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Rick LeBrasseur, ASLA

Director, Sustainable Environmental Design and Stewardship Program
University of California, Berkeley Extension
March 2006

Current State
The Bay Area Open Space Council’s data from 1997 showed that for the nine Bay Area counties, San
Francisco placed second to last in percentage of parklands to total land area at 1.7%. San Francisco was
definitively dead last at .7 acres of parklands/open space per 1000 population. This data did not include
Federal Lands such as the Presidio.

The 2004 survey of similar aspects by the Trust For Public Land shows San Francisco being in the top
tier of dense cities with percentage of parkland per land area :

Total City, County,

Metro, State and Park and
Federal Parks and Preserve Land as
Land Area Preserves within City Percent of City
City (Acres) (Acres) Land Area

High Density Cities

Washington, D.C. 39,297 7,576 19.3%
New York 194,115 36,646 18.9%
Boston 30,992 5,457 17.6%
San Francisco 29,884 5,143 17.2%
Minneapolis 35,130 5,359 15.3%

Yet the ever increasing density and urbanization of San Francisco with no associated parkland or open
space acquisition or preservation shows a large drop in rankings to 6.7 acres of open space and parkland
per 1000 residents

Total City, County,

Metro, State and Parks and
Federal Parks and Preserves per
Preserves within City 1000 Residents
City Population (2002) (Acres) (Acres)

High Density Cities

Minneapolis 376,000 5,359 14.3
Washington, D.C. 571,000 7,576 13.3
Oakland 403,000 3,822 9.5
Boston 589,000 5,457 9.3
Baltimore 639,000 5,748 9.0
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Los Angeles 3,799,000 30,136 7.9
Philadelphia 1,492,000 10,621 7.1
San Francisco 764,000 5,143 6.7
Long Beach 472,000 2,741 5.8
New York 8,084,000 36,646 4.5
Chicago 2,886,000 11,729 4.1
Miami 375,000 1,285 3.4

Peter Harnick of the TPL states : "Revitalized cities need revitalized park systems. They help clean the
air, reduce stress, improve health, diminish crime, increase tourism and property value, and provide an
alternative to sprawl. Parks are the urban land issue of the 21st century."

The Neighborhoods Parks Council, a non-profit organization in San Francisco, reported in 2003 that : "In
the past three decades, we have added less than 90 acres to our park system through [the NPC’s] open-
space fund, representing a mere 3 percent growth in city-managed parkland. In comparison, Portland,
Oregon’s parkland has grown 20 percent in this same period, and Seattle has achieved a 48 percent
increase. Chicago, a high-density city like San Francisco with serious land constraints, has achieved a
growth in parkland of 17 percent."

Isabel Wade, Director of the NPC criticized the Recreation and Park Department for not allocating enough
open-space funds over the past 30 years to allow for the purchase of green spaces in the city. In 1974,
voters approved a bond measure that would increase property taxes to garner more than $334 million for
the acquisition and development of city parks. "Approximately 7 percent of that fund was, used for
acquiring new parks, while the rest of the fund was used for park development and maintenance," Wade

In 1986, a downtown-park fund was established. Developers of downtown office buildings were taxed,
and the money was used to construct new parks in the area. "Most of that fund was spent on refurbishing
Union Square," Wade said. In 2000, voters approved a $110 million bond measure to acquire and
develop open spaces. However, none of that fund has been designated for new park acquisitions, Wade
said. The city has grossly neglected the opportunity to develop an equity of open spaces, park activists

Furthermore, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, millions of dollars intended to purchase new
San Francisco parkland and to fix up parks and playgrounds were spent instead on existing recreation
and park programs and staff salaries.

The spending by city officials, while not illegal, raises the question of whether city residents were misled
when they approved a ballot measure four years ago to beef up the city's Open Space Fund, which sets
aside 2 1/2 cents of every $100 in property tax paid in San Francisco to "provide enhanced park and
recreational services and facilities.'' Original projections showed that the fund would receive about $25
million a year -- and that half of that would be available to buy land and shore up the city's long-neglected
parks, playgrounds and recreation centers.

But the actual amount being spent on capital improvements has been about $6 million, or a quarter of the
fund, as cash-strapped city officials have dipped into the fund since its beginning to keep programs intact
and to pay city Recreation and Park Department workers.

Another big problem, Elizabeth Goldstein said, president of the community group analyzing this
information, is inadequate funding. She noted that the deferred maintenance backlog for state parks is
now running close to $900 million. That translates as general parkland decline, she said.

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Based on a survey it conducted, the foundation concludes there is strong support among Californians for
greater park funding. More than half the survey respondents said a lack of funds for operation and
maintenance is the greatest threat facing the parks. More than 80 percent favored state acquisition of new
parkland, and 55 percent said they would support state bonds to fund such acquisitions.

The larger issue underlying all the problems, Roy Stearns says, a spokesman for the state Department of
Parks and Recreation, is the state's surging population. "Parks that were once isolated now have
development pushing against their borders," he said. "And all those thousands of people want their own
special piece of nature to bike, hike or ride horses and off-road vehicles. We don't have enough open
space now to accommodate everyone. What will we do in 20 years? There're no magic solutions."

