Perspectives January 29, 2020

Market Street Becomes a Symbol of San Francisco’s “People-First” Ethos

by Geeti Silwal

The downtown section of San Francisco’s famous Market Street, which connects the city’s hills to its bay, now prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation by closing off access to private vehicles. Market Street’s new image will be instrumental in inspiring other cities and streets globally to do the right thing—emphasizing low-carbon modes of mobility.

Almost a decade ago, Perkins&Will’s San Francisco studio led the team tasked with envisioning a Better Market Street. Comprised of urban designers, transportation planners, infrastructure engineers, public realm strategists, streetscape designers and way finding experts; we spent three years studying the corridor.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to refashion a beautiful boulevard that embodies the experience of San Francisco. Prioritizing and structuring the street for people and public life, over movement of private vehicles, was a fundamental goal that the entire team got behind. We shaped a collective vision of Market Street as a destination, where people come to socialize, linger, enjoy street life and interact with public art, nature and each other.

This massive shift does more than combat climate change, it also addresses social equity. Access to employment, education, social well-being opportunities for community members of all age and income groups is possible when we make space for an efficient, dignified transit system. It enables a more inclusive, affordable and livable city for people from all walks of life.

Market Street was envisioned as a destination where people come to socialize, linger, enjoy street life and interact with their surroundings.
Rendered vision of an activated UN Plaza, off Market Street.

Streets were never meant to be just streams of vehicles, but unfortunately, somewhere down the line streets became synonymous with cars. Our memory, image and experience of a city, most times, is that of its street life. Streets account for about 25-30 percent of a city’s entire land area. I believe one of the potential organizing principles in urban design is in delivering places of social connections that have a strong sense of place and intentionally embed inclusive values of:

  • Social equity – making communities viable and livable for all strata of the society
  • Rich quality of life
  • Robust connectivity and accessibility to amenities
  • Placemaking to enhance the value and experience of the city
View of MUNI bus boarding island, looking towards the Ferry Building.

In considering a project such as this, there are many stakeholders and agencies that have to be brought on board. Sometimes initiating the conversation and providing the platform to have the dialogue might be all a project can achieve. Even that, we believe, is a good start. We know and can trust our industry peers and community members to carry on the advocacy and stewardship beyond the project life that we, as professionals, can be engaged in.

In general, we do not always need to close streets to cars as long as the public right of ways are designed for the right hierarchy. Pedestrians come first, bikes next, transit third and, then the private vehicle. Designing cities around this fundamental organizing principle of ‘people first’ delivers a more humane, inclusive, socially connected and a healthy city.