San Francisco Planning Department

Creating more inclusive public space through data

The San Francisco Planning Department studies public spaces around the city in order to put people and their lived experiences at the center of the design and management of the public realm. While the results of their studies have been helpful internally to data analysts and policy makers, their reach has been limited—the data is mostly stuck in city-hall servers, inaccessible to non-technical city staff as well as the general public. 

To pilot a way to share the data publicly and increase awareness of their work, SF Planning collaborated with Openbox and Stae, our partner in civic data management. For the pilot we studied parklets—curbside parking spaces transformed by citizens into public amenities like pedestrian seating, bicycle parking, greenery, and art. Over the course of a month we combined qualitative research with quantitative data analysis to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of parklets on San Francisco’s residents and businesses, and published the results in an online, interactive format designed to inform and inspire the public.

Parklets are curbside parking spaces transformed into public amenities like pedestrian seating, bicycle parking, greenery, and art—each sponsored by a member of the public who funds, designs, builds, and maintains it.

How we did it

  • Partnership with civic data startup Stae in order to digitize the City’s existing public life data, and integrate datasets like affordable housing locations and new business licenses into our data narrative. As a point of transparency, we only used data that was publicly available or that could be made available to the public.
  • Qualitative and quantitative research including parklet documentation and observation, interviews with parklet sponsors, intercept surveys with a spectrum of parklet stakeholders (from people experiencing homelessness to small-business owners nearby).
  • Insights and stories from the research that we shared with our client team to align on our findings before starting design.
  • A data story microsite published on SF Planning’s website that demonstrates tangible positive impacts of the parklet program by complementing data trends with data analysis, information visualization, insights and direct quotes from San Francisco residents.
(1/4) We spoke to an artist working on the (de)Appropriation Project art wall parklet, one of 32 parklets we visited around the city of San Francisco in order to observe their design, activity level, and neighborhood context.
(2/4) The owner of Rolling Out Cafe (top left), who sponsors the parklet in front of his business, said that the parklet is “a community project.” We also spoke to individuals who stopped by his parklet and other small businesses on the block to understand the effects that a parklet can have on its local community.
(3/4) We prompted passersby to share their thoughts about what makes a public space feel inclusive or exclusive with posters like this one around different locations in the City.
(4/4) Throughout the project, we looked for moments where demographic data, survey data, and internal parklet data could add context to our interviews and intercepts.


Openbox and Stae worked together to create A Look at the Human Impact of Parklets, an interactive impact study that provides an accessible look into the data and stories behind San Francisco’s parklets.

The study combines data trends with quotes and feedback from local residents, and features organizations in neighborhoods outside of the areas traditionally associated with parklets. It leverages experience from veteran parklet sponsors to increase transparency about the challenges of the program and to share tactics for success. The City also shares its perspective, including the pros and cons of introducing regulation, and the values that drive them.

By providing an in-depth look at the impact of parklets, SF Planning hopes to encourage a greater diversity of people to sponsor parklets and bring their benefits to their communities.

Inspiring with a dose of reality

Small business owners often feel unprepared and unqualified to manage complex civic issues like homelessness, drug-use, and gentrification when they become sponsors of a public space. And because of the citizen-led and voluntary nature of the program, there is tension about whether or not the SF Planning team should intervene to ensure equitable distribution of parklets in all neighborhoods.

To create a sustainable future for parklets, we had to create a narrative that is transparent about the challenges of the program as well as the benefits. We included these challenges in the public-facing story to empower residents with the knowledge to shape public space within and for their communities, and to support stakeholders interested in new approaches to public space, community development, and inclusion.

Making data fun

Our goal in designing the data study was to set a creative precedent in how city data can be shared with the public. We created a visual style for the microsite that is approachable and playful, celebrating the DIY, citizen-led nature of San Francisco’s parklets. While easy to engage with, the graphics and data visualizations contain multiple layers of research and data, allowing visitors to choose how deeply they want to dive in. 

Our client said: “City governments collect a lot of data, but we don’t always have effective tools for sharing. We could analyze data and create policy, but only those with a technical background could understand what this data is and what it means. Now, SF Planning has a great way of visualizing the data stories about our public spaces with a broader audience.”