by Alec Hawley, ASLA
Revisiting the lost plans of Frederick Law Olmsted and the history of San Francisco’s most iconic park to imagine what might be
For the first two installments in this series, please see Ancient History Revisited and Ancient History Revisited, Part 2, published on The Field last month. For more about the series, check out the October 1 edition of the San Francisco radio show Roll Over Easy for an interview with author Alec Hawley and also Luke Spray of the San Francisco Parks Alliance in the show’s second half. Alec discusses his strange findings about San Francisco’s initial parks system bid by Olmsted and how they imply amazing things for the city right now.
“The conclusion to which these considerations lead, is obviously that whenever a pleasure ground is formed in San Francisco, it should have a character which the citizens will be sure to regard with just pride and satisfaction. It should be a pleasure ground second to none in the world—a promenade which shall, if possible become so agreeable to its citizens, that when they go elsewhere they will remember it gratefully, and not be obliged to consider it a poor substitute for what is offered them by the wiser policy of other cities.”
– Frederick Law Olmsted. Preliminary report in regard to a plan of public pleasure grounds for the City of San Francisco. Olmsted, Vaux & Co. 1866
So, what can we as contemporary San Franciscans do? What can our elected officials push for that will make for a more equitable and green city for all that takes into account how they managed to do the ‘impossible’ but also missed systematic opportunities in open space planning from San Francisco’s beginning as a city?
Looking at a map of San Francisco, it is easy to see the historical inequity and poor planning. While the ‘impossible’ Golden Gate Park did unfurl over a series of decades, the process that Olmsted outlined—asking for a series of small parks connected by avenues free from the dust and noise of the city—was completely missed.
And, I believe this is where there is still hope. There is no straightforward way that a park on the scale (1,017 acres, 20% larger than Central Park) and shape of Golden Gate Park can be made today. There just isn’t the undeveloped space to accommodate its dimensions (barring very serious disasters); but there are lots of avenues, and these are quickly becoming the places of respite from the dust and noise of the city that hold great potential.
When the global pandemic made its fateful way into the city of San Francisco, everyone was required to shelter in place. Thirty minutes was allotted each day for outdoor exercise, and only essential trips to the remaining open businesses could be made. Twitter rang out with groups and individuals requesting that the city close parks and streets to traffic to ensure safe physical distancing could be met while people went outside. San Francisco Recreation & Parks, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), SF Planning, Mayor London Breed, the supervisors, and other groups began to make modifications after these voices were heard during community meetings and through social media and as evidence mounted from other global cities enacting these measures.
Local groups such as Walk San Francisco, the San Francisco Bike Coalition, the Richmond Family Transportation Network, and People Protected, along with others, pressed the current SF Recreation & Parks Board in late April to close John F. Kennedy Drive to auto traffic, a practice they had already begun, closing the road on Sundays prior to the pandemic. Thankfully, the Mayor approved the measure, and it became the first car-free space in the city. Simultaneously, the SFMTA partially closed streets throughout all of San Francisco, called Slow Streets, using emergency powers granted by the pandemic. Starting in June, this was quickly paired with efforts by the Small Business Administration and Office of Economic & Workforce Development to partially or fully close streets to auto traffic through what is referred to as the Shared Spaces program, allowing businesses to occupy parking stalls along with closing streets temporarily.
All of these measures have greatly increased local mobility through what might be considered this era’s ‘system’ of parkways that Olmsted envisioned, providing both commercial and recreational amenities outside.
“Whatever pleasure ground is formed for it in the next ten years, should be laid out with reference to the convenience, not merely of the present population, or even of their immediate successors, but of many millions of people. It is important, therefore, at the outset, that due attention should be given to the fact that a pleasure ground planned merely to meet the requirements of the present, or the next ten or twenty years, will be an uneconomical undertaking, and a neglect of a very important municipal duty.”
– Frederick Law Olmsted, 1866
What you can see emerging today in 2020, while not as grandly Victorian or fixed as Olmsted may have envisioned (the great fire breaks and garden-esque respites from the noise and dust of the city), or what may have been possible had Mayor Frank McCoppin and the supervisors of 1865 made means for more “Systemic Parks” and parkway plans for San Francisco, is still something of great promise. It is now possible to cross almost all of San Francisco via car-free or ‘car-light’ spaces. While this has been accomplished through emergency provisions and may disappear once the pandemic ends, it is highly likely that enough people will have grown accustomed to and really love these alternative means of existing in their city and neighborhoods that they fight tooth and nail to keep them.
