The history of green space in San Francisco
The tiny Tenderloin National Forest is much loved – and some would argue, even needed – as a respite from the dense concrete jungle of the Tenderloin neighborhood. So if access to parks, greenery, and open spaces make such a profound difference for people living in cities, then who decides where, how, and when they’re placed? Why, for example, did the Tenderloin never get a spacious park back when it was first being built? And how did our greener neighborhoods get so lucky?
In another KALW News story, Ben Grant from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association talked about the Tenderloin National Forest with reporter Ali Budner. In this story, Budner asks Grant to answer some questions about the history of San Francisco’s parks.
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BEN GRANT: My name is Benjamin Grant and I’m the public… ah, sorry I always have to remember what my title is cause it’s long. Let’s look at my card and see what it says.
ALI BUDNER: When he finds his card, I see why he has trouble remembering his title: Benjamin Grant is the Public Realm and Urban Design program manager at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association – also known as SPUR.
GRANT: So I work 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.
GRANT: I would say the process by which parks come into being is different over different periods of history. 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.
Right. That’s why creating new parks in areas like the Tenderloin today is so hard.
GRANT: The grand parks that the 19th century gave us – Central Park, Golden Gate Park – were generally laid out before the city was built around them.
Okay, so, Golden Gate Park is a good example. San Francisco’s largest and most famous park. Let’s find out how that one happened.
GRANT: Golden Gate Park was the vision of the cadre of city fathers. At the time and it mostly was fathers – industrialists or had business interests – but they had a real stake in the reputation of the city.
Central Park had just been built, and it became the crown jewel of New York City.
GRANT: There really was a kind of game of one-ups-manship. “We want to put this west coast city on the map so we want a Central Park too.”
And we got one. Those so-called “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.
GRANT: And he took one look at the outside lands, the windswept sand dunes where Golden Gate Park now resides, 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. But…
GRANT: The city fathers were not impressed. They wanted Central Park and they wanted it now. So they sent Olmsted on his way and they got William Hammond Hall, who was sort of the mind behind Golden Gate Park, to begin to convert that landscape from sand dunes to the facsimile of Central Park.
Which was then developed into its current state by park superintendent John McLaren. So we have Golden Gate Park as we know and love it today: a more than 1000-acre swath of trees, rolling hills, and meadows, with lakes, waterfalls, and windmills.
So Golden Gate Park was clearly motivated by prestige. But what about the rest of our parks?
Some, like Sutro Heights over the Pacific Ocean, were willed to the city by wealthy landowners. Others were planned into the original city grid...
GRANT: Like Alamo Square…
And Jefferson Square, both intended to be neighborhood centers.
Then, in the ‘70s, former military installations were turned into parks,
GRANT: So a lot of the Marin Headlands, Fort Miley, and Lands End, the Presidio, Angel Island…
Land can also open up for parks by chance – like after natural disasters.
GRANT: And I think you see an interesting example of that in the city in one of the newer parks in San Francisco is Hayes Green on Octavia which was built in the right of way of the Central Freeway which was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake.
But what if we wanted to build brand new parks, today, without having to wait for an earthquake or a wealthy person to donate land? That’s the purview of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.
GRANT: Which is in charge of redeveloping land that has been used for other purposes in the past, like the Mission Bay area which was an industrial rail yard historically.
That’s pretty large scale. A new category of parks that don’t take as much money or effort are parklets.
GRANT: 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. 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.”
But back to our original question: Where does park like the Tenderloin National Forest fit in to all of this?
GRANT: There’s a whole other 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. And I think the Tenderloin National Forest is a wonderful example of that. You see that also in a number of community gardens, both in San Francisco and in other cities, where local people have seen an opportunity and really turned it into something special.
Parks are something special in a city, and as with many creative endeavors they take vision and resources to come about.
In San Francisco, I’m Ali Budner, for Crosscurrents.
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