In San Francisco, there’s a park every half-mile.
By Alex Ulam
Early this month, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land and officials from the city of San Francisco announced that San Francisco is the first city in the country to have a park within a 10-minute walk, or a half mile, of every resident.
“Most city residents won’t walk more than 10 minutes to get to shopping, transit, or parks, so close-to-home access to parks is vital for public health, clean environments, and thriving, equitable communities,” said Adrian Benepe, Honorary ASLA, the Trust for Public Land’s urban parks director, in a news release. “This is an enormous achievement, based on years of dedicated and thoughtful work and planning.”
To build a more equitable park system, San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department formed partnerships with nonprofits such as the Trust for Public Land and the San Francisco Parks Alliance, both of which have helped with funding and community outreach.
San Francisco also enlisted its tech community, which has developed GIS mapping software that allows planners to drill down to a census tract level and compare access, levels of investment, and demographic information about park users. “We have had this discussion of how everyone benefits: How can everyone derive the same enjoyment regardless of whether you are a billionaire or a low-income resident?” says Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department.
Key to fulfilling the 10-minute goal has been a series of parks being designed adjacent to historically underserved neighborhoods in the Bayview–Hunters Point district. The district is experiencing significant changes with 25,000 new residents expected, along with a series of new mixed-income developments.
Often new parks are viewed as precursors of gentrification and displacement. But in this series of new parks —which form a band called the Blue Greenway and fill in a missing link in a larger greenbelt running throughout the city—designers and planners explored strategies to address the needs of both longtime residents and newcomers.
“The intent is that the folks that live there now will continue to live there,” says Ginsburg. He notes that along with the Blue Greenway build-out, the city also has embarked upon a major public housing revitalization in the Hunters View neighborhood. This development will replace all 267 existing public housing units and add additional public housing and market-rate homes. “The city has chosen to envision it as housing rather than public housing off the grid,” he says.
Shannon Nichol, FASLA, a founding partner in the landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN), is designing the 9.6-acre India Basin Shoreline Park—a major park along the Blue Greenway. “We need to design in a way that is welcoming to everyone and that has provided some pretty graphic contrast in places,” Nichol says. “In learning about the neighborhood, we found that many people there have roots in the South, and that the neighborhood has an active street life, so we wanted the park to evoke that.”
Some of the community-centered design moves under consideration for India Basin Shoreline Park include displays by neighborhood residents telling stories about the history of the area and the existing population. Another site-specific strategy might involve a series of porch swings.
Getting to India Basin Shoreline Park is a challenge. A multilane road that abuts the site currently has no pedestrian crossings. “Our vision includes a series of controlled perpendicular crossings that connect the upland hills with the water,” Nichol says. She says a “walkable cross-grain” pavement extending into the park, crossing both a bike trail and a walking trail, will slow visitors down and remind day-trippers that they are passing through a neighborhood.
Community outreach revealed the different agendas in this changing area, especially when it came to concessions being planned for the park. “We really saw the difference where they were asking for food, whether it was Cheetos or organic bread,” Nichol says. The Trust for Public Land’s relationships with people in adjoining different neighborhoods helped her firm learn more about the needs and wants of future park users.
San Francisco and its philanthropic partners still have more work to do. The San Francisco Parks Alliance is collaborating with city agencies to compile data that allows planners to understand how equitably parks and amenities are distributed and how those resources are used. “In one part of the city they may need more tennis courts than in another,” explains Drew Becher, the CEO of the San Francisco Parks Alliance. “We are bringing it down to the neighborhoods.”