LAF Fellow for Innovation and Leadership

CMG is proud to announce Senior Associate Pamela Conrad is selected for the 2018-2019 Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership. The year-long program allows recipients to develop ideas that have the potential to create positive and profound change in the profession, environment, and humanity. 

Pamela is developing a Landscape Carbon Calculator as a tool to understand and reduce our carbon footprint. To date, no publicly available carbon calculator for landscape architecture exists. As landscape projects contain trees and plants, they possess the power to sequester carbon. Pamela asks the questions, “Can landscape architects do better than carbon neutral? Can we instead strive beyond neutrality to do ‘net good’ and contribute to the fight against global warming?” To accomplish that, Pamela believes we must understand how to measure our contributions. With a carbon calculator specifically designed for landscape architecture, we can actively set goals for ourselves as a profession to combat climate change.

Creating a more welcoming and inclusive Civic Center

Thousands of women and their allies gather for the Women's March at Civic Center in San Francisco, Calif. Saturday January 21, 2017. The Women's March is a national movement attempting to unite people around issues like reproductive rights, immigration and civil rights after Donald Trump's inauguration. (Emma Marie Chiang/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

CMG is leading a design team to reimagine a vision for San Francisco’s Civic Center. The goal is to develop design and activation strategies to make Civic Center a more welcoming and inclusive public space and 21st-century commons that all San Franciscans can be proud of – where civil discourse and social justice are cultivated and where city residents embrace shared governance with compassion and pride. The Public Realm Plan will develop conceptual designs for several key public spaces – Civic Center Plaza, United Nations Plaza, Fulton Street between Larkin and Hyde, and surrounding streets. As CMG Partner Willett Moss says, “Although each and every place is unique, special places with special attributes can rise to iconic levels and Civic Center is such a place.”

CMG’s design and engagement approach to Civic Center’s public spaces is a community-based process that encourages participation and the sharing of ideas. The first step in the process is the launching of a citywide survey seeking community feedback on potential design improvements to the Civic Center area. Open to anyone with an interest in the future of Civic Center’s public spaces and streets, responses from the survey will be used to help develop design alternatives for many Civic Center streets and public spaces.

So imagine a new civic center with us. Take the survey and help make a better public realm for all. The Civic Center Public Realm Plan Community Survey, available here, will be open through February 28, 2018.


Additional members of the design team include Gehl Studio, HR&A, InterEthnica, Kennerly Architecture + Planning, Lotus Water, Structus, M. Lee, JS Nolan, architecture + history, and HRA Engineering. The Public Realm Plan is an interagency effort managed by the San Francisco Planning Department in partnership with multiple City agencies including San Francisco Public Works, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco Recreation & Parks, San Francisco Real Estate Division, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco Arts Commission, and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. For more information visit:


CMG’s Leadership is Growing

We are proud to announce the promotion of Pamela Conrad, Rayna deNiord and Carrie Rybczynski to Senior Associate, and Justin Aff, Corbett Belcher, Michael Hee, Jason Rowe, Lauren Stahl, Sam Woodham-Roberts, and Nicolaus Wright to Associate. From a rooftop workplace landscape for Facebook to a park below an existing highway ramp, to designing Treasure Island’s public realm to creating urban design guidelines for University of Washington’s West Campus, these individuals are committed to producing memorable landscapes. We are excited to recognize their achievements.

(Left to Right: Pamela Conrad, Rayna DeNiord, Carrie Rybczynski)


Senior Associates


Pamela Conrad, PLA, LEED AP

Pamela has over a decade of experience designing and managing domestic and international projects, and has led many of the firm’s largest, most complex projects. She brings an ecologically sensitive approach to her work, and has focused on transforming marginalized urban spaces into public parks and the integration and restoration of ecological systems into the urban interface. For CMG, Pamela is currently managing the San Francisco Seawall Resiliency Project and Treasure Island Redevelopment. Additional projects include Bay Meadows Open Space, O Street Office Building, and One Vassar.


Rayna deNiord

There is a curiosity that lives inside Rayna. Interested in where ideas come from and how best to catch them, she throws a wide net when casting. As an experienced project manager and technical and conceptual designer, whatever the scale or scope of a project she explores the fuzzy edge between thinking and doing by inviting play, cultivating curiosity, and allowing whatever sort of meaning to emerge. Rayna has been leading the design of Facebook’s Menlo Park campus for the last 7 years. Other projects include SFMOMA Rooftop Sculpture Garden, Pacific Overlook, and Ohlone Newark Center Community College.


