In the days leading up to Super Bowl 50, hundreds of thousands of people visited “Super Bowl City” in San Francisco, a temporary amusement park filled with concerts, exhibits and even enormous virtual reality games.
Across the bay in Oakland, at the Public Design Fair, a few thousand citizens did something a little different. Kids played basketball with a light-up hoop. Parents helped their young children climb on sculptures made of two-by-fours or concrete and rebar, and older folks sat in rocking chairs in an “outdoor living room,” some meeting their neighbors for the first time.
“There was a 60-year-old Chinese woman hula-hooping with a kid shooting hoops, and a middle-aged guy with a kid on his shoulders learning to pop and lock,” says Ray Boyle, cofounder of Our City. The Oakland-headquartered national nonprofit focuses on community engagement in cities and hosted the event.
Funded by the Super Bowl host committee’s charitable arm and supported by the city, the fair aimed to create new opportunities for Oaklanders to play, support local artists and help residents “reclaim” their public space in a community that saw a nighttime curfew and restrictions on public protests just last year.
The event also came as the city of Oakland is beginning the planning process for its first-ever downtown master plan.
The venue, Frank Ogawa Plaza, isn’t typically known for its welcoming feel. The grass-and-concrete space in front of City Hall is mostly known for its role as a gathering point for Occupy Oakland protestors. Our City co-founder Jake Levitas describes it as “basically the most underutilized space in Oakland, if not the Bay Area, in terms of where it is now and where it could be. There’s a beautiful lawn; nobody ever plays on it.”
But for three days, the plaza was a welcoming place for everyone to play, whether it was with a giant mancala board or a “photo wall” or an evening storytime. Kids who “think they’re going to get pepper-sprayed” at the plaza, according to Boyle, were helping to run the installations.
“That’s huge, that’s big, to see kids feel like they are reclaiming a public space, that they are wanted and that their creativity is prized,” says Boyle.
The dozen selected projects in the Public Design Fair came from people from a huge variety of backgrounds: Kids helped run the West Oakland Youth Center’s photo wall in which kids acted as photographers, setting Oaklanders against colored backdrops. Artists — many of whom had never created a large-scale installation before — designed pieces like a larger-than-life wire and bead maze.
Even bigger companies got in on the fun: Design firm Gensler Oakland developed “Block by Block,” a play city where participants wrote their wishes for Oakland on a wooden block, then added their block to a platform printed with a map of the city. Though the project had no official connection to city hall, Gensler promised to deliver residents’ wishes to the city to help with the Plan Downtown effort.
Oakland ranks high on access to green space. According to a 2015 Trust for Public Land report, the city has 14.9 acres of green space for every thousand residents, more than twice the median amount for high-density cities. Almost 85 percent of residents live within a half-mile of a park. But access to play spaces is much different: There are 1.8 playgrounds per 10,000 residents, compared to a median of 2.3.
So bringing new opportunities to play to Oakland, especially downtown, was an important goal of the fair. Judging from participants’ reactions, it was a success. Some of the projects will even become permanent or semi-permanent installations elsewhere. According to Boyle, the city’s parks and recreation department loved the light-up basketball hoop.
“[They came up to us and] said, ‘So we have this thing where everybody wants more lighting,’” Boyle says. “‘Can we test this?’ We haven’t had that follow-up conversation yet, but it’s that kind of test that turns into real solutions in the community.”
Our City hopes to hold more design fairs; sustainability or public safety are possible themes. “It’s not just about play for us,” Boyle says. “There’s all sorts of things we can apply this to, and invite people to imagine cities as their canvas.”
By being held in front of City Hall, the Public Design Fair gained visibility among the city’s employees — and brought artists and participants closer to local government.
“We had about, probably seven or eight city departments we spoke with at different points,” Levitas says.
Ultimately, those city staffers, the artists and the thousands of participants perhaps gained a greater understanding of each other.
“By no means is it perfect, but I think what Our City attempts to do is, it’s not us versus them, it’s not creatives versus the city, it’s not the disenfranchised against the developers,” Boyle says. “The people who really want to get to yes — they are our civil servants for a reason — we’re all people doing the best we can any given day.”
This article is part of a Next City series focused on community-engaged design made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.