Creative Clean-Up in San Francisco

“Just like urban design, public space maintenance can be a creative and engaging process. Instead of wondering what the solutions are, invite new people to the table and see what emerges.” –Lena Miller, Hunters Point Family

Maintenance as a Civic Priority

Urban designers often work from a place of creative optimism, envisioning iconic public spaces that unite community-driven priorities with design expertise. Yet as projects unfold, the pragmatic concerns related to public space management quickly come to light. Who will take long-term responsibility for activating the space? Will designated facilities staff be able to keep up with ongoing cleaning and maintenance needs? Over time, could dirty sidewalks, loud traffic, worn-out crosswalks, or broken lights keep users away—or even attract undesirable activities?

The recently-published Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines unpack key findings about the essential role maintenance plays in shaping our civic perceptions. Research indicates that signs of neighborhood disorder can negatively impact civic trust.For example, people who report high levels of litter in their community also tend to have lower levels of community pride (-10%) and lower levels of trust in local government (-10%).

On the other hand, well-maintained neighborhoods and public spaces have the potential to boost trust, promote feelings of safety, and encourage community stewardship. People who report that the greenery on their block is very well-maintained score +19% higher on measures of civic trust compared to those who say greenery is poorly maintained. Vacant lot clean-up and neighborhood greening initiatives have also been connected to reductions in crime and reduced stress levels.

While such research builds a strong case for prioritizing maintenance conditions in parks, plazas, and other public spaces, fundamental questions remain, like how can maintenance challenges be addressed most effectively? And who should be leading the charge?

Data-Driven Neighborhood Engagement

The City of San Francisco is demonstrating that creative engagement in public space management can help address seemingly intractable challenges. The city has experienced dramatic declines in quality of life measures, with rising complaints about trash, broken lighting, homeless encampments, and more. Cassie Hoeprich, Senior Strategist with the San Francisco Mayor’s Fix-it Team knows that a lot can be learned from diving into data. By analyzing the locations of 311 calls along with crime data and community surveys, the Fix-It Team has identified 35 neighborhoods in need of focused maintenance attention.

This collaborative, data-driven approach has led to visible changes—with targeted “Quick Fixes” that coordinate multiple City agencies to address immediate concerns, and shift perceptions of what local government can do. Fix-It has also been able to give local citizens the resources they need to make changes themselves, such as tools to host their own neighborhood clean-up events. To date, the Fix-It Team’s community action plans have engaged more than 1,200 residents and addressed over 3,500 neighborhood concerns. “The Fix-It philosophy is to listen,” says Cassie. “Once people have a chance to air their frustrations, then we have the opportunity to undertake visionary changes together.”

Yet significant challenges still remain. Like many cities, San Francisco is seeking to manage public spaces in the face of rising homelessness and drug use. “We have populations that are very dependent upon public space, and have a right to be there,” say Cassie. “The question becomes: how do we keep public spaces safe for everyone without spending a ton of money, without over-policing, and without hindering beautiful design? Sometimes it’s about knowing when government should take a step back and allow community experts to step forward. In San Francisco, that’s where organizations like Hunters Point Family take the lead.”

Stewarding Public Spaces with Love—Not Force

Hunters Point Family (HPF) is a San Francisco-based non-profit that is revolutionizing public space stewardship while spearheading radical workforce development practices. The City contracts with the organization on a range of initiatives. HPF’s Pit Stop Ambassadors keep bathrooms in working order, ensuring that they’re safe, clean, and used for their intended purpose. Similar HPF initiatives keep local metro stations, public spaces, and sidewalks accessible and welcoming to all.

HPF’s hiring practices help the most vulnerable members of the community—including formerly incarcerated individuals—become the City’s most valuable partners in managing public spaces. According to founder and Executive Director of Development of HPF, Lena Miller, “our staff are stewards of the community. They are familiar with the neighborhoods where they work and the challenges of the street. As former ‘Lifers,’ many of our Ambassadors benefit from countless hours of therapy and training in conflict management, and they have the ability to diffuse tensions before they start. Our staff achieve something amazing—stewarding public spaces with love, not force.”

While public space maintenance challenges still exist, San Francisco’s approach unites research, data, and community ingenuity to shape public spaces. In a city with complex quality of life concerns, Fix-It demonstrates the power of involving everyone in the care and improvement of their city.

Cassie, Lena, and CfAD Partnerships Director Suzanne Nienaber spoke about this topic at the recent Public x Design conference in Detroit, and is featured on the Homeland Lab podcast: Episode 31.

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    Civic Center Commons Initiative breathes new life into San Francisco’s central civic spaces. Courtesy of Fix-it Team
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    Hunters Point Family stewards keep the city’s public spaces welcoming and accessible to all. Courtesy of Fix-it Team
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    Collaboration maintenance, bold urban design, and diverse populations contribute to creating more inclusive public spaces. Courtesy of Fix-it Team
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    The Exploratorium Sound Commons installation welcomes hands-on participation in public space. Courtesy of Fix-it Team
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    The Fix-It Team was inaugurated under the late Mayor Ed Lee to improve the condition of San Francisco’s public spaces. Courtesy of Fix-It Team / © Tim Ho