Carrie Rybczynski, PLA, LEED AP

Carrie’s passion is effectively and efficiently shepherding projects from design through construction and maintaining the design vision set in the initial stages. Her portfolio spans projects of all scales and types, from small pocket parks to large-scale community planning projects. In addition to her project work, Carrie is an office leader in the staffing and management of project teams. Recent and ongoing projects include Transbay Under Ramp Park, Folsom St. Streetscape, Noe Valley Town Square, The Tribal School, and UC Berkeley Lower Sproul Plaza.


(Left to Right: Jason Rowe, Justin Aff, Corbett Belcher, Lauren Stahl, Nico Wright, Michael Hee, Sam Woodhams-Roberts)




Justin Aff

In all of his projects, Justin seeks opportunities to make the most of our shared public spaces. He approaches places with an urban sensibility and designs by celebrating the natural and innate features of places and the ways they accrue and evolve. His focus is on public places, ranging from small parks and plazas to large campus master plans. Recent projects include East Wharf Park, Mission Bay Park P3, Point Richmond Terminal One and Waterfront Park, Treasure Island Streetscape, and UCSF 4th Street Plaza.


Corbett Belcher

Corbett’s experience managing projects from inception to completion has been developed on projects ranging from a 1,300-acre urban park to historic and adaptive re-use to rooftop gardens. These projects have honed his attention to detail and coordination and his ability to find solutions to a variety of issues while maintaining project integrity. He believes the challenge of good public space is to reach a diversity of users, designing flexibility into the framework of the space to allow diverse users to make it their own. His projects include Facebook and managing six different projects at Bay Meadows.


Michael Hee, PLA

Michael believes in work that makes communities better through versatile and resilient public spaces, and is focused on getting projects built. He translates between contractors, clients, and design teams, and enjoys the unforeseen field situations that require a collaborative on-the-spot sketch to realize or exceed the original design intent. His project work includes Daggett Park, Mission Bay Park P3, Crissy Field Overlook, 41 Tehama Street, and Marin Academy Science Building.


Jason Rowe, PLA

Jason has held a primary role on a variety of institutional, campus, multi-family housing, and public projects and has a strong background in site design, construction detailing, planting design, and integration of site-specific ecology and natural systems. His creative inspiration comes from the visual arts, nature, music, gardening, architecture, and site materiality. Recent projects include Facebook, Bay Meadows Open Space, Daggett Park, California Academy of Sciences Entry Landscape, and The Pacific.


Lauren Stahl

Since she was young, Lauren has been interested in cities and the quality of public spaces. Growing up in the middle of suburban sprawl, she felt dissatisfied with the fragmentation and lack of community center, so her career path has been focused on creating the type of public spaces she missed growing up. Lauren’s recent projects include Treasure Island Redevelopment, Nueva School, Yerba Buena Street Life Plan, and One Vassar.


Sam Woodhams-Roberts

Growing up in the Bay Area informs Sam’s appreciation of the relationship between communities and their shared spaces. Prior to his career as a landscape architect, Sam studied forestry, taught environmental education, and worked in ecological research. From this trajectory he has come to value design as a means of giving form and voice to his environmental ethics. Recent work includes UC Berkeley Lower Sproul Plaza, Transbay Under Ramp Park, Noe Valley Town Square, and Folsom St. Streetscape.


Nico Wright

Trained as an architect with a background in public art and archaeology, Nico brings a unique perspective to each of his projects. As a cross-disciplinary designer, he creates strong collaborations by translating between project constituencies, and strives to maintain a connection between the broad ideas of site, history and geography and the human-scale details with which people interact. His projects include Facebook, Moscone Center Expansion Open Space, 801 Brannan, and Alcatraz Embarkation Site.

Principal Scott Cataffa Speaking at SPUR

CMG is part of a team designing a new embarkation site to Alcatraz Island. Working with the National Park Service, Parks Conservancy, and the Port of San Francisco, the project includes a new civic plaza that serves as an extension of the Embarcadero, new pavilion with interpretive experiences, new ferry landing, and an après tour area that extends the visitor experience by providing comfort, sustenance, and social connections.

