neighborhood since the 1920s, opening a subsidized senior housing project across the street from the Yerba Buena Gardens site in 1981. In terms of public space, this project included likely the first community garden still in operation in the neighborhood, and it also marked an important early public affirmation of Filipino identity, with streets around the project named after Filipino national heroes. Thus, by the time Yerba Buena Gardens opened to the public in 1993, it was immediately a center for the region’s Filipino community, by that time 30% of the population and the ethnic majority in the diverse SoMa district (Walker 2018).

In addition to the rise of the Filipino community in SoMa, other dynamics shifted and transformed the politics of public space in the area. SoMa emerged as a center for artistic production  over the course of the 1960s and 70s as art making became increasingly professionalized and incorporated into institutions at the state, federal and local level, with a new arts economy that encouraged community-oriented and socially-engaged practices that often took form in public space (Lewallen et al. 2011).[1] This participatory turn is also reflected in design practices developing during the early 1970s, such as Lawrence Halprin’s reworking of the stretch of Market Street that bounded SoMa, responding to short comings of early modernist designs by using creative and participatory design methods to shift focus from abstract “open space” to inhabited “public space” (Hirsch 2014).

The importance of alternative art organizations in the neighborhood eventually led to the establishment of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) at the Yerba Buena Gardens. As a counterpart to nearby SFMoMa, which anchored the Yerba Buena urban renewal project early on, YBCA was founded as a regional “arts incubator.” supporting local artists including many experimenting with these new kinds of practices (New Langton Arts 1990). However, by the 1980s, public funds began to recede, and arts organizations needed to become increasingly entrepreneurial, and the Yerba Buena district became a primary hub for the non-profit cultural industries in the region (Grodach 2010).  In this respect, just as TODCO established a constituency base and cadres of managers, the arts community formalized and professionalized over the 1980s, establishing a symbiotic relationship with developers as tourism appeared as the city’s leading industry.

In brief, the Reagan-era in San Francisco is associated with the mayoralty of Dianne Feinstein, who retreated from much of Moscone’s progressive agenda, becoming a foe to community advocates in SoMa (DeLeon 1992). Most significantly for the neighborhood, she pushed forward earlier visions of urban renewal to expand the financial district south of Market Street in the Downtown Plan of 1985. Some saw Feinstein’s efforts at downtown expansion as in-line with other hostile actions against the gay community, including refusing to march in the Pride Parade and cracking down on gay clubs and bathhouses, many of which were in the South of Market. Accordingly, a TODCO employee helped organize the “Megahood” street party, what would later become the Folsom Street Fair, now a major tourist attraction and showcase of leather/BDSM culture. While the Folsom Street Fair has become an explicitly leather/BDSM festival, “Megahood” began as a more general assertion that SoMa had an extant culture deserving of recognition in the public realm. Of course, in the context of the AIDS crisis in 1980s San Francisco, this public affirmation of identity was laden within a broader political context beyond the neighborhood leather clubs and boutiques.

In the case of Feinstein’s Downtown Plan of 1985, pressure from neighborhood activists resulted in the adoption of a requirement for privately-owned public space in new office developments, and a payment into a public art fund from new hotels. These concessions were seen as a relatively progressive outcome at the time, at least compared to other corporate public spaces in urban renewal projects in similar downtown neighborhoods like LA’s Bunker Hill (Loukaitou-Sideris and Banerjee 1993). However, due to this lack of comprehensive planning for the district, as the neighborhood transformed with the expansion of the financial industries over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the historic lack of open space was addressed exclusively with privately-owned public spaces.  Compounding this trend towards public-private partnership in the production of public spaces, an additional dynamic emerging during the 1980s concerned a new politics of homelessness (Gowan 2010). While the destitute and transient had long sought refuge in the neighborhood’s single room occupancy hotels, the politics of public space transformed with the deinstitutionalization of state psychiatric hospitals. With the intensification of social services and non-profit organizations locating in the neighborhood, so did demand for defensive architecture and private security for the new privately-owned public spaces.

