Reclaim the Water




Introduction: Reclaim the Water

Reclaim The Water is a multi-sensorial and interactive experience of the history of underground water in San Francisco and its potential future(s).

Reclaim The Water was presented on Market street during the Market Street Prototyping Festival 2016, and here is how we did it!

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Step 1: Pre-project Requirements and Main Ideas


The upstream of the project is a deep research into historical documents, maps, and a series of interviews with experts in the field. Our first observations were captured in this video. We recognized the importance of natural hydrology in San francisco, while also discovering the public’s appetite for playful experiences in the city. We came to the conclusion that water has potential not only for ecological restoration but also for city playfulness and civic engagement with its inhabitants.

- See video and more research on


The idea is: Recreating the history of a landscape “invisible” to people’s eyes: underground water, using human senses. Include picture of touchpoint diagram, and individual touchpoints

Smell the Past: When San francisco was only dunes surrounded by a network of hollows, creeks, and marshes, natural flowers like Iris, Lilac and Lilies, grew everywhere. We want to invite people to smell the lost landscape shaped by water in San Francisco.

Listen to the Present: Today, this water still exists and carries thousands of gallons of water each day under San Francisco’s Downtown neighborhoods. Pumps are installed in the basements of many buildings around around the Civic Center and Powell BART Stations, dumping this water directly into the sewer system. We want to invite people to listen to the sound of modernity and waste.

Look into the Future: Institutions around the city are starting to recognize the importance of smartly reusing this water. Projects are popping up but very few actually listen to San Francisco inhabitants. We asked people what they would do with this water during previous prototypes and for the festival, we wanted people to look into what we heard: water acting as a medium for strengthening social links and fostering playfulness.

Step 2: Design

ReclaimTheWater was started in January 2016, while still studying at CCA for an interdisciplinary class called Reclaim The Street, taught by Ali Sant and Packard Jennings. During the course of the semester we went through several iterations of our first prototypes. Most of this endeavour is captured on our website here: Evolution of the Design

For our final class deliverable, we produced a video retracing the history of our prototypes - see video

Since May 2016 and our acceptation to the Market Street Prototyping Festival, we expanded our project to include more touch-points and create a long lasting experience. Our installation was made out of 5 major parts:

The blue lines: to represent the water running underneath the pavement. Our prototypes used different materials starting with blue duct tape, plastic tarps, and blue chalk paint, but chose to use a hand-painted blue sticker paper to color individual bricks. We tried it out on Market Street prior to the festival and got into some trouble with the department of Public Work! :-(

The boardwalk: As going through a story is like a path, we created a boardwalk for people to walk and follow the experience. Passersby could symbolically walk through the water (i.e. blue tape) or traverse the current on our boardwalk and therefore further engage in the installation. We first prototyped it with popsicle sticks. We then tried different designs using Autodesk Fusion 360. For the MSPF open house event, we 3D printed one of the most innovative models, but quickly realized that our intended design wouldn’t comply with ADA requirements and we backed up into a safer and easier option. We used Sketchbook for final validation from our design captains and went into building.

The ‘Smell The Past’ sign: We got inspired by natural parks signage and tried different options. We finally decided to go for a vertical design that would allow us to provide information on both sides of the sign.

The ‘Listen To The Present’ pipe: From our previous prototypes, we went through several iterations using everything from toilet paper rolls to pvc pipes. Our original inspiration was a periscope, but this evolved into a simulation of undergrounding pipes. People engaged with and enjoyed the periscope but we found the pipes carried our message better. We found sounds of water, pumps and a flushing sound, and mixed them together using Adobe Audition. We designed the displayed information on Adobe illustrator in order to print it as stickers directly to the pipes.

The ‘Look into the Future’ view master: Our inspiration went from classic tourist sightseeing binoculars but we were not sure how to design it. As we wanted it to be playful and easy to make, we ended up designing a modern stand accompanied by a classic viewmaster—just like from your childhood. We used Adobe Photoshop to build some futuristic pictures of water in the city. The ideas came from our last prototype when we were asking people what would they do with San francisco underground water. Some of these answers can still be found here.

Step 3: Fabrication

And then started fabrication! As none of us were master builders, we went pretty simple with tools and material.

The blue lines:

Material: Printer sticking paper (from Office depot) + acrylic blue paint + blue paint + scissors

Process: Paint the full sheet and then cut 19cm*9cm pieces (size of market street brick)

Time: We painted 100 of them so it took us a while as it needs to dry at least one day before being cut.

The boardwalk + ramps:

Material: Wood: 3”x 10’ (2*4) + 15 pine planks + 2 plywood boards Handsaw, jigsaw, sander, 2” screws

Process: We placed the 10ft board aligned at 4ft apart and drill the planks into it. We drew our planned edge on the planks and used a jigsaw to cut the overhang, forming it into a “wave” shape. We used 2 plywood boards to make ramps. We attached them with door hinges and mitered the edge in order to create a smooth way up.

