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09.30.2009
Grab A Seat
San Francisco turns underused roads into public parks
Two traffic lanes in the Castro were turned into a public plaza, replacing cars with planters and cafe tables, though streetcars still pass through.
Bruce Damonte

One of San Francisco’s newest parks measures just 7,000 square feet. It’s a simple affair: a few sets of café tables and chairs with a row of bollards and planters separating it from a busy intersection. Thanks to the city’s new Pavements-to-Parks initiative, in May this temporary pedestrian plaza replaced a two-way street, where 17th Street intersects with Castro and Market. Two more such plazas, in the Mission and Potrero Hill, are scheduled to be open by the end of September.

There are plenty of reasons to cheer for this step on the path to a more pedestrian-friendly city. But what makes these parks truly remarkable are the fast-track way in which they were created—a highly visible experiment in urban planning, where the community can test-drive the design and provide input before it becomes permanent. It took only a few months to get sign-off on the plaza design and three days to install it. Design services were supplied pro-bono by the firm Public Architecture, labor was provided by the Department of Public Works, and all materials were donated. The bollards are cardboard concrete molds, lined with plastic and planted with palms and flowers, and the asphalt was painted tan to distinguish it from the street.

Rebar has designed "Showplace Triangle" at a mess of intersections in Potrero Hill.
Courtesy Rebar

It’s a refreshing shift from standard operating procedure, where discord among constituents and difficulties in securing funds can bog down public projects for years. “By implementing a site and allowing the space to be the laboratory, you don’t have to try and get everything right from day one,” said Andres Power, project manager for the initiative and an urban designer in the city’s planning department. “The model is to be very creative in how we pull together resources and materials—there’s very little capital expense. It’s a great way to show that we can make a difference very easily.”

San Francisco is the second major city to try this approach after New York’s pioneering foray in 2007, where 31 temporary plazas are currently in the pipeline. New York transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan masterminded the project and in a talk last year galvanized Ed Reiskin, who heads San Francisco’s department of public works. Based on the response to the first park, he’s ready to declare a success. “People are requesting more plazas, we have architecture firms clamoring to partner with us for free, we have some corporate sponsors—these are all good signs,” said Reiskin.

San Francisco’s planning department, which is managing the program, is now reviewing a list of 25 to 30 sites that meet the five criteria set by the initiative: a stretch of underutilized road, lack of nearby public space, community interest, the ability to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety, public attractions like cafes, and a neighborhood steward willing to keep an eye on things.

Construction is nearly finished on Guerrero Park.
Jamison/Flickr

San Francisco’s happy twist on New York’s program has been to bring in individual design firms to tackle each park, showcasing creative energy when there is little budget. Local architect Jane Martin, best known for making it easier and cheaper to take a jackhammer to a sidewalk in order to create a garden, used fallen trees from Golden Gate Park in her design of Guerrero Park in the Mission—a symbolic link between the start of one park to another.

For “Showplace Triangle” in Potrero Hill, San Francisco design firm Rebar decided to co-opt the iconography of the road, using turn-lane arrows to generate a mosaic-like pattern. The firm has its own inspired pavements-to-parks effort: PARKing Day, in which urban activists temporarily take over parking spaces to create tiny public parks for a day, just celebrated its fourth year on September 18. Since its inception, PARKing Day has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, with large-scale efforts in LA, Portland, and Seattle as well.

“There’s a whole movement of interim use as a way of activating urban spaces,” said John Bela of Rebar. “We’re circumventing the traditional planning processes and showing what’s the minimum infrastructure required to turn these sites into beautiful public places.”

Lydia Lee