The urban political dynamics emerging in SoMa, therefore, reflected a more profound critique of state-led development and a transfer of power to third sector non-profit organizations and community benefit districts (Wolch 1989; Rose 1996). This encompasses both fears of “the end of public space” as well as evidence the persistence of an “everyday urbanism” despite these dynamics. A prime case of these conflictual dynamics are the Yerba Buena Gardens opened in 1993, an essentially a publicly-owned but privately managed open space, bemoaned by San Francisco cultural commentator Rebecca Solnit (2002) as an “obsequious monument to global capitalism.” At the same time, it quickly became a lively central gathering place in the broader regional Filipino community and site of the Filipino American Arts Exposition annual Pistahan parade.

With the global economic acceleration stemming post-cold war liberalization, public space took on a new political-economic latency, and SoMa was the site of several illustrative developments. Much of this sprung from the Loma Prieta Earthquake at the end of 1989, which revealed a profound regional infrastructural crisis with SoMa at key corridor and chokepoint (Frick 2016). The immediate task of rebuilding key regional infrastructure including part of the Bay Bridge and the regional Transbay Bus Terminal occurred at a key moment of geopolitical realignment and global economic restructuring. In terms of public space in SoMa, among the most immediate changes was the dismantling of the elevated waterfront Embarcadero Freeway and construction of a public promenade, reflecting a renewed emphasis on public space and closure to over three decades of anti-freeway citizen upheaval. The planning, design, and construction of the quake-damaged Bay Bridge and Transbay Terminal proceeded more slowly, with large scale public competitions and deliberation in the public sphere unfolding over the course of the 2000s. In architectural terms, the new Transbay Terminal would take form as an ambitious megastructure with clear roots in the modernist strategies that surfaced in urban renewal projects like Yerba Buena, including a massive “ecological” rooftop privately-owned public open space designed by Peter Walker and Partners. The park was dubbed Salesforce Park in 2014 after that company became the anchor tenant of the Transbay Terminal Tower abutting the new transportation hub. In the most simplistic terms, the looming tower and the park are the newest icons of San Francisco, reflective of the ascendency of the tech industry to heights unimaginable in the earlier era of urban renewal (Walker 2018).

However, as the Transbay megaproject slowly advanced, the area around SoMa’s South Park, what was until 2006 the district’s one true public space, became perhaps a better reflection of the reconfiguration of public space into a zone of “productive consumption” as per Stehlin’s observations (idb).  Briefly dubbed “Multimedia Gulch,” a local tech scene appeared to grow organically out of the experimental arts practices and associated media production businesses that took hold in the neighborhood in the 1970s (Wolfe 1999; Pratt 2002).  Impromptu urban encounters in South Park, which would in fact lead to the conception of Twitter, served as the basis to promote new urban policy focused on fostering innovation and creativity. After the “Parking Day” experiment by Rebar, an “arts-design-activism” organization later purchased by multi-national public space consultancy Gehl, the city formalized strategies for using tactical or “user generated urbanism” to expand the urban alchemy of South Park. This included a city-wide parklet program informed by Rebar’s experiments that was later exported around the country (Littke 2016). In collaboration with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Gehl, they established various temporary “urban prototyping” experiments along the mid-market corridor that separated central and western SoMa from the Tenderloin.  In this way, tactics complemented the latest iteration of large scale “top-down” strategy as the central business district angled to compete with suburbs, much as it had in the days of urban renewal.

As the Web 2.0 tech boom appeared immanent at the end of the 2000s, in what became known as the “Twitter Tax Deal,” officials allowed payroll tax breaks to tech firms that located operations in the Mid-Market corridor. While this deal was widely protested and has been well analyzed (Walker idb., Stehlin idb.) further empirical examination into the history of user generated urbanism could illuminate contemporary dynamics of the production of urban space in the Web 2.0 economy (Owens, forthcoming). The remainder of this paper briefly sets up a few of these questions for further inquiry  in reflecting on a few ways community groups in SoMa have responded to this urban restructuring through the question of public space.

