Collective Adventures: The Role Of Design in a Gentrifying City

Interview with Ghigo DiTommasso + Andrea Gaffney


A Day of Prototyping City Hall Plaza | San Francisco

A Day of Prototyping City Hall Plaza | San Francisco

GROUND UP interviewed project managers Ghigo DiTommaso and Andrea Gaffney at Gehl Studio’s San Francisco office to discuss how urban design can challenge social, political and infrastructural issues facing the Bay Area today. The founders of Rebar Art and Design Studio and other urbanists launched Gehl Studio in 2014. Its projects focus on the relationship between the quality of civic life and the built environment, emphasizing the human scale and creative activations of public space. DiTommaso and Gaffney sat down with Michelle Hook and Sophie Muschel-Horton to discuss their dynamic approach to working in the Bay Area.

GROUND UP:  How do you see the Bay Area landscape changing, and what projects or ideas demonstrate this change?  

Ghigo DiTommaso:  The landscape of the Bay Area is changing in many ways. I am particularly interested in the changes that, while not physical, are now reshaping the urban system. I think of the evolving mobility patterns across the Bay as one of the most complicated and challenging transformations the region is going through. Due to problems of affordability, San Francisco is rapidly losing diversity, both from an economic and a social perspective. Certain social strata and groups are completely disappearing from the city, making it more homogenous than ever before. The process is so severe that San Francisco is progressively assuming the characteristics of one giant neighborhood.  

GU:  How have you been able to tackle that problem?

GD:  We have to work on fighting the problem of displacement, while continuing to make San Francisco fully function as a center that can cater to the entire urban region.  Some of our projects in San Francisco attempt to reclaim the city’s public realm as a civic asset for the entire population of the Bay Area.

Andrea Gaffney:  Nevertheless, there is a shift from a monocentric focus on San Francisco as the ‘heart’ of the Bay into a polycentric configuration, with greater prominence of San Jose and Oakland.

GD:  I agree. I think that the model we work on should further reinforce these multiple centralities -- San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley and more.  The overall morphology of the region, a series a dense clusters that revolve around a body of water, allows us to work in this direction. If we can give the ‘techies’ reasons to live in San Jose instead of commuting back to San Francisco every day a lot of interesting things can happen.

GU:  Gehl Studio’s designs are people-based and pedestrian-oriented. How do you make transportation easier as an architect or landscape architect? 

AG:  You have to make everything convenient for the person as opposed to the automobile, so that limits the radius of access to your daily needs and your capacity to engage with other people. And then there are realms beyond the basic needs, where you can begin to engage different types of transit.  There’s your home core and your work core, and you may use different modes of transit to move between those, but you should still be able to meet the basic needs.

GD:  There is that ‘public life core’ that has to be nurtured. Though, to connect these microcosms of livable urban environments we need a badass transit infrastructure, one up to the task of serving one of the most prosperous and dynamic urban regions of the world. You know, we have BART, which was a pretty good rapid transit system the day it opened in 1972.  Now, more than 40 years later, it remains very much the same. We will never achieve what we want if we don’t have a greater awareness of how obsolete our transit infrastructure is.

AG:  Maybe one day I’ll be able to ride my bicycle in an entire loop around all the bridges of the Bay, or take BART in a loop. I think those types of connections will dramatically shift where people move. In the past you could just be here and that was enough, but now it has become so incredibly exclusionary. It’s heartbreaking. Maybe an earthquake could correct that, and I joke about that, but it’s one of the only things I really see as a course correction for property and housing costs, as dark as that is.  

GU:  Since the theme of the journal is ‘Out West,’ what do you think that means today? Does a manifest destiny complex still exist?

AG:  I think there’s more of a digital manifest destiny. Technology has an incredible enabling power in terms of a more democratic access to certain things, but it’s also becoming more exclusionary. As designers, I feel like communication is becoming as important as physical design in terms of staying relevant. 

