Urban Prototyping Research Lab

A Global Movement Exploring How
Participatory Design Can Improve Cities

Urban Prototyping is a global movement exploring how participatory design, art, and technology can improve cities. Each UP Festival uses its own strategy to uniquely address that city’s specific circumstances – soliciting, testing, and deploying digital and physical projects in the urban fabric.

At its core, tactical urbanism is about using small-scale, often temporary interventions in public space to drive longer-term conversations and changes in a city. We have crafted the model for Urban Prototyping with this principle in mind, leading to three key steps in our approach.

  • Long-term solutions can often be jump-started by building and refining quick working models. Due to their public and temporal nature, festivals are great venues for testing out new ideas, generating dialog and providing opportunities for quick iterative processes. This approach reflects both tactical urbanism and agile software development methodologies.
  • By opening up the designs, source code, materials, instructions, and other resources necessary to recreate each project, UP aims to catalyze a new global community for sharing and scaling citizen-driven urban design and technology work. Lessons learned around the world will be cataloged to help cities find and implement those that are most suitable for their local needs.
  • Creating a real, lasting path for projects to grow and endure takes insight and resources from a large, diverse group. UP is supported by nonprofits dedicated to design, technology, urbanism, and the arts; private firms on the forefront of design thinking and rapid prototyping; and municipal agencies with policy expertise to help integrate projects into the city landscape.

Developed in 2012 by Gray Area and Intersection for the Arts, the widely acclaimed first Urban Prototyping Festival led to the development of very diverse projects such as Pulse of the City, PPLanter, and Urban Parasol that have since then been adopted and deployed in multiple cities around the world. Following this success, Urban Prototyping has become a global movement spreading over 3 continents and engaging thousands of people in participating in the planning and design of their city.

Urban Prototyping Research Lab: Market Street Prototyping Incubation

The Market Street Prototyping Festival of 2014 was a natural progression of the innovation displayed by San Francisco nonprofits Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and Intersection for the Arts. The two-day event spanned Fifth Street from Market to Howard Streets, and included 23 commissioned projects that addressed specific conditions of the UP focus area while meeting the scalable, replicable and affordable requirements. In 2015, the Market Street Prototyping Festival returned with an open call for prototype ideas which yielded hundreds of submissions. From April 9th – 11th 2015, Market Street came alive with these ideas. Its wide sidewalks were filled with temporary installations ranging from performance spaces, relaxation zones, dynamic art pieces. Ten of these prototypes were selected for incubation at Gray Area.

From April-October 2016, Gray Area and Autodesk provided hands on workshops, critiques, tools, and space to work, iterate, and cross-pollinate to these 10 design teams. The goals of incubation were to produce successful projects that could be in the public space for up to two years, engage the community in the design process, and document the experience. Projects were deployed in October at the 2016 Market Street Prototyping Festival.

Please stay tuned for further announcements about Urban Prototyping on Gray Area social media or keep in touch by signing up here.

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Current Urban Prototyping Projects



Ember is a monument to yesterday, playing back the presence of previous visitors in the form of notes.


The People’s Table

Creating artistic ping pong tables to promote play and community.


Street Sketch

Street Sketch is a structure where people can draw together during the day, and that becomes an illuminated sculpture at night.


Market Street PREPHub

The Market Street PREPHub is a prototype for a new kind of infrastructure designed to increase disaster resilience. By activating neighborhood spaces with useful functions in everyday life, hubs become a community focal point for critical needs in the case of an emergency.


Strange Lenses

Strange Lenses (formerly Elastic Interaction) is a set of lenses that distort the faces of pedestrians.



peepSHOW is an urban viewing station that focuses the gaze and thoughts of passersby onto obscure or concealed street scenes.


City Fit Path

City Fit Path is a free urban exercise trail featuring simple, equipment-free activity stations for people of all ages and abilities.



Chime is an interactive public art installation that uses music and movement to engender a sense of community and wellbeing.


Bench Go Round

Bench Go Round playfully re-imagines public seating to create connection between strangers.


Common Ground

Common Ground is a sidewalk feature powered by curiosity and empathy between strangers.