Op-Ed: The great park San Francisco needed — but rejected

Watering Golden Gate Park

San Francisco Recreation and Park workers use recycled water to water plants at Golden Gate Park on May 6.

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The State Water Resources Control Board recently curtailed San Francisco’s right to divert water from the Tuolumne River into its Hetch Hetchy reservoir and required the city to reduce water consumption about 25%. To meet that goal, San Francisco will surely decrease the amount of water delivered to the largest site under its control — Golden Gate Park.

Roughly 1,000 acres in area and planted to mimic New York City’s Central Park, Golden Gate Park sits on top of rapidly draining, porous sands. Consequently, the city must irrigate it frequently. In fact, the water demand of Golden Gate Park was a principal reason San Francisco chose to build Hetch Hetchy, damming a Sierra valley as beautiful as Yosemite and causing one of America’s most memorable environmental battles.

Now, if portions of Golden Gate Park turn brown, new disagreements will arise over how best to manage the park’s expansive landscape.

It did not have to be this way. Almost 150 years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted offered San Francisco an alternative path. Farsighted and environmentally sensitive, his proposal was a model for how urban parks should have been developed in Mediterranean California but largely were not. Yet Olmsted’s plan continues to offer guidance for a hotter, drier 21st century California.


In 1865, a powerful park movement arose in San Francisco whose advocates wanted a single, large park like the one Olmsted and others had created for New York City nearly a decade before. Olmsted, who was unemployed in California and searching for new projects, generally supported the advocates, but with an informed twist. He pointed out that cold ocean winds often tore through San Francisco, and more significantly, 85% of its scant 24 inches of annual precipitation arrived during the winter months. A large park planted to suit New York’s climate would not thrive in San Francisco without the high cost of artificial irrigation.

Consequently, Olmsted wrote in an open letter to San Franciscans that any “attempt to form a park in the style of the Central Park … would be absurd.... [Instead, a San Francisco park] would need to be of an original and quite peculiar style.”

On March 31, 1866, Olmsted submitted a radical preliminary plan that worked with rather than against San Francisco’s natural environment. Instead of a single large space composed of lakes, woods and spreading green lawns, Olmsted proposed a system of smaller, connected spaces designed to be sustainable in a Mediterranean climate.

Calling his proposal a “Pleasure Ground” rather than a park, Olmsted began by acknowledging that his plan took a different tack than in New York, one that employed San Francisco’s “special advantage.” Olmsted noted that strangers to San Francisco were “usually much attracted by the beauty of certain small gardens, house courts and porches.” These intimate local green spaces, reflective of the city’s wind and water constraints, depended on elements that had to be seen “closely, and which would be lost or out of place” in the open greenswards of a park like New York’s.


The centerpiece of his dramatic plan was an irregularly shaped “Rural Ground” of about 200 acres a little northeast of today’s Buena Vista Park. It sat in what was then a wind-protected valley in a barely developed part of town, with naturally moist soil and abundant wild vegetation.

Olmsted shoehorned a parade/playground, a “secluded garden” of roads and paths, and a pastoral area that included a small lawn and lake into an area less than one-quarter the size of the Manhattan park. In addition, a “Grand Terrace” sat between the secluded garden and the parade/playground so that people could mingle and contemplate the scenery or listen to concerts on the nearby music stand. Unlike today’s Golden Gate Park, the Rural Ground would have needed little to no irrigation, and it would have been a showcase for native plants.

Perhaps the most novel features of the entire plan were linear “Promenades” for gathering, strolling and riding. Connected to the Rural Ground, the principal Promenade was a 390-foot-wide passageway following the route of today’s Van Ness Avenue to today’s Aquatic Park. Its central 280-foot section sat below the wind in an excavated cut at least 20 feet deep with planted, sloping sides. Between the slopes Olmsted placed a wide pedestrian pathway with a carriage roadway on either side. Turf and flowers blanketed the lower slopes, with shrubs and trees in the middle, and “a thicket of hardy evergreens all along the top.” Bridges regularly crossed the Promenades.

Unlike the Rural Ground, where Olmsted at least gave a nod to the meadows and glades of Central Park, the beauty of the Promenades was horticultural. Guided by San Francisco’s “special advantage,” the plantings would be compact, rich in detail, a “close to the eye” garden. A keen observer of vegetation and an eclectic plantsman, Olmsted again decided to rely on native California species more than exotic ones to keep the planting and maintenance costs low.

Drawing up a list that would be familiar to today’s California native plant gardeners, Olmsted suggested planting calycanthus, buckeye, manzanita, ceanothus, laurels, ædenostema, eriodictyon “and many others which may be obtained in large quantities from the cañons of the coast range.” As at the Rural Ground, the Promenades would have required only moderate watering.

Despite its brilliance, novelty and environmental fitness, Olmsted’s plan was opposed and never attempted. In a few years, San Franciscans largely forgot it to pursue the irrigation-dependent exotics of thirsty Golden Gate Park.

We will, and we should, preserve the park — it is historic, beloved. But as California and the American West struggle to adjust to a new aridity, we should recall Olmsted’s prescient proposal to lace San Francisco with a variety of compact, attractive and naturally thriving green spaces. The time has come for us to recognize and embrace the environment in which we actually live and cease to be like the San Franciscans of 1866.

Terence Young, a professor of geography at Cal Poly Pomona, is the author of “Building San Francisco’s Park, 1850-1930.”


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