Ancient History Revisited, Part 3

by Alec Hawley, ASLA

Existing opening space in San Francisco / image: San Francisco General Plan, Recreation and Open Space Element, Map 1, page 3

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.

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Ancient History Revisited, Part 2

by Alec Hawley, ASLA

Map of the City and County of San Francisco drawn for the San Francisco News Letter and the Pacific Mining Journal by James Butler, 1864. Park overlap – Olmsted proposal: 120 properties; Olmsted’s successor William Hammond Hall’s proposal: 14 properties. / image: David Rumsey Map Collection

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 installment in this series, please see Ancient History Revisited, published on The Field last week.

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.

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Ancient History Revisited

by Alec Hawley, ASLA

Images: Willard Worden, courtesy OpenSFHistory.org 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.

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