 Come here Principal Scott Cataffa present this project at the SPUR Urban Center on Tuesday January 30, 12:30 pm.

Read more

CMG Launches Series of Design Salons

Last fall we hosted our first in a series of evening salons to bring together thinkers, academics, innovators, and practitioners to discuss issues of community building, design and politics in the contemporary city.

Our inaugural topic was Democratic Public Space and over 60 people joined us for a lively conversation about shaping the future of our cities. One of the cornerstones of our mission at CMG is to improve the social wellbeing of our cities. We use the term “democratic public space” as it relates to the role public space has in relation to our democratic society, and differentiates public space from privately-owned space that has some level of public access.


Moderated by CMG Partner Kevin Conger, panelists included:


Daniel Harris, Knight Foundation

Daniel is the San Jose Program Director of the Community and National Initiatives Program which supports successful, inclusive cities. His work has been featured in many national publications, and The Washington Post calls him a “modern-day Studs Terkel”.


Neil Hrushowy, SF Planning Department

Neil is manager of the City Design Group, whose purpose is to advocate the human dimension as central to city design. His team of urban designers is responsible for leading streetscape designs, public realm plans, urban design review, and advising other City agencies on all aspects of public realm design.


Shawn Lani, Exploratorium

Shawn is an artist, curator, and educator dedicated to engaging people in public spaces. As founding director of the Exploratorium’s Studio for Public Spaces, he is dedicated to introducing informal, inquiry-based learning into the public realm.


Aekta Shah, Institute for Sustainable Economic Educational and Environmental Design

As Program Director of Technology and Youth Engagement, Aekta is creating new models of direct democracy and self-determination in vulnerable communities by increasing civic participation, bettering our environment, transforming education, and increasing access to opportunity.


Additional salons will be scheduled this year as we continue to explore important urban issues, with an eye toward generating strategies for change.

CMG Participates in Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge

The All Bay Collective (ABC) is one of 10 teams chosen to participate in the Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge. The challenge is to generate innovative community-based solutions aimed at addressing the threat of climate change in the Bay Area, and strengthening its resilience to sea level rise, severe storms, flooding, and earthquakes as well as issues of inequity and affordability. As a member of the All Bay Collective (ABC) team, CMG is excited to collaborate with AECOM, University of California, Berkeley College of Environmental Design, Berkeley Center for New Media, The Terner Center for Housing Innovation, California College of the Arts, Silvestrum, Moll de Monchaux, SKEO, and IDEO.

During the Challenge’s Collaborative Research Phase, the ABC team determined key adaptation challenges in the Bay Area include groundwater flooding, vulnerable transportation corridors, and jurisdictional barriers to cooperation. ABC believes the Bay Area is living right now on the edge of risk, and solutions to environmental and social challenges will come from living in the edge.

Now in the Collaborative Design Phase, ABC is developing conceptual design concepts for the San Leandro Bay – Oakland Coliseum site in Alameda County; an unparalleled opportunity to create a new paradigm of how a thriving urban center can support a wide range of economic opportunity and housing alternatives. The design proposal focuses on three design concepts: Tidal City, Resilient Corridors, and Resilient Equity Hubs (REHBs).

The Challenge wraps up in May 2018.

Sunnylands: Forging a new landscape identity by turning off the tap

Sunnylands :  

Forging a new landscape identity by turning off the tap

By Lauren Hackney – Associate  

After four years of planning, design and construction, staff has moved into the Administration, Archives,
and Operations Campus, the most recent addition to Sunnylands. CMG has worked with the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands since 2010 on a series of projects that support the transition of the Annenberg’s historic estate from private home to house museum and a center for high-level diplomatic retreats. Projects include the Cultural Landscape Framework Plan, which established the integrity of historic resources and provided a roadmap for their preservation; the Historic House renovation, which restored the landscape immediately adjacent to the Annenbergs’ home; the Retreat Campus, an adaptive reuse of former staff cottages; the Parkway, which replaced one mile of turf at the estate’s perimeter with desert-adapted plant species and rock; and the new Administration Campus, a 17-acre addition to the estate.


