If John Peterson were a doctor or a lawyer looking to do pro bono work, he wouldn’t have had to face the quandary he did in 2001. Wishing to balance the high-end residential work his firm, Peterson Architects, was doing with broader-reaching pro bono projects, Peterson was struck by the lack of support and resources available. “While many individual firms are quite gen-erous,” observes Peterson, “the profession as a whole has not recognized pro bono service as a fundamental obligation of professional standing—or as an integral component of a healthy business model.” Peterson wanted to change that, so he started the nonprofit Public Architecture.
For their first endeavor, still on the boards, Public had to look no further than their own backyard: San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, a light-industrial, commercial, and residential community suffering from a lack of planning common to mixed-use urban areas nationwide. The SoMa Open Space Strategy plan they devised offers solutions based on “real use” needs specific to particular blocks, be it a dog run, skate park, or outdoor gym, and can be implemented in small sections, thus avoiding the pitfalls of insensitive large-scale gentrification.
Other initiatives under way include gathering-point shelters for day laborers, a model accessory dwelling unit, and a national campaign known as the “1% Solu-tion” that encourages architects to dedicate 1 percent of their working hours to projects in the public interest. “Architects have a unique set of skills that we feel have not been put to full service to the public good,” says Peterson. “We’re encouraging them to get out into their community and identify problems that might have an architectural solution.”