Green Alleys

How might design thinking support eco-neighborhood innovations?

hannah jones
May 20, 2016 · 7 min read
Green Alleys SF: d.tags, map and Eco-Neighborhood Innovations booklet

When I relocated from London to San Francisco just over two years ago, my new landlady Nancy forwarded me an email invite to a neighborhood ‘Green Alleys’ party. The party was to support a local project that aimed to transform two alleys in the area into water resilient, beautiful, safe and green community gathering spaces. I was intrigued. I’d recently completed my doctoral thesis, which explored how design can support local urban communities in identifying, discussing and sometimes making creative use of their neighborhood ‘awkward spaces’. The area that I’d moved into in San Francisco had a long history of progressive politics and a more recent history of rapid gentrification brought about by the influx of tech workers (myself sort of included). I wondered if the alleys could provide a ‘space in between’ to have grounded conversations about what was happening to the neighborhood and the Bay Area at large. So, I bought a carrot cake and joined the party and the project.

Fast forward two years and I’m now working as a teaching fellow at the Stanford The role of the teaching fellows is to challenge, learn about and contribute to the development of the’s curriculum and classes. This Spring Quarter, in collaboration with Kevin Hsu, an urban design lecturer and coordinator of the Human Cities Initiative at Stanford, I finally got the chance to create a Green Alleys intervention. This took the form of a two-day pop-up class ‘Green Alleys SF: Eco-neighborhood Innovations’, based both at the and on site on Ames Alley, San Francisco. The class included 15 students from across Stanford University, a small group of local residents, and city experts from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Department of Public Works and the Planning Office. Some of the questions the teaching team asked themselves before embarking on this experience were:

  • What is the (more humble?) role of design in facilitating grassroots/ local action? What kinds of skills and experience are required for this?
  • How might design thinking support longer-term change, beyond the creative efforts of tactical urbanism?
  • How might this design-facilitated, bottom-up approach take the pressure off/ provide a counter-balance to top-down planning and design approaches?
  • How might local hubs of community activity, such as the alleys, provide exciting, immersive educational spaces for sustainable civic innovation?

Is design thinking compatible with eco-innovation?

Empathy and observation through participation

“When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects… What would it mean to design for participants instead? For all the participants?” (Kevin Slavin, 2016)

In this article Slavin defines design itself as participating in complex, adaptive systems. We wanted to take a similar approach going out into the alleys, considering them as a mini bioregion of the city. To facilitate empathy and observational studies, we created a holistic set of lenses for exploring interconnected aspects of the alleys. The lenses included biodiversity, storm-water management, culture and politics, heritage and histories, community gathering space and stewardship and maintenance. On the first day of the class, the students selected lenses that they found curious and formed six ‘lens’ teams. Each team selected observational strategies, created by the Human Cities Initiative, that they felt complimented their lens and tested them out on Stanford’s campus. On the second day of the class in the alleys, the student teams were joined by their co-participants, including residents and city experts. Together, they set about identifying points of interest for future alley eco-innovations.

The Heritage and Histories lens team exploring Quane Alley, San Francisco
The bee community (see rooftop) on Quane Alley, San Francisco

In this process, the residents were their own users, along with other alley inhabitants, including a Cooper’s hawk and a hive of bees. The students had to let go of their urge to act as problem-solvers, going out into the alleys to identify and respond to the residents’ needs. Alternatively, they became co-participants in a collective exploration of the alleys’ multiple needs alongside the residents. Aside from this being a valuable experience in practicing empathy and observation, and meeting and talking to the residents, the students enjoyed spending time in the alleys and working within a physical space. In discussing the importance of immersive ‘out in the wild’ educational experiences, design writer John Thackara describes how

‘Systems thinking… becomes truly transformational when combined with systems feeling — which is something we all crave.” (Thackara, 2015)

Sending the teams out to explore the alleys prompted them to interact with bamboo stalks, holes in the road surface, broken drain pipes, Russian vines, a wood workshop, painted murals, and the beehive, to name a few things. All of this informed a multi-sensory reading of the alleys.

Identifying and articulating points of interest

Tagging points of interest — Ames Alley mural
Discussing multiple points of interest around the shared map of the alleys

Reflections on the class — the designer as host

“The role of the architect or designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests — those who enter the building and use the objects in it” (Charles Eames)

In this changing, more participatory role for design, it’s perhaps less about anticipating the needs of the users of a building or object, and more like carefully staging a design happening, where all of the participants involved need to feel a valuable part of the process. This involves preparing the scene, holding the space open for great conversation, making connections, and letting go of things to allow for the event (and its possible design outcomes) to take shape for itself. Here, design thinking can play a useful role in supporting eco-neighborhood innovations.

The designer as host — Hannah, Kevin, Nihir and our co-participants

Thanks to Emi Kolawole, Kevin Hsu, Nihir Shah, Noah Murphy-Reinhertz, the Green Alleys Team, City Reps and our students!


Learning shared by the Stanford community

Thanks to Emi Kolawole

hannah jones

Written by


Learning shared by the Stanford community

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