Can better design save lives? That question is at the center of a proposal by Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects (OPA) to transform crosswalks along San Francisco’s Divisadero Street. The project, Sous Les Paves, originated in a GOOD design challenge by the Center for Architecture and Design. With help from AIA San Francisco, OPA partnered with local advocacy organization Walk San Francisco in a bid to improve pedestrian safety at street crossings.
The proposal couldn’t be more timely. According to Walk San Francisco, at least three pedestrians have died in city crosswalks since New Year’s Eve alone. OPA began its design with a rudimentary pedestrian-safety tool: the bulb-out, which projects the sidewalk into the street. But while bulb-outs increase visibility, they also make pedestrians more vulnerable. OPA Principal Zoë Prillinger explained: “Our first thought was, when we looked at the curb extension, was that it should be modified to protect the pedestrian.” The designers elected to build protective ridges along the edge of each bulb-out. This led to a second thought. “If you’re building up the curb extension, what else can it do? If you’re creating a kind of public space, what can we do to augment that public space?”
OPA hit upon the idea of treating the protective ridges as planters, creating a new kind of green space at pedestrian crossings. At an urban scale, these mini-parks would connect to median plantings and, eventually, city parks. The designers chose Divisadero Street for their project in part because its traffic lanes are separated by a median. “Median strips [create] a kind of link between intersections, a language of green space: median strips, curb extensions,” Prillinger said. “[You] start to see streets stitched together by these green moments.”
As for the architectural language of the crosswalks themselves, OPA employed a variation on the black-and-white zebra crossing. The diagonal hatch extends into the sidewalk as well as the street. “The hatch implies a dual condition,” Prillinger explained. “It’s kind of a hybrid condition. We’re thinking of streets as a place where both cars and pedestrians belong.”
OPA’s relatively simple design, comprising the hatch pattern, curb ridges, and median ridges, is a kit of parts designed for flexible use around the city. The firm “created a language that’s modular, that can fit different situations, to create a kind of new public space,” Prillinger said. That language, moreover, could be used to help define an area, like Divisadero Street, that doesn’t yet have a distinct aesthetic identity. “San Francisco is conservative, it’s very hard for planners even to think about doing anything that has a real presence,” Prillinger said. At the same time, “There are real opportunities [to do things] that are more consciousness-raising.”
OPA worked with the city Planning Department late last year to outline some of the obstacles to implementing Sous Les Paves. Next, the designers will meet with the Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA), representatives of the Fire Department, and other stakeholders to explore opportunities to realize the design. “I really would like some element of this project to get off the ground,” Prillinger said. “It would be lovely for San Francisco to do something that’s not just progressive environmentally, but also combines progressive architectural language.”