When “kind” design is anything but

Today I came across an article from NextCity, “San Francisco Is Redesigning City Hall Into a Space for All“, which proved both frustrating and fascinating. Frustrating because it demonstrates some rather depraved technocratic and neoliberal tendencies cloaked in the language of kindness, and fascinating because it inadvertently reveals a lot about the worldview of neoliberals in the place where design and policy intersect.

So with that said, let’s take this article bit-by-bit, starting with the first paragraph:

San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood serves as the city’s front porch, both its seat of government and a microcosm for the booms and busts of a city in the throes of an identity crisis. Here is City Hall, the opera house, the main public library, Twitter’s headquarters and a weekly farmer’s market on United Nations Plaza.

The very first sentence of the article invoked my skepticism, and granted, I realize this has everything to do with the writer of the article and not with the actual design effort related to the Civic Center. But if you’re going to talk about the importance of said design effort, let’s start here: can we really consider the Civic Center to be San Francisco’s “front porch”? A front porch acts as a portal into the home, the transition from the street life outside to the home life inside, very much part of the home but visible and open to the outside world. Civic Center doesn’t fit that description; it doesn’t serve as an entry point to the city, nor is it visible to those approaching San Francisco. If anything serves as the city’s “front porch”, I would say the airport, or the landing of the Bay Bridge, or the Ferry Building. (Actually, let’s go with the Ferry Building. In many homes, the front porch isn’t the primary point of entry—the garage serves that purpose—but rather is a stylized entrance that sees much less traffic, but looks very attractive from the outside and does a lot to sell the idea of engaging with the outside world, even if only a small portion of the populace actually uses it for that purpose.)

Not to say that the Civic Center isn’t important. But I’d compare it to a nerve center of some sort, given its role as the center of city government from where policies which affect the rest of the city originate. But as is typical with these design readings of the importance of space, the best analogy that anyone can come up with is simply another design feature, even when it makes little sense.

Anyway, moving on from my pedantic reading of the opening sentence, the article continues on to explain some of the context for this recent effort to redesign Civic Center. The area has long been the gathering point for many of the city’s homeless, and with that plenty of failed efforts to push San Francisco’s chronic homelessness problem out of sight of those most capable of doing something about it.

“Design alone cannot be expected to solve social problems, but thoughtful design can be a part of the solution,” reads the proposal. Regarding the removal of benches from both plazas in the 1990s and early 2000s, the document acknowledges, “The result of this stripped environment is spaces that are unwelcoming to everyone, and have achieved minimal reduction in illicit or undesirable behaviors.”

There’s nothing here I disagree with. I think design can accomplish a lot, that it has a powerful effect on the way we behave, and that the extent to which it does probably can’t be fully understood. But there are some systemic societal problems which design cannot address; for these, policy must be considered.

While larger transformations are still a few years away, pop-up exhibitions by the Exploratorium aim to enliven the space today, and partnerships with nonprofits are demonstrating how diverse populations might share the space in peace. In UN Plaza, the Exploratorium has installed four large interactive pieces called the Sound Commons. One challenges visitors to walk across a bed of gravel as quietly as possible. Giant chimes and xylophones let anyone make music, or at least noise.

But what’s really unique about the installations are the monitors minding them. Staff from the nonprofit Hunters Point Family have been hired by the city to talk to visitors, guide them through the installations, and keep the area safe and clean. Nearly all of them were formerly incarcerated, serving life sentences, and are now living in a halfway house.

“They have been really an ideal population to staff these areas because of their emotional intelligence that people usually have to develop if you’re on the prison yard for twenty plus years and you’re not sure that you’re getting out,” says Lena Miller, co-executive director of Hunters Point Family. “You really need to know how to deal with all kinds of people.”

Okay, design elements to appeal to different groups of people is fine. But does it bother anyone else that they hired former convicts to supervise the plaza? Mind you, this isn’t to argue that former convicts are animals who don’t deserve second chances—they aren’t and they do—but recently released convicts are an incredibly vulnerable population who are desperate to show that they can function in society, which makes them a conveniently exploitable workforce.

I am also deeply disturbed by that last paragraph, where the act of being in prison is being presented as some sort of job qualification. I suppose it is preferable to the standard alternative of presenting prisoners as irredeemable savages who will shank the nearest moving thing at the drop of a hat. But presenting someone who managed to negotiate the social dynamics of a prison yard as some sort of set of marketable job skills for the purpose of customer service work—and reducing them to that—is incredibly troubling. But it fits perfectly into the neoliberal framework of the world, where every individual is reduced to their economic function.

Monitors at UN Plaza are also asked to track many data points for the city: which exhibits are being used and which aren’t, the genders and ages of visitors, reports of graffiti or feces, how many hypodermic needles are collected a day.

Right now they’re keeping notes on a paper spreadsheet, but the nonprofit is collaborating with Public Works to make an app. Like a McDonald’s register, says Miller, but instead of pressing buttons for Big Macs and French fries, they’ll tap feces and needles.

…Yes, thank you, I understand how a register works. I’m so glad we have these Silicon Valley solutions to problems I wouldn’t be able to comprehend otherwise.

(By the way, feces and needles is what a Big Mac and fries turns into when you eat McDonald’s too much, am I right??)

The Hunters Point Family monitors are clustered around the Exploratorium exhibits. In the rest of the space, team members from the Downtown Streets Team are keeping the space clean and reaching out to the unhoused. Another nonprofit, Downtown Streets Team engages homeless people to volunteer their time on janitorial and hospitality projects in exchange for case management and a stipend toward basic needs like groceries and rent.

Reaching out to the homeless and providing them with economic opportunities is great, particularly in a location where homelessness is a chronic problem. But—and maybe I’m talking crazy here—what if instead of doing some complicated exchange of case management or groceries or rent in exchange for their service, what if you just… paid them? As in, employed them and provided a fare living wage in exchange for their labor? I know everyone is afraid that some vagrant is going to take your offered money and spend it all on heroin, but that’s not the employer’s call to make. Call it “volunteering” all you want, but if you’re offering the equivalent monetary value of groceries and rent, it’s a job. At least grant it the dignity of that much.

The 11-year-old nonprofit only began operating in San Francisco last year, and the Civic Center was its first site. They’d considered the Mission, the Castro and the Tenderloin, neighborhoods more notoriously associated with homelessness in the public imagination, “but it really felt like being in Civic Center/UN Plaza was a good idea for us because there was an extreme need from an unhoused population there, but there was also a need to change the face of homelessness in the community,” says Brandon Davis, project director for the San Francisco team. “Because tech exists there, government exists there, because small business exists there, and then a very large unsheltered population lives there as well.”

That quote says so much; more than was probably intended. We “need to change the face of homelessness” in this particular location, not because of the particular need present in this space, but because the powerful inhabit this space. For the powerful, we must put a happy spin and a friendly face on the homeless so that they may be deemed something approaching human beings.

I see the logic, I really do. But there’s a darker implication to all of this. These groups are putting a nice face on the homeless not to address any root causes of homelessness, but to redesign Civic Center into a place where the elite of the city can comfortably ignore the plight of the homeless. Even better for them, the homeless have been repurposed into a role that renders them invisible, save for another piece of machinery to serve San Francisco’s tourism and service economy.

Whatever good intentions may lie behind this program, design can’t house the homeless (unless it involves designing affordable homes). But apparently, it can put a friendly spin on it and pretend it’s doing something meaningful to help.

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