The landscapes at Sunnylands illustrate the arc of changing attitudes toward resource management:
from an era celebrating the display of boundless resources, to one that acknowledges their scarcity through aggressive conservation of resources. Sunnylands balances a preservation mandate for the historic estate,
a cultural landscape rooted in the belief that a well on the site would “furnish all the water ever needed”,
with a critical regional need to reduce demand on the Coachella Valley’s dwindling aquifer.


The new Administration Campus creates spaces for community and spontaneous interactions among Sunnylands’ administrative, archive, and maintenance and operations staff, bringing together everyone
who contributes to the Trust’s mission in different ways, within one shared environment that manifests Sunnylands’ identity.  Institutional identity is defined at Sunnylands not only by its historic figures, and
past events, but also by the practices that shape the landscape, and in turn perception of the institution
over time. This broader definition of identity as cultural memory provides a frame for how the institution
can evolve and be perceived and valued into the future.


For planning of the Administration Campus, efforts toward water conservation and resource management across the entire property were assessed. To support and further Sunnylands’ leadership in these areas, ambitious goals for water use reduction, net-zero energy use, net-zero carbon footprint, and zero-landfill waste through management  of construction and operations byproducts were identified for the new campus.  The campus anticipates LEED Platinum certification.


Achieving these goals in the desert required a further evolution of aesthetic expectations and maintenance practices to prioritize water conservation through four key lenses:

Regional water use imperatives. Reducing the site’s impacts on the aquifer is paramount. Between 1970 and 2013, over one trillion gallons of water have been imported from the Colorado River to replenish the Coachella Valley’s dwindling aquifer, contributing to dire downstream effects on the Colorado River estuary. Despite this recharge, well levels in the Valley have fallen an average of 55 feet, up to nearly 100 feet in some areas, in the same period. Sunnylands has taken on the mandate of reducing overall groundwater use incrementally with each new project. For the Administration Campus, the team set an annual landscape water budget for post-establishment irrigation by calculating the amount of water that falls on the campus’s footprint in one year. After establishment, the campus’s water budget will be approximately 10% of the estate’s equivalent water use per acre. From this budget, parameters were established to determine how that total amount would be allocated across the campus through a range of plant and irrigation typologies.


Regional ecological understanding. The Coachella Valley floor, a particularly harsh blow-sand environment, presents sustained challenges for achieving these goals. Sunnylands is located within the area of greatest wind effects in the Coachella Valley, where winds funnel through the San Gorgonio pass toward the Salton Sea. The project site is part of a detritivore ecology, where endemic species rely on transport of sand and detritus by these strong winds across the Valley floor, and where habitat health is measured by the influx of new sand transport. Most developed landscapes in the region are predicated on neutralizing this ecology. At the new campus, we wanted to take the approach of living with the desert as much as possible as a future paradigm for the rest of the Estate.


Multidimensional planting strategies. The campus is comprised of a series of unique experiences with distinct planting and irrigation strategies, driven by the allocation of the campus’s annual water budget, each with varying degrees of water, resource, and maintenance investment. Areas of milkweed, along with other species that host butterflies and bees, support Sunnylands’ research partnership with the Xerces Society. Within the campus, a richer palette of desert-adapted and native trees and shrubs provides additional habitat for birds, bats, and butterflies. Trees provide much–needed shade for plants and people and help filter blow sand. All stormwater is retained and infiltrated on site.


New material and aesthetic approaches. Meeting the water budget also required looking beyond plants to shape experience, by using inert materials that provide beauty and variety with their color, texture, and shape.  A varied rock palette characterizes three outdoor spaces that connect the campus buildings. The Administration Drop-off provides a formal entry to the Office Building, and is characterized by specimen cactus garden, lava rock boulders, and the dramatic view to the horizon that also characterizes Sunnylands’ other formal building entries. Two distinct gardens surround the Office Building. The Central Courtyard is the primary social space and is the most significant physical connection to the desert as it opens up to dramatic views of the landscape and surrounding mountains. In this rock garden, several types and sizes of rock provide variety of color and texture. Sculpted into mounds, the rocks define outdoor rooms. This garden has minimal accent planting and a canopy of olive trees. In the South Garden, a lush oasis where the water investment is concentrated, shrubs and succulents define a series of quiet meeting spaces of varied scale, shaded by a canopy of Mesquite trees.

