Based in san francisco, california, mia shaw writes, acts, and analyzes public policy. Her posts explore current events, cultural phenomena, and diverse opinions.

The future of public spaces, with Brooke Ray Rivera

The future of public spaces, with Brooke Ray Rivera

For the last year and a half, Brooke Ray Rivera has served as executive director of Build Public, an entrepreneurial non-profit venture aimed at designing and developing vibrant public spaces and “neighborhood-level institutions” through public-private partnerships.

“The character and quality of a city depends on its public spaces,” Rivera responds when asked about the importance of her work. “There are more valuable uses for public space besides just parking and car-dominated streets.”

Walking down Linden Alley (a “shared public way” implemented by Build Public co-founder Loring Sagan and others) in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood — a tranquil street lined with shops and almost entirely pedestrian traffic, only a short stroll away from bustling downtown Civic Center — it’s easier to see what she means.

Over 25 percent of city space is public, and Rivera sees many opportunities.

“Build Public’s mission is so new, it’s such a novel application of tools that help facilitate public space improvements,” said Rivera. “We often encounter urban place-making problems that have not yet been solved. We’re inventing cutting-edge new systems, which often takes time and encounters a lot of resistance.”

She strives to push boundaries and involve diverse stakeholders in community programs and processes by building on an increasingly popular strategy of “tactical urbanism” — using cheap, easy, innovative ways to invigorate public spaces.

An example of this is the recent “parklet” movement, or the installation of pop-up community parks in parking spaces. Since its inception in 2005, the idea has taken hold in cities across the U.S. and started new conversations about creative developments of city space. Build Public builds on this momentum by creating permanent public spaces “able to withstand the test of time.”

Rivera described several projects currently in the works at Build Public, including the Dogpatch Arts Plaza — a 8000 sq-ft. dead-end street being converted to a pedestrian-only, art-focused public center, featuring murals and performance spaces.

During her time at Build Public, the organization launched the first-ever Green Benefit District (GBD). Rivera describes the districts as neighborhood-based public stewardship tools — “kind of like a neighborhood-sized homeowner’s association” — where residential neighbors can gather, raise money, and invest in public greening projects and streetscape improvements.

Another element of her work centers on in-kind agreements, public-private partnerships focused on financing projects by involving real estate developers in the building of city parks or centers.

“Innovating public space involves a lot of moving parts,” Rivera explained. “These things aren’t a black-or-white, either-or situation — there’s lots of space for win-wins.”

Rivera doesn’t believe that private funding should diminish the “publicness” of a space — and sees increasing roles for cross-sector collaboration in the discipline. Often times, she explains, the public sector is lacking in terms of “capacity, finances, and nimbleness” with public spaces, weighed down by approval processes and regulations.

“Typically through private sector design and construction processes, you can often save on costs and time because you have more efficiency,” she noted. “The hope, then, is the delivery of public improvement faster and more cost-effectively.”

With several projects in the works for the coming months ,Rivera emphasized her desire to build the “well-designed, permanent spaces” she sees such a need for.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s an opportunity. If we can stick with it, it yields the promise for change.”

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