This is a big if. IF the city’s mayor, London Breed, and the board of supervisors have the foresight to move more quickly and act more strongly than they currently are. Currently, two residents—Mary Miles and David Pilpel of the group C.A.R. (Community for Adequate Review)—are challenging these car-free and car-light spaces utilizing a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) appeal against the emergency powers that the City offices have been using to make these modifications. They have been overruled by the Board of Supervisors, but are persistent, and cracks are already appearing in car-free space, with the opening to cars of 1 of only 5 car-free spaces in the city (Car Free Twin Peaks) and delays in the phase 3 rollout of additional Slow Streets. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio has legally made the Shared Spaces and Slow Streets permanent open space features of New York City.
This movement for connected public park systems and pedestrian-friendly avenues that began during the Industrial Revolution and Olmsted’s era has renewed itself during the COVID crisis. It draws energy and its cultural roots from literary tomes of the environmental movement of the 1960s, as we first gained insight into the fragile nature of our planet, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and amidst destruction of our urban fabric with the rise of highway development, as documented in Jane Jacobs’ The Death & Life of Great American Cities (1961).
In San Francisco, this developed into what is known of as the Freeway Revolt of 1966, when citizens pushed to halt the expansion of a highway system that would have bisected Golden Gate Park and wreaked havoc on communities across San Francisco, most notably the Embarcadero waterfront as pictured below. It was immortalized by the Malvina Reynolds song “Cement Octopus.”
“You know, it gives me hope [referring to slow streets and car free spaces in 2020]. San Francisco seems to have always responded in big positive ways during moments of crisis. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake was a complete disaster, but from that tragedy the freeway that blocked people from our beloved waterfront became a boulevard for walking, biking, taking a historic trolley car and admiring the city.”
– Peter Hartlaub, cultural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and co-host with Heather Knight of the Total SF podcast
It is not uncommon for movements to begin in earnest, or become more commonly accepted, with what appear to be culturally ‘cool’ or lighthearted phenomena that cloak a more far-reaching cultural shift. Just prior to the pandemic in the fall of 2019, the San Francisco Chronicle sent two of its reporters, Heather Knight (City Hall Columnist) and Peter Hartlaub (Cultural Columnist), out around the city for a makeover of the iconic SF 49 Mile Drive, a car-centric drive which began at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, to entice tourists visiting the fair to explore San Francisco by car (a relatively new invention at the time), and shop in the city. It has retained its iconic status for 80 years, and is featured on tourist memorabilia and guidebooks. However, Heather and Peter took this task as an opportunity to, in a fun and engaging way, rename and remake the drive into the SF 49 Mile Scenic Route.
Spurred by changes that have been happening to cities across the United States, primarily driven by the contentious but exciting shifts that Silicon Valley has pushed for in response to the booming economy, horrendous traffic, and inadequate transportation infrastructure in the city, they revised the drive and explored San Francisco using what has been coined as micromobility: by cablecar, on foot, by rented electric bikes, and on rollerskates while trying to maintain the whimsy that makes SF…SF. While this project began before the days of quarantines and COVID, the duo offered their thoughts on how the Scenic Route now has taken on even more importance since the initial lockdown occurred, both for people seeking outdoor recreation and local business owners hoping to avoid collapse.
I asked Heather and Peter whether Slow Streets, car-free spaces, and the Shared Spaces program would impact their route, and what they envision for these measures going forward, post-pandemic.
“It has been a really wonderful accident that a lot of the SF Scenic 49 Mile Route now overlaps with so many of the car free spaces in San Francisco. Initially, Peter and I were hesitant and did not want to put Twin Peaks onto the map, and instead highlight the Sunset District businesses, as we wanted to maintain the focus of the route helping local business, especially those involved with our culture. Our readers were adamant that we put Twin Peaks onto the Scenic Route, which at the time had the unfortunate reputation as a place for car break-ins and as a dangerous section of road for people walking and biking. Now that it’s car free, it’s been transformed. However, there are challenges for everyone to access and it will be a battle to simply keep these spaces, let alone the Slow Streets and Shared Spaces for merchants. I would definitely consider altering the route to include the Shared Spaces Valencia program and other merchant districts participating, but I do think there is a looming battle with people who are concerned with parking being removed, and without advocacy many of these spaces will be lost.”
– Heather Knight, the San Francisco Chronicle, City Hall Columnist
Peter was more optimistic than his counterpart, citing the heroic young figures of our overly maligned tech culture in Courtney Brousseau (a less well-known outside the city but vocal SF resident) who was tragically lost to gun violence after creating such a positive force for equitable transit and safe streets in the city. Heather remained stoic, understanding the dynamics of City Hall, and with an inbox flooded by mail from angry drivers and readers.
