On a recent afternoon, walking along the fern-lined Redwood Trail of the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, enjoying the musty scent of crushed redwood bark beneath my feet and the transcendental light filtering through the foliage high overhead, I overheard a snippet of conversation. Two young people, twenty-something, casually dressed, not obviously tourists, but apparently discovering this part of the park for the first time, were looking up in awe and perplexity at the magnificent trees above. The young man was saying to his companion . . . “yes, but someone made the decision to leave these trees here.”
The fact is, those trees were not left there, they were deliberately planted. Like most large green spaces in American cities, Golden Gate Park dates to the late nineteenth century. Its 1017 acres were set aside for a public park in a period when civic leaders thought big and large tracts of land were still available near the centers of growing cities. The driving idea behind parks like this was that they should offer the pleasures of the countryside to people living in the city, serving as a palliative to the congestion of urban life. These great public gardens were designed at a scale to afford fresh air and long vistas, extensive riding and walking routes, generous lawns where children could run and play freely, idyllic scenery for picnics and lakes large enough for boating. The expansiveness of the landscape matched the thinking behind it. The idea captured the imaginations of civic leaders throughout the world in the second half of the nineteenth century, and parks like this are now so ubiquitous that they hardly seem remarkable. Nearly every major city in the United States has at least one large public green space like Golden Gate Park, dating to this period.
Prominent citizens began to demand a large park in San Francisco in the 1860s and the land for the park was secured by the city in 1870. Like their counterparts in east coast cities, prominent businessmen and civic leaders in San Francisco recognized the symbolic value of a large park, to signify that San Francisco was a city on the make, a world-class, livable city. A citizen’s petition calling for the establishment of a large, urban park in San Francisco in 1865 stated: “the great cities of our own country, as well as of Europe, have found it necessary at some period of their growth, to provide large parks, or pleasure grounds for the amusement and entertainment of the people . . . Until some provision is made to meet this need, however successful and impressive the business growth of San Francisco may be, it will not be an attractive and impressive place for families and homes.”[i]
The model was Central Park in New York, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Central Park, the first great green space to be developed in an American city, was itself modeled on European parks, particularly the great parks of London and Paris. Following on its success, Olmsted became the expert of choice to design new parks proposed in cities around the country, including San Francisco.
Called upon to consult on the location and development of a large park for San Francisco, Olmsted advised a different site, more sheltered and closer to the city center. But his advice was ultimately ignored and civic leaders selected the current site for the park, a roughly three-mile long, rectangular tract stretching from the Western Addition to the ocean. William Hammond Hall, the young engineer who drafted the plans for Golden Gate Park, patterned it closely after Central Park in New York. He drew curving roads and paths, designed luxurious greenswards surrounded by thick woods, lakes for boating, hills offering picturesque vistas, playgrounds for children, and so on. All this had to be constructed on top of the shifting sand dunes that covered most of the site. The first step was to add layers of top soil and anchor the unstable sand with massive plantings of lupine and other native ground covers. Then exotic plants were introduced to create the desired effect, an effect that included few indigenous plants and had little to do with local ecosystems or nearby rural scenery. Golden Gate Park, like other parks of this era, looks more like England than like the local countryside. Its rolling green lawns, masses of introduced trees and thick embankments of azaleas and rhododendrons are a far cry from the indigenous landscape of golden-brown hillsides dotted with live oaks, which can be seen in the Marin Headlands, just across the Golden Gate Bridge or down the peninsula.
Dating to an era when appreciation of Nature had more to do with aesthetics than scientific understanding, great public parks like this are, in many ways, like hot-house flowers: exotic, sensitive, prone to invasive pests and diseases, requiring expensive and tender care. They were not designed to be self-sustaining or even low-maintenance. They require lots of special care, consume large amounts of water and fossil fuels, produce large amounts of waste.
Which begs the question: how would Golden Gate Park be designed today?
[i] Clary, Raymond H., The Making of Golden Gate Park: The Early Years, 1865-1906. (Don’t Call it Frisco Press, San Francisco, 1984). p. 2.