Sunnylands’ maintenance and operations staff contributed horticultural and scientific insight to each of these strategies, and they have been eager to test new technologies and practices on the new campus. A key example is the Engineered Wetlands. This facility ties together the water systems across Sunnylands and physically connects the new campus to the Center & Gardens, treating blackwater from the Campus and the Center through a series of tanks, reactors, and an outdoor polishing wetland. After disinfection through a series of filters, this water is suitable for reuse for toilet flushing at the new campus and to supplement the property’s irrigation system. This infrastructure supports Sunnylands’ goal of 100% reclaimed water sources by 2025 and eliminates the need for septic treatment of blackwater, which is important regionally where areas of the Coachella Valley aquifer have been polluted by septic systems, among other sources. Sunnylands saw piloting this technology in the desert as an opportunity for institutional leadership.


Together, the goals and strategies expressed through the Administration Campus support the mission of Sunnylands as a living laboratory and leader in responsible desert development.  As development in the Coachella Valley region continues unabated, the sustained commitment of Sunnylands to understanding and demonstrating best practices for conservation of cultural, historic, and ecological resources in the desert points to a critical leadership role for Sunnylands that manifests its institutional identity.


Pamela Conrad: “Leading the Charge for Change”

Pamela Conrad, CMG Associate, is “Leading the Charge against Climate Change” – speaking on the subject at both the World Design Summit in Montreal on October 17th and at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles on October 20th.

Pamela’s talks will focus on what landscape architects can do to ‘Drawdown’ the carbon footprint of their projects. Not only can we reduce the impact that our work has on the environment, but landscapes also have the unique capability of becoming ‘green machines’ that can help to reverse global warming.

This comes at a critical time as the landscape architecture profession is defining its role in the fight against climate change.

At the World Design Summit Pamela joins a group of experts and panelist from around the globe that are focused on Designing for the Earth and at ASLA Pamela is co-presenting with Martha Schwartz.

In addition to presenting at ASLA, interviewed with podcast America Adapts. Here she is featured on the episode Landscape Architects Adapt to Climate Change, where a series of speakers talk on the role of landscape architecture in mitigating climate change. Pamela is featured at (1:27:45).


The Commons Grand Opening + Public Celebration


Join us and Headlands Center for the Arts in the unveiling of The Commons, the latest artist-led enhancement to the Headlands’ historic campus located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  The Commons will open to the public on Sunday, September 17, 2017 with a free daytime celebration featuring art installations, live, music, family-friendly activities, food trucks, and more!

The Commons project creates new social and programmatic spaces that expand and enrich the Headlands experience for artists, staff, and visitors. A generous, flexible central outdoor space serves as a venue for performances, events, and gathering for everyday use, allowing visitors and artists to interact and appreciate the beauty of the Headlands landscape. A concrete overlook and terraces reference the historic concrete military bunkers in the Marin Headlands and shape views toward the Rodeo Lagoon watershed. A pedestrian promenade connects the studios and commissary building and includes commissioned art installations by artists Ball-Nogues Studio and Nathan Lynch. A third commission by artist Chris Kabel will be mounted on one of the buildings that frames the central outdoor space. Native plants, grown by the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy nursery and planted by volunteers, will add beauty to the new landscape, frame major program spaces, and integrate the Headlands Center with the larger landscape.

CMG is proud to be a partner with the Headlands Center for the Arts and the National Park Service.

Event Details:

Where: 944 Fort Barry, Sausalito, CA
When:  Sunday, September 17, 2017
Time:  12 – 5 PM
Cost:  Free

Click here for more details.

Democratic Public Space

Intro By: Kevin Conger

One of the cornerstones of our mission at CMG is to improve the social wellbeing of our cities, so a lot of our work is focused on public space. I like to use the term “democratic public space” because it gets at the role of public space in relation to our democratic society and differentiates public space from privately-owned space that has some level of public access, like Zuccotti Park. Democratic public space involves complex relationships between ownership, agency, occupation, control, and freedom. Of course a lot of smart people have been thinking about this topic for many years and much has been written on the subject. Nevertheless, CMG identified Democratic Public Space as the research topic for our 2017 summer interns, Nahal Sohbati and Rivka Weinstock, primarily to engage our entire studio in the conversation and to directly apply the principles to projects we are currently working on, like San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza and Crissy Field. With the recent events in Charlottesville and the upcoming controversial rally this weekend at Crissy Field, this topic has a real sense of urgency.


