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The history of green space in San Francisco

Apr 2, 2012

Benjamin Grant is the Public Realm and Urban Design program manager at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association – also known as SPUR. He says that means he works on “public space and the physical form of the city.” He also knows quite a bit about the history of parks in the Bay Area.

“I would say the process by which parks come into being is different over different periods of history,” says Grant. “But it’s always easier to put a park in as you are building a city than it is to put a park in after the fact.” That’s why creating new parks in areas like the Tenderloin today is so hard.

“The grand parks that the 19th century gave us,” says Grant of Central Park andGolden Gate Park, :were generally laid out before the city was built around them.” Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s largest and most famous park. Grant explained how it came into being.

“Golden Gate Park was the vision of the cadre of city fathers,” Grant says. Those fathers had a stake in the reputation of the city. They had seen the creation of Central Park in New York and the gem that it had become in that city.

“There really was a kind of game of one-ups-manship,” says Grant. “We want to put this west coast city on the map so we want a Central Park too.”  And San Francisco got one. Those “city fathers” hired Fredrick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park to build a close replica of New York’s “crown jewel” right here in San Francisco.

Olmstead was skeptical of the locale they had chosen. “He took one look at the outside lands, the windswept sand dunes where Golden Gate Park now resides,” Grant says, “and he said, ‘No, that’s a completely inappropriate place for this sort of grand romantic garden landscape that is essentially modeled on the British countryside.’” Instead, Olmsted proposed a series of smaller parks connected by a greenway throughout the city.

The city fathers were not impressed by that idea, says Grant, so they fired Olmstead and commissioned William Hammond Hall to begin to convert that landscape from sand dunes to the facsimile of Central Park. John McLaren, the current park superintendent helped finish the park. The result was more than 1,000 acres of trees, rolling hills, and meadows, with lakes, waterfalls, and windmills.

Golden Gate Park was clearly motivated by prestige. Other San Francisco parks have different origins. Some, like Sutro Heights over the Pacific Ocean, were willed to the city by wealthy landowners. Others, like Alamo Square and Jefferson Square, were planned into the original city grid.

In the 70s, former military installations began turning into parks. That era gave birth to the Marin Headlands, Fort Miley, Lands End, the Presidio, and Angel Island.

Another impetus for green space is one that nobody plans: a natural disaster. “An interesting example of that in the city in one of the newer parks in San Francisco is Hayes Green on Octavia,” says Grant, “which was built in the right of way of the Central Freeway which was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake.”

To build a new park today without the help of a wealthy benefactor or natural disaster usually requires going through the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, the agency in charge of repurposing city land. But there’s still another option, which is growing in popularity. “A group called Rebar re-imagined a parking space with a parking meter, as a short term lease that you pay the meter and you purchase the right to use this space,” says Grant. “Well, why do you have to store a car on it?” Now there’s actually a permit process in the city, by which anyone can turn a parking space into a “parklet.”

So where does a park like the Tenderloin National Forest fit into this history? Grant says the forest falls into another model of public space that is “really about this bottom-up process, where a local person sees an opportunity, makes it happen, stewards it through the maze of permissions, public process, and creates a little gem.” Community gardens are another example of this process, both in San Francisco and other cities.

Parks are something special in a city, and as with many creative endeavors they take vision and resources to come about.