Public Space and Anti-Gentrification Politics

As designs for the Transbay Center were underway and Multimedia Gulch crept westward, the city developed new masterplans for the rest of SoMa, part of a broader reconfiguration of the city’s eastern neighborhoods on the deindustrializing waterfront. In SoMa, TODCO has continued to see its role as fighting “downtown expansion,” drawing a continuous line from 40 years of urban renewal to the “rapid dot.com-live/work gentrification” (TODCO 2019).  This included sponsoring the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN) and the Bayanihan House, two important organizations emerging in the wake of the first tech boom. The Bayanihan House is a community center and gathering place with a rent-free 20-year lease, while SOMCAN engages in political advocacy work on gentrification and displacement issues on behalf of low-income immigrant youth and families in area. As neighborhood organizers, SOMCAN aims to build a political base by providing youth programs, tenant counseling, workforce development, and acting as community liaisons in the planning process. This includes facilitating workshops for public feedback on planning issues, as well as mobilizing community members to show support for legislation, often by organizing actions such as showing up in person at City Hall for both citywide measures such as raising the minimum wage, as well as petitioning particular agencies such as the Department of Public Works or the transportation authority about neighborhood specific issues. In terms of public space, SOMCAN played an important role as community liaisons in the design and construction of the first new public park in SoMa since the city purchased South Park in 1897. Opened in 2006, Victoria Manolo Draves Park was named for the first Asian American Gold Medalist who also hailed from the neighborhood. SOMCAN continued to advocate for Victoria Manolo Draves Park when it was threatened by shadows from a nearby condo development in 2019.

Additionally, SOMCAN called attention to the failures of the POPOS policy from the 1985 Downtown Plan meant to ameliorate the deficit of open space in the neighborhood. They successfully argued that the POPOS are primarily designed for office workers to take lunch and do not meet the social needs of their constituencies for accessible open space and recreation. Accordingly, as part of a larger initiative to address issues of the built environment, SOMCAN petitioned for all new POPOS built as part of the new up-zoned Central SoMa Plan to be located outdoors at ground level. They then gathered feedback from residents on desired design features, producing a collective cognitive map of the neighborhood, spatializing issues and identifying potential improvements. As designers, we used the aggregate list of amenities to imagine what they might look like integrated into a single POPOS. We are also developing a set of district-wide guidelines for distributing these amenities in the new POPOS in the large construction pipeline as a result of the new zoning plans.

Fig.  POPOS reimagined as community amenities. (SOMCAN/CAMO Studio).

In addition to the establishment of Victoria Manolo Draves Park and the critique of the POPOS policy, another major development with regards to public space design and anti-gentrification politics in SoMa has been the creation of cultural districts in the neighborhood. While the city has long had informal cultural districts and ethnic enclaves, this latest wave of cultural districts in San Francisco reflects a new use as an anti-gentrification tactic. SoMa Pilipinas, along with Calle 24 in the Mission, became the first two cultural districts recognized by the State of California as per Assembly Bill 189 passed in 2015. Additionally, two other cultural districts recognized by the City of San Francisco were recently established in the SoMa, both of which overlap with SoMa Pilipinas; the LGBQT Leather Cultural District, and Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, all of which are funded with a percentage of the Feinstein-era hotel tax for public art. While these new kinds of cultural districts are still in their infancy, it is clear that they intend to serve as a platform from which to negotiate concessions from developers and lobby city officials, such as securing $300,000 in stabilization funds to hire historians in the case of Compton’s Transgender District. Public space is a crucial part of early efforts for these Cultural Districts, and in the first year each have taken to making their presence visible on the streetscape by hanging banners or painting streetlights.

Fig. Eagle Plaza (Friends of Eagle Plaza).

In the case of SoMa Pilipinas and the Leather Cultural District, this has also involved incorporating design criteria into new public spaces that not only asserts the identity of these communities, but provides some economic benefits to them as well. In the case of Leather Cultural District, this concerns Eagle Plaza, named after the 1980s gay bar across the street threatened by residential development in the 2010s. The plaza was first proposed in 2014 as part of a community benefit for a new apartment building with 136 market rate units and 22 units for the city’s affordable housing lottery program. Eagle Plaza encloses a public street and was thusly tied up in permitting until the establishment of the Leather Cultural District. Designs were produced by the landscape architecture firm Bionic and the developer’s non-profit public space firm PlaceLab, which specializes in the privately-owned public spaces that are a part of doing business in SoMa and other downtown neighborhoods. In addition to the $1.5 million provided by the developer, the city provided $200,000, and Friends of Eagle Plaza has to-date provided over $150,000 in additional support.  Construction is underway. In addition to allying fears over the closure of a historic leather bar as new residential construction encroaches on a nightlife district set formerly set in a landscape of warehouses and parking lots, Eagle Plaza will serve as the end point for the annual Folsom Street Fair. Now claimed as California’s third largest outdoor event, after the Pasadena Rose Parade and the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade (which is staged in SoMa), the Folsom Street Fair inscribes leather culture into public space in a dramatic extension of earlier claims for visibility and representation in the public sphere made by the progenitors of Megahood in 1984.