CMG Intern Research Summer 2017

Presented August 11, 2017

Interns and Authors:

Nahal Sohbati, Academy of Art University, San Francisco, Studying for Masters of Landscape Architecture

Rivka Weinstock, University of Pennsylvania, Studying for Masters of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning

Democratic Public Space, as defined as an ideal for all public spaces, is a place that is publicly owned, universally accessible, both physically and in perception; allows for a diversity of voices and users in all stages of design and occupancy; allows for flexibility of use; is freely used by all individuals and encourages freedom of speech and expression.

Definition of Democracy

Democracy is a mode of living together in which people manage for themselves the conditions of their own existence through collective decision making.

Image from "Le Droit À La Ville" by Henri Lefebvre

Image from “Le Droit À La Ville” by Henri Lefebvre

Democracy provides citidens with “the right to the city,” which includes the right to participation and appropriation in their shared urban environment. By citidens, we use Henri Lefebvre’s term, which combines citizen (a citizen of the nation-state) and denizen (an inhabitant of the city, who is not necessarily a citizen of the nation-state) (Purcell, 314; Parkinson, 25).

The right to participate maintains that citidens should play an integral role in any decision that contributes to the design or making of urban space. The right to appropriation is the right to occupy and use urban space, as well as the right to produce urban space so that it meets the needs of inhabitants (Purcell, 102).

Relationship between Democracy and Public Space

The first declaration issued by the people’s assembly of Syntagma square (Greece, 2011) read, in part:

“For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We….have come to Syntagma Square (Greece, 2011)…because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands. In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.”  (Purcell, 321)

Public space allows for the free appropriation and expression of space in our cities by all inhabitants. (Within our current system, public spaces do not necessarily always allow for the right to participation, though we argue that to be truly public, they should also include the right for full participation). Without public space, our society will shift into a polarized, privatized arena, dividing society into smaller target groups and segregating people along socio-economic classes. Public spaces are arenas for encountering difference, where we can learn to understand and tolerate the other, as well as participate and view the “theatres of everyday life” providing us with a picture of what makes up our society (Shaftoe, 5, Arendt, Poposki, 713).

Public spaces provide three dimensions of contact that can lead to civic engagement. The first is social contact with diverse populations, which many urban theorists say lead to tolerance (see Benjamin, Simmel, Mumford, Lefebvre, Jacobs). Seeing people who are different than you responding to a space in similar ways creates a temporary bond, which can lead to tolerance of the other. On the other hand, others argue that casual contact can sometimes have the opposite result (for example, snippets of conversation on the street are likely to strengthen adverse social-associations) (Wessel, 12). However, preference for common stimuli (for example, using the same community garden, playing a team sport, or enjoying the same music performance) and extended contact (which leads to familiarity, and then the possibility of friendship), seem to increase the positive effects of contact (Wessel, 7, 12). Programming that increases these elements should therefore be pursued.

The second dimension of public space that leads to civic engagement is contact with the physical, material and temporal nature of public space, which provides a sense of identification with the “pulse of the city”. Being in a space of what Amin calls “surplus” or multiplicity, or what Massey calls “throwntogetherness”, “the relatively unconstrained [and emergent] circulation of  multiple bodies in a shared physical space” and having your own spatial and temporal pattern within that space (“territorialization”), allows one to domesticize what could be seen as chaotic, promotes the negotiation of complexity, and provides a sense of belonging and connection to the larger fabric of civic society (Amin, 2006).

The third dimension, referred to as “symbolic projection”, is the symbolic and sensory expression of the currents and moods of public culture manifested in public space. This includes iconography (for example, the quality of design, images of consumption and advertisements and architectural expression) as well as active code (routines of usage and public gathering and what is appropriate behavior in a certain public space). Symbolic projections are powerful codes of public culture, both summarizing cultural trends as well as shaping public opinion (Amin, 2006).

The cultural and social cues of a space affect the type of user group that feels welcome in a space. For example, the redesign of Bryant Park utilized various cultural cues to discourage “undesirables” from using the space, enacting what Sharon Zukin coins “domestication by cappuccino” (Zukin, 1998).

