Ancient History Revisited

by Alec Hawley, ASLA

Images: Willard Worden, courtesy wnp15.366 (left); Alec Hawley (right)

Revisiting the lost plans of Frederick Law Olmsted and the history of San Francisco’s most iconic park to imagine what might be

“No city in the world needs such recreation grounds more than San Francisco. A great Park, or—what is more practical—a series of small parks, connected by varied and ornamental avenues, where people can drive, ride, and walk, free from the dust and noise, is the great want of this city.”

– Frederick Law Olmsted. Preliminary report in regard to a plan of public pleasure grounds for the City of San Francisco. Olmsted, Vaux & Co. 1866

Why revisit plans and thoughts that are more than a century and a half old in the midst of a crisis that deserves immediate attention, and safe access for all to public space? What purpose do we find to look back and analyze the origins of the City by the Bay and imagine this debate now that San Francisco is a globalized metropolis of nearly one million? What could be learned by revisiting an era when more than half the city was tidal marsh and sand dunes with a minuscule fort, a mission, and small port of trade? Could we, in this bleak hour, find the advice there to guide our path for shaping space in the contemporary urban life of the San Francisco that we seek?

We are all collectively seeking room to breathe right now. It is not a mystery why streets, gardens, and parks have become so vital and primary in the consciousness of 2020. Schools, businesses, airports, and factories have been shuttered, opened, and some closed again for months, as we try to manage a global pandemic that is destroying our communities. The only remaining space to escape outside of our homes are our shared streets and public parks. Where better to go than to explore our city’s origins, when our daily lives are in upheaval, to see if even a shred of insight lingers to help ease our current condition, which may well become a new era in landscape and urban planning.

Car Free JFK in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 2020. / image: Olivia P., Walk San Francisco

In the matter of a few short months, COVID-19 and the associated economic collapse have forced us into new roles as teachers who also work from home, job seekers amidst the greatest economic collapse of our generation, and employees weighing the costs of working on the front lines, from grocery delivery to the ICU wings of hospitals.

Memorial Day 2020 – San Francisco under quarantine. Dolores Park. / image: Christopher Michel licensed under CC BY 2.0

We reel as decades of inequality boil to the surface and protests spill into our streets, demanding to be heard. All of us try to manage the impacts on our physical and mental wellbeing and health through release, those spare moments to accept and acknowledge that at this moment we need change. We need space to heal. We seek camaraderie, even if from a distance, and refuge from the anxiety that crowds our conscience.

Black Lives Matter mural, San Francisco. / image: Christopher Michel licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is why landscape architecture exists. From its birth in the United States with Frederick Law Olmsted over 150 years ago until this day, that mission has not changed. This is why what may be considered ancient thoughts by today’s standards of Twitter are still relevant. Landscape architects have always been the makers of space; shapers of the timeless void onto which culture and life paints its contemporary existence.

We make safe places for relaxation, exertion, protest, community, and healing—to give people a chance to commune, think, re-engage, and breathe. And while the language and cultural norms of the 1850s do not hold, the logic and planning could provide the advice that we are seeking right now.

Brooklyn, NY’s Ocean Parkway, the first protected bicycle path in the nation. Olmsted, Vaux & Co., circa 1894. / image: NYC Parks

“In some spots the streets and lots adjoining, sunk, and in others rose. A lot on the southwest corner of 7th and Howard street, sunk 14 feet, leaving a sewer bare and broken; and where Saturday was a dry bank of sand; today a flock of ducks are disporting themselves in a pond of water.”

– The aftermath of the earthquake of 1865, The Daily Alta California, October 8, 1865

Frederick Law Olmsted was asked by the board of supervisors and then-Mayor Frank McCoppin in November of 1865 to visit and assess locations and feasibility for a ‘Public Pleasure Ground’ in the manner of Central Park for San Francisco. This was a new model of development incorporating open space planning for cities across the United States that he developed a decade earlier in New York City to great success, now known as landscape architecture. San Francisco had only just begun to take shape, growing from a quiet port town to an American city. What had once been a foggy and peaceful migratory and climatically Mediterranean village of Native tribes and a small Spanish outpost of roughly 1,000 inhabitants exploded to 24,000 in 1849 (hence the term 49’ers) when gold was found nearby in the Sierras. And San Francisco, the nearest port, became the receptor of this rambling group of people seeking prosperity.

San Francisco had no plan for this explosive growth. Frederick Law Olmsted made this evident in his frank report when discussing the plans he set forth:

“No city in the world needs such recreation grounds more than San Francisco. A great Park, or—what is more practical—a series of small parks, connected by varied and ornamental avenues, where people can drive, ride, and walk, free from the dust and noise, is the great want of this city. Until some provision is made to meet this want, however successful and impressive the business growth of San Francisco may be, it will not be an attractive place for families and homes.”

Grading dunes at the edge of the Richmond District for Golden Gate Park in the 1880s. / image: Willard E. Worden, courtesy wnp15.352

The City by the Bay that Olmsted visited in 1865 by all accounts was a bustling but disorganized town rife with corruption. The term Shanghaiing originates from this era in San Francisco when people were kidnapped to work on ships migrating between San Francisco and China. Between 1849 and 1865 opium dens proliferated to the point that the country’s first anti-drug laws were established. Two cholera epidemics broke out, with one that nearly killed 10% of the population; numerous fires erupted, with one destroying 75% of the city; and they experienced their first earthquake, leaving many buildings uninhabitable or badly in need of repair. San Francisco had no solid plans, but madly rushed to control and stabilize the vibrantly peculiar energy of this emerging city.

Portsmouth Square looking north to Telegraph Hill, 1851. / image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, DAG no. 1331

The supervisors and mayor of San Francisco were focused on a means to enliven and harness development of San Francisco outwards to the Pacific Ocean, where land could be acquired relatively easily for their purposes. Much of this area was known at the time as the “Outside Lands” and consisted of sand dunes with few major landowners to negotiate settlements with. This plan focused on creating a large rectangular pleasure ground exactly in the style of Central Park. Olmsted’s report, to the contrary, wished to develop a park in what is now known as Lower Haight / Hayes Valley and City Hall, with a broad parkway connecting the Bay to the interior, along what is now Van Ness Ave.

To be continued: stay tuned for the second post in this series, to appear here on The Field next week!

Alec Hawley, ASLA, is a landscape architect in San Francisco.

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