While the supervisors and mayor of San Francisco were focused on directing development of San Francisco outwards to the Pacific Ocean, where land could be acquired relatively easily for their purposes, Frederick Law 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.
Olmsted’s chief argument was a practical one, depicting the extreme challenges that San Francisco would face with the possibility of a Central Park-sized pleasure ground and Sylvan aesthetic.
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.”
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.