Why Now? Relevance Today

The origins of public space as we know it are Greek agoras and Roman forum, which were designed to allow for citizens to gather and take political action. With the transformation of our cities into industrial centers, then car-centric transportation systems, and finally, with digital technology, and a production economy aimed at and encouraging mass-consumption, the city has lost much of its democratic landscape. Public space is no longer for citizens, but designed for consumers, tourists, or employees and no longer controlled by citizens, but by developers, investors, business associations, governments, and police. Commercialization of public spaces segregates people into smaller target groups, and excludes non-paying citizens, seen as loitering. (Shiwari, 209; Parkinson, 4; Benerjee, 10-11).

Some may argue that much of our political life has moved to the digital realm. While the digital realm has made gathering more global, convenient and efficient, using social media as the only political platform runs the risk of echo chambers, and exclusion of diverse voices. Physical public gathering space allows for converging camps and a mix of peoples and perspectives beyond one’s personal network. Finally, we, as people, still take up, occupy and share space and so public and free space is still key to understanding ourselves vis a vis our influence on the larger world (Parkinson; Toloudi; Tiwari, 12).

Democratic Public Space vs. Public Space

Once we agree that public space is necessary in a democratic society, the question then becomes, how should our public spaces function? One way to look at it is as a controlled and orderly space for retreat and recreation, where a properly behaved person can enjoy the spectacle of the city. Another way to look at it is as a space for open interaction, representation, and accessible to all, including marginalized people (Mitchell, 115). This type of public space allows for chaos and disorder. Public Space in the latter respect, though sometimes messy, is extremely important in allowing for the observation and engagement with “difference,” without which we are in danger of becoming increasingly prejudiced and passive, as we delve deeper into our enveloped daily routines (Shaftoe, 19).

Mint Plaza, San Francisco [CMG]

Mint Plaza, San Francisco [CMG]

Design and Democracy

We need to constantly construct democracy, from the way that we approach the entire process of the production of urban space, including outreach, design and management, to the smallest detail of our experience sitting next to a stranger on a park bench. The process should be as equally important as the outcome.

The design profession focuses primarily on the economic and environmental sustainability of our cities, but we must think deeply and critically about social sustainability (Woodcraft et al. 2012). “Social sustainability”, defined by Woodcraft, “combines the design of the physical realm with the design of the social world” (Woodcraft et al., 2012). In our current system cities are products of professionals, instead of being the outcome of an engaging process of involved users, alienating users from their built environment. Places are not just containers for social life, but themselves social accomplishments, things we make together. And thus, our role as designers is not just as genius creatives, but as mediators and facilitators between the professional world and actual everyday users (Brain, 21).

The community engagement processes we use are token; a process is not more democratic simply because there are more people in the meeting. In our current engagement process there are many voices that are not heard, including young, ethnic minorities, socially marginalized groups, the elderly and people who choose not to participate. Maximum effort must be put into reaching out to voices that are unheard. The process of building a public space needs to expand outward to include education, community building, and then physical change (Frisk, 8).  By educating the public, they will be equipped with the necessary sets of skills to express themselves and their needs. In this process, designers and other professionals need to employ a language that can be understood and is accessible to all, which can be used in public debate.

By providing a community with the tools and language necessary to negotiate the complexities of the built environment, we give them the capacity to make collective decisions about their shared spaces. This is not only good for the design process and the specific community at hand, this is an investment in creating a democratically constructed city (Brain, 23).

There may not be one right way to design a democratic public space, but by learning and experimenting, testing assumptions, and responding, and by putting the citidens or users in the center of the process, we are performing democracy (Baker and Hurely, 11). Design also teaches us that the physical space around us is a manifestation of the way we construct our society and in turn how it constructs us. As Winston Churchill suggested, when we shape the city, in turn, it shapes us.

Washington Square Park, NYC

Washington Square Park, NYC

Given that context plays such a large role in what makes a design successful in any given place, there isn’t one way to design a democratic public space. For example, when Walter Hood was asked to redesign Lafayette Park in Oakland, it was used mainly by homeless people, drug users and other “undesirables.” Calls for a redesign were seen by some as a way to rid the space of “undesirables,” but Hood’s design attempted to accommodate the existing users, as well as include a wide array of new users. He did this by creating a series of spaces for different users, separated by berms, while maintaining visual connections. In designing a democratic public space, there’s not one right way to approach it; by setting diversity as the goal, and by understanding context, culture and users’ needs, the methods to achieving that goal will differ (Hester, 81).

