Buchanan Mall

Community Design In San Francisco's Western Addition

Project Overview

Buchanan Mall is a city park that runs through a five-block section of San Francisco’s Western Addition.

We joined a multifaceted partnership working with local residents to plan, design, and build new park enhancements aimed at making Buchanan Mall a safe, green, and well-used center for the neighborhood.
Illustrator, Photoshop, Basecamp
User Research, Design Research, Project Management


The 7,000 low-income, predominantly African American residents who live adjacent to Buchanan Mall have faced acute challenges: recent, rapid gentrification, longstanding patterns of discrimination, turf conflict, an exodus of employed adults, in addition to decades-long cycles of displacement, unemployment and mass incarceration.

As the neighborhood faced violence and a drug epidemic, some of those issues spilled into the Buchanan Mall, creating a pervasive feeling of fear in the area. Moreover, decades of redevelopment in the “brutalist” style—done to this community rather than with its participation and support—have bred mistrust of government and developers.

Because of this mistrust, the City tried a deeper and more participatory process to generate real buy-in from this community for the renovation of their park. 

In January 2015, two local organizations, Green Streets and Citizen Film, began working together to create and share films exploring this neighborhood’s needs. The storytelling process planted seeds of collaboration within a powerful cross-section of the community’s leaders

The partnership of Green Streets and Citizen Film, along with The Trust for Public Lands, and SF Rec and Park, engaged the Exploratorium team to spearhead the community design process to help the community reimagine a safer park for all.

Design Goals

Inspired by the ongoing community meetings that Green Streets and Citizen Film initiated, The Trust for Public Land engaged the Exploratorium Studio for Public Spaces (SPS) to bring creative placemaking, structural design, prototyping and building expertise to a community conversation already in action.

A Task Force—a dynamic group of elders, youth and working adults—had come together to create dialogue around the social, historical and interpersonal conditions of the Buchanan Mall.

Our role was to guide a participatory design process to help the Task Force translate their ideas and visions into concrete creative placemaking elements. In a series of meetings, we led community members through each stage of the design process: discovery of values, inspiration gathering, model making, prototyping, fabrication and finally, installation.
Design Philosophy
The Exploratorium has a long tradition of iterative prototyping, a process of testing an exhibit experience with visitors on the museum floor and making changes based on our observations.

We modified this way of working to design the Buchanan Mall installations: creating small models iteratively with the community, and testing the resulting structures at events on the Mall. The Activation itself is a prototype: a short term, low cost experiment that could be refined based on community feedback.
Affinity mapping using the Jobs To Be Done framework.
Prior Research
Through engagement efforts by Citizen Film, Green Streets and The Trust for Public Land, much of the neighborhood dynamics and priorities were articulated before our team entered the design process.

The community asked that a significant structural element appear on all five blocks in order to unify the park, both visually and socially.

There was a high emphasis on safety, which included more lighting and unobstructed lines of sight.

Most importantly, the community wanted local history, neighborhood character and resident leadership, rather than national African American icons, to be displayed.
Participatory Design Workshop #1 - Story Mapping
Having reviewed the prior research, including demographic maps and GIS data, we realized that there was a complex web of stakeholders and priorities that we needed to more completely understand.

We went about running a number of mapping exercises aimed at understanding the psycho-geography of the place from a resident's perspective. We led these exercises using prompts aimed at having the participants tell their story and experience of the place.
Participatory Design Workshop #2 - Affinity Mapping
Based on the learnings from prior research and our mapping, our team began gathering images of public spaces around the world. We invited the community to choose images that resonated with them, and share why.

We used this process to identify themes and patterns for different forms of interventions, as well as the values participants hoped to have embedded in the design.
Participatory Design Workshop #3 - Sketching
Following the affinity mapping exercise, we engaged the community task force in a series of "sketch sessions" using methods from IDEO's Design toolkit.

Using fast sessions, 5 minutes each, with big markers, we encouraged the participants to communicate however they could (and to steal from their neighbors).
Participatory Design Workshop #4 - Model Making
Based on the previous workshops learnings, and the participants' associations between values and image choices, we created an architectural “canvas,” or armature, that could be infused and enriched with the community’s design choices in subsequent design iterations.

We printed out copies of this skeletal armature and had participants populate the blank canvas with their ideas. Community members could attach images that they selected in the previous exercise, or they could sketch their own ideas.
Participatory Design Workshop #5 - Scale Prototyping
From there, we created a model kit of parts. The Task Force used this kit to build basic three-dimensional structures, and then added flair to these structures with clay, yarn, cellophane, model people, moss and other craft materials. The community also worked in the Exploratorium studio to prototype some of their ideas on a full-scale mock-up. Based on these models and prototypes, we presented an initial structural design to the Task Force, and revised it based on their feedback.

There were two critical outcomes of this process beyond the resulting physical installations: healing conversations among community members, and a sense of ownership over their own space. Both are crucial to combatting deep, inter-community tensions and past city injustices, while simultaneously bringing the community together to nurture something truly fresh, restorative and creative.

Activation Design + Installation

Based on the participatory design process, our team developed light-weight designs for elements all along Buchanan Mall. This temporary design was a stage in the activation plan to help act as proof-of-concept for future, more permanent improvements.

Green Streets, local youth, elders and other neighbors come together with the Exploratorium build team to construct and install gateways at the intersections of all five blocks, three garden installations, and two audio domes that play local stories.