Time: It took us several days to build this structure.

Smell The Past Sign:

Material: Wood: 2x 5ft*(4*4) douglas fir post + plywood, Absorbent paper for perfume strip Epilog Laser Cutter

Process: We rastered the sign with the laser cut, and attached it to the 2 log pools. We laser cut a little shelf to place to perfume strips of papers. We laser cut absorbent paper into paper strips with the names of the flowers people would smell. We attached the pool and the shelf using 90 degree hinges.

Time: Rastering can take a lot of time, particularly for the paper strips. The building took few hours but you need to be at least 3 people to hold things straight while attaching the pieces together.

Listen to the Present pipe:

Material: PVC pipes and connectors, Vinyl stickers decals, speakers, and attach system sound

Process: We cut the pvc pipes with a saw and sanded them. We printed the information to be displayed on the pipe using a Vinyl Printer, on white sticker paper. For the sound, we placed a little battery speaker inside the pipe. To make sure we could charge the speaker, we devised a system with a string and a hook to easily access the speaker without having to disassemble the whole pipe!

Look into the future view master:

Material: Custom Viewmaster ordered online Photoshopped 3D Pictures pvc stand, Aluminum pipes and picture framing wires to attach the viewmasters

Process: We designed the pictures using our imagination and photoshop magic, We outsourced the making of the view masters and we built a metal string system for people to use them without taking them home. We attached the view master to a plastic platform that we rasterized using a laser cutter. We attached the hole to a simple aluminum pipe found at a hardware store and screwed it into the boardwalk. We also placed little plastic screws to avoid taking the slide reel out.

Step 4: Step 4: Installation

We designed our installation to be modular, easy to transport, install and desinstall. In total, we installed in 4 hours and uninstalled in 3. Here are some tips we learned along the way:

Build separate parts: each touchpoint was a separate part (blue lines, boardwalk, past sign, present pipe and future viewmaster). Therefore we could use a small truck to fit each individual piece and assemble directly on Market Street. We rented a U-haul truck the day of installation and dropped everything off while our crew started assembling.

Bring wooden shims to assist in leveling: Obviously in a city where underground water runs, the ground is not flat. Our structure was not stable and was noticed by the Public Work officers right away. We had to adjust using little pieces of wood placed underneath the boardwalk to get it sturdy.

Be Patient: installing a structure on Market street takes patience as many people come and ask you questions. The more you answer, the less you actually build. Go figure!

Recycle: At the end of the festival, none of us had storage space so we donated the wood and material used to CCA students in the Back Lot Material Reuse center.

Step 5: Step 5: Interaction

A lot of people came and interact with our installation. It was definitely a busy 3 days! Here are some anecdotes and feedback from the Festival

Blue Lines: People were intrigued by the blue lines and their perceived deepness and beauty. Many people wondered if we painted directly on the brick, and even more said they’d like to see them stay! Unfortunately we had to take them off eventually… It actually took us quite some time to “unstick” them from the floor as so many people had stepped on them. We eventually ended up scrubbing Market street floor using acetone (bought from the Walgreens in front of which we were installed all weekend) and soap and sponges (borrowed from the same Walgreens). We’re sure few people have ever seen a crew of people scrubbing Market St on a sunday morning! :-)

The boardwalk: The boardwalk was both impressive and attractive. We saw some people avoiding precociously, and other rushing to cross it: walking, running, biking, skating and more!

Smell The Past: People smelled the paper strips of paper full of perfumes from flowers of San francisco natural landscape: California lilac, Douglas Iris, and Common star lily. They took the paper strips with them to place in their pockets and remember later…

Listen to the present: People were fastly attracted by the command to “Listen To the Present”, they were not sure what they were listening to at first but carefully stayed, and always wondered where this sound was coming from. Merely by coincidence, a sewer smell kept lingering over Market street during the entire festival and almost everyone though that we drilled directly in the pavement! We loved the reaction of people both amused and disgusted. We saw a dad telling him son: “Don’t touch, can’t you see it’s sewer!”. We never thought it would be so realistic!

Look into the future: Many people were attracted by the playfulness of the viewmasters: “Oh I used to have those when I was a kid!” they say. Once going through the pictures, the most reaction was :”Wow!” and a lot of laughs. An interesting surprise for us was to see kids not always sure how these “analog objects” work. Eventually, even digital natives loved it and and kept on using it!

Step 6: Step 6: Conclusion

In all, raising awareness around any issue can be—and we argue should be—a full contact sport. Information is often not enough and provides little room for the observer to have any role other than passive. By doing your research, ideating about creative ways to make that info tangible and interactive, and by testing those ideas by making them real you can get a lot more people to engage with your work. Reclaim the Water learned so much more and had such a pleasure sharing their ideas with the community. How might you make your next idea engaging, interactive, and community-centric?

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