Dan Weikel for the Los Angeles Times writes in March of 2006 : “As the state's growing population
continues to devour open space, the California state park system increasingly is fighting efforts to build
railways, roads, utility lines and commercial ventures that threaten its scenic preserves and historical
sites. Land set aside for the "health, inspiration and education" of the people of California is also coveted
by transportation agencies, local governments, utilities and other interests that view parks as the path of
least resistance for their projects.

"The target is right on our backs," said Dick Troy, a 30-year veteran of the state Department of Parks and
Recreation and former deputy director of operations. "We need to be diligent and remind the public what
parks are for."

In the past, state officials have managed to fend off serious threats, including a luxury resort at scenic
Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County and highways through the redwoods of Northern California.
But proposed incursions on parkland recently have multiplied, raising fears that these oases soon could
be degraded by noise, dust, destruction of wildlife habitat, erosion and water pollution, among other

California's development and business interests contend that parkland should not be off-limits to civic
projects if the environment is protected and there are no reasonable alternatives. "We understand that
parks serve a recreational purpose, but they should not preclude other uses, such as gas lines and
highways, where appropriate," said Jeanne Cain of the state Chamber of Commerce. Under current law,
parks can be used for such purposes, but the state must declare the property no longer necessary for
conservation, and the Legislature must agree. Parkland is attractive for civic projects because it is often
cheaper than developed land and acquiring it doesn't rile property owners.

In addition to a lack of new parklands and open spaces being preserved or transformed, current threats to
existing parks identified by the California State Parks Foundation in 2005 include “ urban development,
inadequate resource conservation and restoration, an overuse of existing parklands and short staffing,
and environmentally harmful activities in adjacent areas.”

The Benefits of Urban Open Spaces and Parklands

The difficult fiscal environment that prevails in San Francisco and The Bay Area, and the escalation of
urban land values here, have made the economic justification of parkland and open space increasingly
necessary in order to rebut the persuasive rhetoric of those who say : “I am in favor of parks and open
space, but we cannot afford the capital acquisition and development costs because of more pressing

The challenge is to achieve widespread recognition of the economic contribution of parks so it is

adequately represented in the planning, social, and political climate of community land use decisions.
Data shows that people are frequently willing to pay a larger amount for a home located close to an
attractive park or open space than they are for a home further away. The increase in home value means
that the owners of these properties will pay higher property taxes. (NRPA, May 2001)

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In some instances, the incremental amount of taxes paid by each property that is attributable to the
presence of park or open space is aggregated, it will be sufficient to pay the annual debt charges required
to retire the bonds used to acquire and develop the park. In these circumstances, the park is obtained at
no long-term cost to the jurisdiction. (Parks and Recreation) In addition, there is empirical evidence that
investment in parks provides the community an advantage in attracting future businesses and desirable
residential relocators such as retirees. (IPFRA Bulletin, 2001)

Other benefits of urban protected areas in San Francisco deserve more explanation :

Preserving biodiversity is increasingly seen as a primary goal of protected areas by policy-makers,
managers, and the informed public. California is one of the most species-rich areas of the world: one
commonly used list, Norman Myer’s "hotspots" of endemism, ranks it twelfth (WCMC 1992).

Of the 6,300 taxa of flowering plants native to California, 36 percent are endemics (found nowhere else).
Most of these are rare or uncommon; many are restricted to very small areas. About 40 plant taxa are
thought to have become extinct over the last century (CNPS 1994). Some 15 mammals, 15 reptiles, 16
amphibians, and many invertebrates are endemic to the state (Thelander and Crabtree 1994). About 175
plants and 145 animals are listed as endangered or threatened either by the national or state
governments or by both.

Economic Benefits
The economic benefits to California of urban protected areas are substantial. Many of these benefits
derive from outdoor recreation. Although reliable estimates of their economic value are hard to find, the
number of annual visits are impressive: Golden Gate NRA, 14.5 million; East Bay Regional Parks, 14
million; Tamalpais State Park, 2 million; Santa Monica Mountains NRA, 470,000; a number of urban state
beaches all in the millions (California Tourism 2001).

The California Environmental Dialogue, a group of business and environmental leaders, recently
concluded that California’s "natural communities are an integral part of the economic foundation upon
which future prosperity depends." It pointed out that many businesses and skilled workers locate in
California because of its natural assets; protection of watershed and wetlands reduces the need for costly
new water-treatment plants and lessens the cost of flood damage; and commercial fisheries depend on
protection of wetlands, streams, and watersheds (TPL 1999). The Trust for Public Land has compiled a
detailed list of these and other benefits (TPL 1993).