In the case of SoMa Pilipinas, a similar entrepreneurial approach to public space can be observed. In this case, the chair of the cultural district’s economic development committee, also founder of the non-profit business incubator Kultivate Labs, began organizing the mobile event series known as UNDSCVRD in the southeast Asian “night market” tradition with grants from the city. Featuring a diverse array of Filipino-American food and crafts, the event has proved popular with the Filipino community across the Bay Area, miraculously activating vacant parking lots on chilly San Francisco nights in a neighborhood plagued by petty street crime. As landscape architects, we have worked with Kultivate Labs and SoMa Pilipinas to design a temporary basketball court and event space that will be used until supportive housing is built on the site. Funds for the project were cobbled together from city agencies, as well as local tech firms such as Zendesk (who located in the neighborhood following the so-called Twitter tax deal).  From the city’s perspective, the project is part of a larger scheme to “activate” SoMa’s back alleys, known as sites for street crime and drug use. Like UNDSCVRD and other Kultivate Labs projects, the temporary space will serve not only as a space to bring together the Filipino community, but as a means for small business entrepreneurs to gain a foothold in the dramatically gentrifying neighborhood. To this end, as vacant parking lots disappear from the neighborhood, Kultivate Labs has begun to look at “brick and mortar” incubation opportunities in order to ensure economic development in the neighborhood which benefits existing residents and contributes to a commercial corridor that brings public visibility to the Filipino community. This has led to negotiations with developers (including those previously subject of a lawsuit by SOMCAN) to accommodate UNDSCVRD and Kultivate Labs as a community benefit – both brick and mortar retail space for the business incubator and privately-owned public space designed to accommodate the night market. In this respect, a similar political-economic relationship to privately owned public space and anti-gentrification tactics in SoMa Pilipinas and the Leather Cultural District appears to be emerging. As neither space has been constructed and the cultural districts are themselves new, the outcomes of these new tactics remain to be seen.

Concluding Thoughts

In the introductory theoretical discussion, the question of critical spatial practice was traced back to de Certeau’s understanding of tactics, a temporal, responsive maneuver undertaken from a subjugated position in a power-laden relationship. Including and beyond the notion of critical spatial practice, De Certeau’s observations have impacted the design disciplines, reconfiguring the production of urban space and the design of public spaces as modes of urbanization themselves accelerated and morphed. The case of SoMa shows that as public space and the urban environment are mobilized as sites of political contestation following the “right to the city” discourse, increased critical attention invariably corresponds to an integration of this feedback into subsequent design strategies. If, as the other contributions to this thematic issue explore, tactical measures are in fact a normative aspect of urban resiliency strategy, perhaps the metaphor of the strategic vision of “seeing like a state” is simply augmented by the tactical vision of “seeing like an NGO.” Accordingly, critics of tactical urbanism allege that even though “user generated” projects may be narrated as critical alternatives to “neoliberal urbanism,” they are nonetheless characterized by the extension and intensification of market relations into the urban social fabric (Brenner 2015). Twinned with economic development strategies, it seems clear that though the new spaces of SoMa’s cultural districts may be an extension of market forces into the urban fabric, what Stehlin forecasts as sites of productive consumption. However, this public-space entrepreneurialism is pursued by (different factions) of anti-gentrification social movements themselves, and they are not reducible to mere ideological spectacle. At the same time, it is true that there is a profound lack cohesive counter-strategy to dominant modes of urbanization. San Francisco’s housing crisis won’t be solved through the design of new public spaces. Indeed, the dramatic inequality manifested in the urban landscape of SoMa is a part of, and speaks to, a wider political impasse in the United States and across much of the industrialized world.

To be sure, a more rigorous history of urban tactics in the last third of the twentieth century is therefore necessary for a fuller understanding of the contemporary relevance of critical spatial practice. Given SoMa’s unique history in regards to social practice art and the tech industry, it proves to make an ideal case study. Towards this end, this paper aimed to provide a brief example of the way design can serve as a mode of collaborative, publicly engaged research from which one can also build urban theory.


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[1] One important example is the work of Bonnie Sherk, who’s Portable Park I-III is an uncanny precedent to the Parklet, later developed in the neighborhood.