In his book, Convivial Urban Spaces, Henry Shaftoe studied several successful public urban spaces (successful in that they are used), and found that they share some common attributes, which he broadly categorizes under physical, geographical, managerial, and psychological/sensual (Shaftoe 139-141).


  • Plenty of sitting places
  • Good quality and robust
  • Adaptable (both for different uses and over time)
  • Asymmetrical, yet well proportioned (balance without symmetry)
  • Variety and intriguing details (i.e. not monolithic)
  • Carefully considered and appropriate horizontal surface treatments
  • Not too large – or too small
  • Permeable edges


  • Location (urban core, neighborhood or suburb)
  • Clusters, sequences and strings of spaces
  • Relation to transport (motorized and pedestrian routes)


  • Diversity of use
  • Promotion of a relaxed, round-the-clock culture
  • Inclusiveness
  • Well maintained and clean
  • Vehicular circulation banned or tightly controlled
  • Adequately lit
  • Animation/Activation

Psychological and Sensual

  • Human scale
  • Individuality and uniqueness
  • Feeling of safety (unthreatening)
  • Comfortable microclimate
  • Visually satisfactory
  • Incorporation of natural elements
  • Acoustically pleasant
  • Opportunities to eat and drink

Democratic Public Space as a System

When we talk about public spaces, we often construct a clear duality between public spaces and private spaces. Instead, it could be useful to bring more nuance into the way we understand public. Public Spaces could have one or more of the following features: (1) it is openly accessible; (2) it consumes collective resources (it’s owned by the public sector); (3) it has common impact; (4) it is a stage for the performance of public roles (Parkinson, 201).

Every public space should not have to perform every public role. It is important to look at the degree to which a particular city provides space for a variety of experiences and performances of democratic practices (Parkinson, 185).

Streetscapes – residential, commercial and civic boulevards

Square/Plaza – civic square (commons), church square, college campus

Park – garden, cemetery, large park, neighborhood park, regional park, national park

Linear Systems – bikeways, paths and trails

Outdoor Sport and Recreational Facilities – playgrounds, sport fields, school sites, golf courses, skate parks, outdoor fitness parks

Campground and Picnic Areas

Nature Preserves

(Sandalack and Uribe, 47)

Democratic Public Space should include the following:

  • Access
    • Accessibility to and from the space/connectivity
    • Universal Accessibility in the space
    • Mental/Psychological Accessibility
    • Inclusion and Belonging
    • Curfews/Policing
      • A safe, accessible and equitable space for all users regardless of physical or cognitive ability. Perceived accessibility is just as important as physical accessibility. Policing access and curfews discourage freedom of expression and use, which is essential to democratic public space.
  • Diversity
    • Diversity of users: inclusive across age, race, ethnicity, income, sexual identity, gender, religion, ability.
    • Diversity of voices in the design process
    • Promoting diversity and unity
      • Ensuring that a diversity of users are welcome and encouraged to use the space, ensuring a diversity of voices in the planning and design process. Ensuring that redesign of spaces promotes a diversity of users and does not exclude “undesirables”.
  • Ownership/Engagement/Guardianship
    • Owned by the public (as opposed to POPOS)
      • Public participation in the design process
      • Public guardianship post-occupancy
        • Public ownership of public space ensures that people have freedom of use and expression (and are not kicked out for self-expression, as in the case of Zucotti Park). How can we ensure that spaces are truly designed by the people and for the people? Are our current public engagement practices radical enough? Should public spaces be designed at all?
  • Flexibility
    • Programming/Usage
    • Spatial
    • Present and Future
      • Flexible to different users’ needs and different types of events, from social to more intimate. It should also consider present and future uses.
  • Freedom of Expression/Speech
    • Allowing for freedom of expression and speech
    • Serving as a “commons” – a space for expressions of community (ex. art events, festivals, celebrations, mourning, etc.)
      • Allowing for a mix of people and perspectives to freely express, exchange, debate, and dissent
  • Perception
    • Considering how a space is perceived and how that relates to all of the above categories.


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