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Placemaking: Union Square, San Francisco

April Philips Design Works, Inc.; M.D. Fotheringham, Landscape Architects, Inc.

April Philips, ASLA
Principal, April Philips Design Works, Inc.
200 Gate Five Road, Suite 102
Sausalito, CA 94965
Tel. 415-331-2784;
Fax 415-331-2013

Michael Fotheringham, Principal
MD Fotheringham, Landscape Architects, Inc.
323 Geary Street, Suite 407
San Francisco, CA 94102
Tel: 415-434-8292
Fax: 415-434-4395


Union Square is the centerpiece of San Francisco's shopping district. This important civic space was born out of the generosity of a single citizen in 1850 and was named out of the local residents' support of the Union during the Civil War. The fourth and current design for the square dates from 1941 and no longer meets the needs of the citizens. The San Francisco Prize, a non-profit organization of concerned design professionals, selected Union Square as a focus for its annual design competition for 1997. This PowerPoint show is a compilation and documentation of the planning/design process of the competition design entry that was chosen to move forward. The show is an outgrowth of the mixed media (sketches, boards, 2D and 3D graphics, slides) used for presentations during the design process of the project. We reformatted and added to the show as each phase of the project progressed. We designed the show as a tool to capture some of the complexity and layering that informed our design process, and used the show as a communications tool as part of our effort to educate and build consensus with our client, various public agencies, and community groups.

Role of the Landscape Architect

On an urban project this large & complex there are many team members. As the winners of the competition, our two firms were the lead designers for the entire team. It was our role to create, inspire, collaborate with, and critique our associate team members' work in the creation and maintenance of a cohesive design vision for the project. We are the authors of this presentation.

Special Factors
Union Square is a place with complex and complicated issues, associations, and history. We chose to frame our role as interpreters of space for the heart of the City of San Francisco by using process as our foundation. We designed the PowerPoint show to stand alone or be accompanied by a verbal presentation where the placemaking process can be explained. The verbal presentation that generally accompanies the presentation adds a layer of interaction and spontaneity. Below is a summary of the ideology we speak about when we use the PowerPoint presentation.

The Process

This project is process made physical. We believe that meaningful common experiences are important in the creation and maintenance of a successful urban civic space. That meaning is dependent on the collective memory

of place. We began by studying the geographic, social, political, cultural, and physical history of Union Square. We gathered images of past design iterations, and we researched information about past physical, natural and cultural uses of the space. On top of those layers of information we added a layer of the present, studying physical and ephemeral elements. The expectations and desires of the people who use and visit Union Square were assessed and recorded through surveys. We met with public agencies, professional groups, and private citizen groups to assure that our understanding and approach was broad and inclusive. We consciously built the schematic design on the previous layers, retaining flexibility as we constructed a framework and concept for Union Square. Our investigations, studies, and data collection gave us a thorough understanding that inspired and strengthened our designs.

As artists, we chose to apply a layer of sculptural quality to the surface topography and design elements through materials and forms. We imbued the design with subtle metaphors based on the regional landscape - geologic and anthropologic. As urban designers, we responded to issues such as: connectivity/linkages, accessibility, flexibility, variety of spaces, activation of the spaces, environmental effects, wayfinding, and interpretation of cultural landscapes. Through this process, we arrived at a design that respected the various and complex design goals, resulting in a lively, integrated design idea that is more than the sum of its parts. The design was choreographed around major strategies for realizing a successful urban place. The design's framework is capable of absorbing future demands without diminishing the integrity of the design. We are confident that, in its final physical form, the design for Union Square will prove to be more than visual patterns; it will be seen as a rich and layered matrix that was designed to accommodate cultural, sociological, visceral, temporal, and physical systems.


The show is proving to be a powerful presentation tool at lectures we deliver to the public while the project is under construction for the next 18 months. Using this PowerPoint show as a documentation/presentation tool, we can continue to educate the public and young design professionals about the complexity of the design process for an urban landscape and the role a landscape architect plays in shaping it. With the addition of this presentation on our web sites, it will create more awareness about the design process and the role designers contribute to the placemaking of the urban realm.

2001 Award Winners
Press Release
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