Learning to Share: Outdoor Commercial Spaces on San Francisco’s Valencia Street
Originally published in the Berkeley Planning Journal
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of San Francisco sanctioned the use of public space on sidewalks and parking spaces for commercial purposes as part of their Shared Spaces initiative. Combined with streamlined permitting processes and an iterative rollout of design guidelines and inspections, the program facilitated a rapid and large-scale shift in the city’s streetscape. Using the Valencia Street commercial corridor in San Francisco’s Mission District as a case study area, we present a preliminary typology of “outdoor commercial spaces” (OCS) based on the degree of enclosure as a potential signifier of different patterns in use and perception of public space. We interviewed city residents and other stakeholders to explore emergent themes in the perception of OCS, complemented by pedestrian path tracing along different sections of Valencia Street. Our findings indicate that differences in the degree of enclosure in OCS on Valencia Street partially reflect their diversity in use and business type. The interview feedback also suggests that individuals across several stakeholder groups generally believe OCS represent an improvement to public space even when more enclosed OCS may imply the privatization of public space. Additionally, pedestrian behavior while the street was closed to vehicular traffic implies that the street closure is an important complement to OCS that maximizes the potential benefits of an activated streetscape while mitigating the negative effects and perceptions of privatization. However, these changes may amplify existing patterns of inclusion and exclusion in public spaces on Valencia Street. Especially as many OCS become permanent fixtures of San Francisco’s streets, their design and purpose have important implications for street-level accessibility and city-wide equity for small businesses. These dynamics –and the OCS themselves –are likely to continue evolving during the transition to long-term guidelines and implementation.