The LIZ: A Plan To Get More Art Into Urban Public Spaces

What culture should liven up the city’s streets? In San Francisco, you can decide.

On October 29th, the Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum known for its creative exhibits, will debut a new project out on the street. The exhibit, which will contain two “whispering dishes” where passersby can sit down and whisper to each other across a fairly large space, won’t actually be near the Exploratorium at all. It’ll be on Market Street, a busy thoroughfare in the heart of the city.


The whispering dishes aren’t entirely new–they already exist in a different form inside the Exploratorium. But the exhibit will be the first of what the city is calling “Living Innovation Zones” (LIZ). Created as a streamlined path for getting art projects up in public spaces, the city’s LIZ initiative was born out of a question: How can the city encourage artists to design public projects without having to navigate through reams of red tape?

San Francisco has come up with 10 initial LIZ sites designated for creative projects along Market St. These will essentially be pilots for the program–afterwards, it will likely expand into other parts of the city. “There are other ways to get projects like this built. You could find a one-off project, get a permit, and approve it. The other way would be to install a project in multiple locations,” says Jake Levitas, a “Mayor’s Innovation Fellow” who is helping to manage the project for the city. “This is looking at it from the angle of–here’s this space, we don’t know what’s going to go in it, but it’s going to be something great.”

“We’re developing a permitting process that’s as flexible as city government can make it,” says Krista Canellakis, another Mayor’s Innovation Fellow who has helped guide the LIZ creation process. “We do get the final sign-off on design, and we need to make sure it meets certain criteria for projects in the public realm.” Those criteria include safety (i.e. a project won’t blow up in the middle of the sidewalk) and public right of way guidelines (people can still use the sidewalk).

“Most of the constraints can be boiled down into three barriers: liability, approval, and regulation,” says Levitas. “If you can find ways to overcome these basic barriers, a lot is possible.”

The city isn’t actually funding the LIZ’s, just giving them permission to exist. So the Exploratorium launched a crowdfunding campaign for its project. Even if it fails to reach its $75,000 goal, the museum still plans to go ahead with the LIZ. “We’re committed to doing this,” says Shawn Lani, a senior artist and the LIZ project lead at the Exploratorium. “But Indiegogo is such a great learning tool for the Exploratorium to reach new communities. How do you network an idea? How do you use social media to drum up interest in a social works project?”

The Exploratorium’s learnings on Indiegogo will help out future LIZ artists, who may not have the financial resources of a large museum. Levitas is hoping that the well-heeled local tech community will pitch in as well. “Hopefully we’ll learn some lessons about what community projects appeal to those demographics,” he says.


The next two LIZ sites are already claimed; the projects will be announced in October. That leaves seven sites on Market St. that still don’t have a plan. Levitas says that there will be an application process–and it will be open to individuals, not just established organizations and cultural institutions.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.