San Francisco takes WiFi to the Park, an interview with Phil Ginsburg, City of San Francisco

Written by Richard Greenan on 25 September 2013

In a pioneering scheme, San Francisco is teaming up with Google to offer free wifi to those enjoying a selection of the city’s public parks. The wifi, which will be installed in 31 parks for a two year period, should be in place by summer 2014. We were intrigued as to how this system might increase San Francisco’s resilience by enabling communities, fostering a dynamic workforce and spurring on expansion. To find out more, we interviewed San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Director Phil Ginsburg...

Brian Kilkelly: How will this scheme help the city of San Francisco become more resilient?

Phil Ginsburg: Our goal is to be a city that is adaptable to change. One of the most significant opportunities to hit cities like ours is the use of wifi and broadband to communicate, socialise, inform and protect. And we think that having wifi access in our parks does all of those things. Our park system is exceptional: we have over 4,000 acres of open space, and over 15% of the city’s land is green space. Having green space plays a really important part in the quality of life for those living and working here - for many residents these parks are literally their front or backyards. We also have a mobile workforce, a greater number of people working on their own, and those who don’t use the office as a place of business; rather, it’s their portable phone or laptop. To provide those folks with the opportunity to work on a park bench or in these public spaces makes the city a healthier place overall.

We are Silicon Valley North; this is where modern technology companies and employees want to be. We’ve become a much more urban America in the last ten years, and increasing our technological infrastructure and capacity in and around city infrastructure and city services will help recruit and retain a 21st century workforce. Firms such as Twitter, Salesforce and Zynga are right down the street - they can all work from their mobile devices, and many of them do. And when they’re not working they want to socialise in parks.

BK: Has there been any insight gained from other cities that have employed similar schemes?

PG: There’s been a lot of debate on the pros and cons of wifi technology and interconnectivity versus nature and the great outdoors. To merge the past with the present is something that’s important to us. We like people to unplug, and it’s important to note that. People use parks for different reasons, but I’d rather have kids outside with their mobile phones rather than on their couch with a mobile phone. Going outside helps us appreciate the benefits of unplugging, as we leave that virtual world and connect with the real world.

We’ve also come to appreciate that maintenance is a big issue for a public-private scheme like ours. Once we own it, we own it, then there’s an expectation it will work. Too often we see cities eager to accept a gift such as ours, but that gift doesn’t have the capacity to satisfy growth or demand.

BK: Some sort of agreement where if demand is high then Google will make sure that capacity is provided?

PG: Not specifically, but our department of technology is comfortable that Google’s gift is sustainable. In the past, the wifi gift has frustrated people. There are also issues to avoid regarding the possibility of the provider using the network for business marketing purposes, which Google is not doing. It’s branded as the City and County of San Francisco, not Google.

This system is also a public safety benefit, as it will relieve networks set up during big events in parks. These networks often get jammed, meaning people who really need to communicate can’t do so. Lastly, we have been very aware of the importance of sensitivity; not everyone wants wifi in their parks, and there is an element of tension between the benefits of wifi, the philosophies involved with open space and nature, and the public view that parks are sacred spaces. To remedy this we’ve tried to identify spaces that really make sense, and steered away from overtly natural, passive spaces. In this first round we’ve targeted places that are more community hubs than natural settings. Community gathering places such as plazas are a good example of locations where community activities outweigh the desire to unplug. Also, a geographical balance and spaces with digital divide issues have been taken into account, as wifi is not limited to the park boundary - it will hit businesses, homes and rights of way around the parks too.

BK - Opinion:

It will be very interesting to follow the impacts for San Francisco and implications for other cities. This WiFi led improvement to the public realm is an excellent example of how 'soft infrastructure' is being blended with 'hard infrastructure' to enhance urban environments for the benefit of individual citizens and ultimately for the whole city. Good luck San Francisco!

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