GD:  I think you can also recognize the manifestdestiny mindset in the ongoing process of cultural colonizations. I think about the love that we have for Mexican culture in the Mission. People began to move here because of a fascination for what is different. The newer and wealthier residents of the neighborhood love it so much that their consumption and appropriation might soon wipe it out. It’s a kind of ‘loving it to death’ situation. 

Another fundamental pillar of the mentality of the West is that of the self-reliant and rugged individual. This city is the product of a collection of incredible individual adventures and continues to be so. The problem is that things are now changing. We are becoming more interdependent than we have ever been and need each other to achieve our goals. We need to move towards the realization of a collective adventure, otherwise we won’t make it. We cannot accept to live in a neighborhood where the Porsche parks along the sidewalk next to someone on the ground who could be alive or dead. We can no longer accept our great individual wins if so many continue to lose everything. 

There is a third pillar of the mentality of the West that we should continue to foster - a deeply ingrained desire to maintain a connection with nature. As much as we might lack investments in the grey part of the city, there is a deep desire to cherish the green part, and this is still a model for the rest of the world.

AG:  I would say with respect to the rest of the country we are legislatively advanced and always have been, and that’s one way manifest destiny is playing itself out. There is still something to it in terms of legislation and trailblazing for the rest of the country. The idea of rugged individualism is becoming more apparent in the tech world and the libertarian notions coming out of the uber-elite. Actually, the ways it’s influencing design are probably positive because they can set agendas and have enough clout and economic influence. For Gehl, a lot of the time that agenda is relatively consistent with people-centered design. However, tech campuses are sprawling, auto-oriented developments. We can influence that by making the crossover into physical space. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet, but it’s the stance we take on every project. 

We must also respond to the issue of gentrification. The sense of collective adventure should be accessible to everyone. We’ve been having a lot of discussions about the role parklets play in gentrification. We need to shift the conversation away from the economic imperative of the collective adventure and these temporary infrastructure improvements; although they can generate local economic benefits, they also cause gentrification and put pressure on communities who can’t afford to maintain their status quo. We want the opportunity to design collective adventures for everyone everywhere and not have the onus of economic development drive the conversation. 

                                                            Andrea Gaffney

                                                            Andrea Gaffney

GD:  There is this very dangerous idea out there: if you make things better through design in lower income neighborhoods, then you are driving an economic process that generates injustice. There are a lot of people that blame neighborhood improvements, and this is just not true. The reason people become displaced is that we lack policy tools to protect the most vulnerable populations every time a part of the city is improved. The conversation is polarized; the parklets bring the hipsters and the lattes, and both push the old residents out. Parklets could work as a public asset for everyone if the right policies were in place. Policies on housing should be coupled with investments in transit infrastructure at the regional scale, and that is the only way we can address these problems of displacement. 

                                                             Ghigo Ditommaso

                                                             Ghigo Ditommaso

AG:  In terms of design and our role as designers, it’s a bit of a post-modern rhetoric, that everyone has a right to the city and beautiful, well-designed spaces. How does this benefit public health? How does this benefit the environment? How does this benefit your community directly? We’re so caught up in the economic imperative right now and it’s causing an even greater disparity. One of our projects, Mercado Plaza, is an example of an intervention that was generated by the community and is strongly supported. We can begin to build conversations from successful implementation projects and the city needs to take a stand on where the privately-financed public improvements happen. They need to be aware of the exclusionary effects. Now the parklet program is incentivizing non-profits to apply for parklets, so they can happen in areas not necessarily tied to commerce.

GD:  One of the lasting legacies of the parklet is its mission to erode the space for the car, to push the car back and make our cities more human scale. This is a battle still worth fighting. The next phase of this battle should address larger infrastructure issues, like the elevated freeways that still cut through our urban fabric. 

AG:  We are not economists nor are we sociologists. We are designers. We put forward ideas for transforming the built environment that are reactions or directions towards artistic, social, cultural, economic and political factors. We are curious about the myriad directions of the digital manifest destiny, but we deal in designing physical public spaces that are the great equalizers of society.