[Freespace]: A Guide to Urban Hacking

What would it look like if we could bypass the regulations that control how we use space in our cities? In San Francisco’s contested Mid-Market area, a temporary animation of a vacant building aims to do just that. Decay in the heart of the city The Mid-Market area lies in the heart of San Francisco’s urban grid, where beautiful turn-of-the-century theaters and hotels line the city’s one grand, if decrepit boulevard. While historic footage of Market Street shows teeming public thoroughfare where women stroll in petticoats and men jump purposefully from streetcars, today what you are more likely to see on the street are scenes of drug use, homelessness, and prostitution. Grand and humble buildings alike sit boarded up and silent while they wait for a tenant willing and able to pay their rent. The city-sponsored infiltration of tech companies like Twitter and Spotify into the area has so far had little effect on the area’s fortunes as a whole. Instead it feels bipolar: locked in a battle between the aspirations and affluence inside the occupied buildings and reality for the people on the streets outside. Located in one of these long-vacant buildings on Market St, just opposite the Federal Building, Freespace is a project that aims to bridge this divide. Civic Hacking  Freespace was born out of the White House’s National Day of Civic Hacking, a project acutely appropriate to San Francisco, which encouraged people across the US to bring the daring attitude of hacking to solve challenges relevant to urban living. The problem Freespace has chosen to address is the centralization of control that hacking itself seeks to address: with planning restrictions, building codes and use permits there is a serious lack of opportunity for any individual to affect the allocation of space in the city. By securing the lease of a long-vacant building on Market Street for only $1 for the month of June, the project’s instigators were able to make wasted space in the center of San Francisco open and accessible for any short term uses that inspired community members proposed. Their model also seeks to benefit not only under-served community members but the building owners as well. By improving the condition of the building through investing time and energy, the real estate can become more visible and attractive to rent-paying commercial tenants. What happens in free space?     So what is the advantage of hacking the real estate market? The founders of Freespace argue that granting universal access creates a space uniquely free from the social polarization experienced in places of residence or work. They argue that providing opportunity for homeless people, bankers, artists and entrepreneurs to rub shoulders, conditions are made for true innovation to occur. In this socially polarized neighborhood, this is a powerful proposition. During its short but intensely busy two-month lifespan, Freespace has been home to a bike share program, free feeds, regular meet-ups, workshops, performances, and parties. As well as these more routine community programs the space also hosted “hackathons”; working bees to brainstorm and execute long-term projects that would spread the philosophy of civic hacking across the city. One such initiative is the Learning Shelter, a project to turn 6 donated shipping containers into a tech shop where the area’s unemployed can access training in digital fabrication technology with the aim of starting their own microbusinesses. The project gained the sympathy of the area’s planning authorities, largely due to their belief in its potential to encourage neighborhood regeneration. Mike Zuckerman, one of the space’s co-founders, explains it in terms of a unique atmosphere that pervades both festivals and disaster zones: removing the barriers to failure (in this case by removing the pressure to pay rent) encourages rapid prototyping and quicker change. “Temporary Place for Lasting Change” Despite the enthusiasm of both the planning department and general community positivity, Freespace hosted its closing party on July 27th, 2013. After the first month an (albeit reduced) rent was crowd-funded for a second month through an online platform. Although a third month proved unsustainable, the organizers will retreat, regroup and plan their next ‘urban hack’, according to Mike Zuckerman. Although its temporary nature was always the intention, it is tempting to wonder whether the potentials for innovation and social impact would be greater if the project was permanent. Perhaps, on the other hand, this particular building is the least important ingredient of the mix. The long-term success of Freespace will depend largely on whether it really does in fact provide the inspiration for the kind of bottom-up urban regeneration that it promises, based on the belief that individuals can take back the agency to affect their urban environment. Only time will tell if Freespace does indeed live up to its claim to be “a temporary place for lasting change”.