One day after the interview with Heather and Peter, Twin Peaks was reopened to cars. While their efforts on the Scenic 49 Mile Route were primarily to focus on supporting the merchants of San Francisco, as this is more pressing than ever, Heather and Peter have both done amazing journalistic work to defend and highlight car-free spaces. Heather Knight’s column on September 29, 2020 discussed how a silent reopening to cars of Twin Peaks by the supervisor and local Rec & Park manager angered everyone and provided positive solutions for no one. Similarly, Peter’s work ‘Back to the drawing board: A map to make SF a bike and pedestrian utopia: 13 steps to becoming a car-free city’ focuses on some revolutionary and many feasible avenues for improving the streets of San Francisco. His work highlighted a local organization named Walk San Francisco, currently led by Jodie Medeiros, whose group has been working to make safer streets in San Francisco since 1998. They successfully rallied to pass the Vision Zero framework for San Francisco, aiming to end traffic fatalities by the year 2024.
There have been 23 traffic fatalities in San Francisco this year (2020), placing the city on trend to have approximately 30 traffic fatalities as we edge closer to the end date of Vision Zero’s target of zero fatalities.
“Traffic violence is a daily reality for the nearly 40,000 people who live in the Tenderloin. Every single street in the Tenderloin is designated as “high-injury” in terms of traffic crashes. Four pedestrians were hit and killed in the Tenderloin in 2019. Hundreds were injured, including a 12-year-old boy walking home from school. Ask someone who lives or works in the Tenderloin if they’ve ever witnessed someone get hit while walking, and they usually have more than one story.”
– Walk SF
Car-free spaces, Slow Streets, and the Shared Spaces program have been the one bright light to come out of the pandemic. The streets of San Francisco recently have been a glut of moving trucks and the shuttering of many local businesses (-54.6% revenue loss, the highest in the nation, according to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker) including some icons that have been around for many decades. The parks and open streets are some of the only places left that feel ‘normal,’ where you can see people’s eyes smiling, children enjoying themselves, outdoor dining and music, and the vitality that once permeated this City by the Bay. So why not highlight the one positive move that this city has made to reinvigorate the public realm of SF, while making it safer for its residents, and push it forward? Extend it, and make it permanent, following the path of our supposedly stoic cousin, New York. It should not only be for COVID, but to prepare for the next century, as we experience the worst wildfires in the history of our state, with over 4 million acres of California burned this year alone. Paris (and its mayor) is making great strides toward their goal of ‘the 15 minute city’ through improvements to its pedestrian and bicycle network to reshape their city into a safe and accessible series of neighborhoods where all of its residents needs can be met within a 15 minute walk or bike ride. We are so close to completing some impressively safe networks, as can be seen in the overlap of the various programs in SF. As many people are no longer forced to commute, they have been given the opportunity to explore more within their neighborhood and stop using their cars almost entirely. While San Francisco allows a vocal minority (two people) to waste hundreds of thousands in government funds, there are many in our communities who are rising up, taking ownership of their space, and improving it for families and children and frankly, anyone who intends to stay in SF.
However, it is not an equitable spread of open space, or safe streets. This inequity traces its roots all the way back to Olmsted and the inadequacy of the government response in shaping the city’s park system. It is evident in the collapsed map of Open Spaces and City programs that the Tenderloin is at a severe disadvantage, the neighborhood that would have been the beneficiary of Olmsted’s wide Parkway from the city center to the Bay.
Today’s reality is that the Tenderloin of San Francisco has the city’s highest diversity, highest number of families, yet the least amount of open space, and sits in a tight web of the most unsafe streets in all of San Francisco. This is why a coalition of Tenderloin and citywide advocates and service providers residents, and active transportation groups like Walk SF and SF Bicycle Coalition formed the Tenderloin Traffic Safety Task Force in 2018. While the city unrolled its series of programs intended to relieve the stress many of its citizens are experiencing and to help bolster the chances of its businesses surviving while not spreading COVID-19, the Tenderloin was left behind. During the spring and summer as many districts saw safer streets, outdoor dining and car-free spaces the Tenderloin saw no Slow Streets, and no approved Shared Spaces.
Finally, in late August through the work of this Task Force and its associated partners, the Tenderloin has established physical distancing lanes 24/7 on Jones Street, ‘Play Streets’ once a week, and Shared Spaces ‘Open Street’ Thursday to Sunday from 12-7pm, thereby beginning to close the equity gap between other districts and to give the Tenderloin’s residents space in their streets. As community members pushed their elected officials to close JFK to cars, perhaps the start of San Francisco’s car free movement during the pandemic, communities continue their efforts in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhood in SF. Groups like Walk SF work to empower communities to fight for what they need. For this reason, the final installment of this serial will focus on the establishment of a competition for the Tenderloin & broader San Francisco’s Emergency Street Improvement programs, joining together with the Tenderloin CBD, the SF Parks Alliance, and Walk SF to help make a 21st century rendition of what Olmsted envisioned a reality.
To be continued: stay tuned for the next post in this series, to appear here on The Field soon! For the first two installments, please see Ancient History Revisited and Ancient History Revisited, Part 2 published last month.
Alec Hawley, ASLA, is a landscape architect in San Francisco.