Ecosystem Services
The total areas of forests and large plantations is declining globally. As the native forests disappear or
become less accessible to urban areas, people are becoming more reliant on ecosystem goods and
services provided by new forests, plantations, and ecosystems. Ecosystem services from plantations and
forests include carbon sequestration, biomass production, land rehabilitation, erosion control, water table
control, and reduced reliance and deforestation of existing timber resources. (European Institute of
Cultivated Forests) Ecosystem services from wetlands and water systems include nutrient and waste
management, food and water detoxification, pollution cleansing, biological conservation, habitat diversity,
flood mitigation, erosion control, greenhouse gas emission reduction, water partitioning, regulate disease
carrying organisms, and many others. (Ecological Society of America)

Intangible Values
We all have an inkling of the benefits open spaces and parks bring – yet how to quantify these is hard.
Many studies are being done which attempt to bring these benefits to tangible economic and cultural
value : health benefits may reduce reliance on medicine and health care to reduce stress, cancer, and a
myriad of other “symptoms”, reduction to child obesity and diabetes, and biodiversity.

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Environmental Psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan have shown that parks and open spaces
provide a “source of comfort” and “less irritation”, “community and neighborhood satisfaction increased
with view of trees and green spaces”, “reduced mental fatigue”, and others. The results of these various
studies provide strong support that nearby nature affords a wide range of psychological and physical
benefits. People feel more satisfied with their homes, with their jobs, and with their lives when they have
sufficient access to nature in the urban environment. (The Experience of Nature, p. 162)

One role of nature in California is intangible: it has to do with identity. In a place where most people come
from somewhere else and have few traditions in common, the natural landscape dominates the California
imagination. The extent to which this is so "is apprehended, even by Californians, only dimly," writes the
novelist Joan Didion. "Deriving not only from the landscape but from the claiming of it, from the romance
of emigration, the radical abandonment of established attachments . . . this imagination remains
obdurately symbolic, tending to locate lessons in what the rest of the country perceives only as scenery"
(Wyatt 1986).

The World Health Organization has placed Cultural, Spiritual and Recreational benefits from open spaces
and parklands. Such non-material benefits include recreational facilities and tourism, aesthetic
appreciation, inspiration, inspiration, a sense of place, and educational value. Our information society,
with its alienation from natural processes and lack of sensory contacts to nature, has an increased need
for pleasant sensual experiences (Christophe Girot)

(Re)Making Urban Open Space

“Making landscapes is about capturing space” notes William Curtis, and the importance of the urban
edge, “a non-place lacking civic or rural identity”, raises important questions :

! How to make a landscape, balancing the need for “images” of nature with the realities of
technology, evolving socio-economic & political climates, mixed cultural identities and change

! How to create a space of “democratic freedom” where human needs for privacy and
contemplation are combined with social expression and environmental stewardship

! How to draw up on the lessons of history and urban open space precedents without regressing
into over-complexity or typical solutions.

There are many definitions of landscape, yet the most compelling conceptions are rooted in the awe and
power to change it may bring. “Nature and agriculture are transformed by technology and new moral and
political definitions of culture are invented. A new ideal of social and ecological harmony, one which
addresses the relationship between people, places, technologies, traditions and everchanging definitions
of nature. Nature is not a stable objective norm against which art is assessed, but of course a kind of
construct, something that we constantly have to redefine?” (John Dixon Hunt)

Ecology begins as the vision of a better world – it is often an abstract idea of the interrelations that are
often unclear and must be made concrete and visible. (Peter Latz) The role of a landscape architect and
environmental designer is the realization of abstract ideas – in our case nature, ecology, and culture.

So what are the future qualities of a future cultural landscape that includes, besides ecology and
economy, all the soft factors such as beauty, harmony, and feeling at home – the sensibilities that are
barely quantifiable sensations making up the emotional value of the landscape ?

We all know the uneasiness when a landscape changes, or the pang of an ugly, grey landscape . . . yet
the landscape changes even when we keep our hands in our laps. Active societies such as ours
transform the appearance of landscapes much more quickly. It is mainly urban landscapes that are
today’s developing cultural landscapes, whereby these landscapes manifest themselves before the

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associated culture can even be identified. (Sven-Ingar Andersson) There is no consensus on what the
landscape of the 21 century for San Francisco and Visitacion Valley should be.

New Paths – New Ideas – New Nature

New conceptions of nature must design landscapes with both accepted and “new” (or disturbing)
elements, both harmonious and interrupting ones. We must first accept a fragmented world – allowing for
a coincidence of nature to occur in our urban environment. The result is a metamorphosis of landscape
without destroying some existing features – whether rail lines or forests or trees or streams. It is almost a
landscape memory – too much change is not environmentally healthy nor culturally acceptable.

Goals for a Visionary Urban Open Space in San Francisco

We should strive to uncover old rules and design ideas, and combine them with new elements and new
goals. Ideas and landscapes can develop that pursue natural processes in derelict surroundings
according to ecological rules initiated and maintained by technological processes.

We are looking at this ‘unreal’ landscape that followed industry. It is a confusion of linear, intersecting,
and unintelligible organization patterns, exotic vegetation and soils, damaged land, a puzzle of fragments
of various ruins or remains of industrial plants, uses, cultural identities, machines, and buildings.

How can the useless become attractive and create new uses ? Specific landscapes for specific uses
shall not be designed. You are to make a nature - articulating a view in which an ethical idea of nature
has to be a major component.

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