A redesigned urban square attempts to serve the needs of Oakland’s
homeless community and downtown office workers.
By Clare Cooper Marcus
It’s half past noon on a pleasant Wednesday in April, and
Lafayette Square, located three blocks southwest of city hall in
Oakland, California, is an urban crossroads. Two young women in
business suits approach the rectangular, 1.5-acre park from the
direction of the municipal offices and settle on seats near its
edge, chatting over their brown-bag lunches. Thirty older African
American men form an animated cluster—talking, laughing, greeting
each other—in the center of the square; some stand, others
sprawl on benches and take in the scene. An elderly Asian woman
sits on a bench in a fenced play area watching two small children
in her charge clamber on a bright red climbing structure. And close
to the sidewalk, a white man in his 20s claims a bench, buries his
nose in a book, and absently eats a deli sandwich.
Unexpected Company (Lafayette
Photo by Peg Skorpinski
None of the users is unusual here; all seem comfortable in each
other’s presence. Peaceful coexistence of diverse user groups
was one of the goals in a $2.2 million, two-phase reconstruction,
completed in 1999 and 2001, during which part of the park always
remained open. The Environmental Design Research Association cited
Lafayette Square with a EDRA/Places Design award in 2000.
The lead member of the design team was landscape architect Walter
Hood, who practices at Hood Design in West Oakland and is a former
chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental
Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. Hood proposes
that landscape architects who redesign urban parks should try to
accommodate the people who already use them (see Shared Wisdom,
Landscape Architecture, April 2002), and the lunchtime
scene in Lafayette Square demonstrates that notion while suggesting
that design can help diverse user groups peacefully cohabit in such
“The biggest issue for the park,” Hood says, “was
to come up with a new design that looked forward but also looked
backward.” A pivotal moment in the square’s recent history
occurred 10 years ago when the city made a bold decision not to
design the homeless and unemployed regulars out of the park, an
intent that stands in marked contrast to that of the recent redesign
of Union Square in San Francisco’s shopping district, which
discourages indigents and the homeless.
Oakland Tribune columnist Brenda Payton remarked in 1993
that Lafayette Square would be restored for a mix of uses, meaning
“it will be used by the homeless people who have congregated
there for years as well as the office workers who have recently
moved into the new downtown buildings.... Imagine the lessons that
might be learned. The regulars might realize there are horizons
beyond the park. And the new park-goers might come to understand
what a regular told me 10 years ago: ‘You might not be where
you are if you had been where some of these people have been.’”
One of the Bay Area city’s seven original public spaces,
Lafayette Square has suffered periods of attention and neglect since
it was platted 150 years ago. A Victorian observatory and a public
assembly hall occupied the square for nearly half a century. Abandoned
in 1918, the buildings survived for another decade until the city
cleared and relandscaped the square in the late 1920s.
The Great Depression years saw the beginning of a use that continues
to this day: a social space for unemployed men. An Oakland women’s
club helped finance a renovation in the late 1950s, but 30 years
later the improved restrooms, putting green, horseshoe pit, checker
tables, and a large shelter were beat-up and out-of-date. As the
surrounding Gateway neighborhood declined, the park became a refuge
for transient and homeless people to hang out, sleep, and eat; Lafayette
Square acquired the sobriquet Old Man’s Park.
The square today is located within an Oakland preservation district,
and the Gateway edges some of downtown’s most valuable land,
including City Center, an upscale office-retail complex; Preservation
Park, a cluster of 16 Victorian houses—11 original to their
sites and 5 relocated—where nonprofit groups and small businesses
are located; and the busy Broadway commercial corridor. In contrast
to the affluence of those user groups, a sizable minority of Gateway’s
several thousand residents, who are predominantly black, Latino,
and Asian, receive some kind of government assistance.
In 1990, Oakland police closed the park’s toilets, shut off
the drinking fountain, and tried to evict the indigent people—moves
protested by the Oakland Union of the Homeless and Mary Ann “Mother”
Wright, who had been feeding the people there for almost a decade.
Fearful of an effort to rid Gateway of the homeless to attract developers,
the nonprofit Center for Urban Family Life (CUFL), based at the
First Unitarian Church of Oakland, formed a coalition of concerned
property owners, residents, and the homeless along with service
providers, members of churches in the neighborhood, and representatives
of the city government and Alameda County. The coalition acknowledged
that Lafayette Park needed improvement and joined the City Homeless
Commission and the Arts Empowerment Working Group in urging the
Oakland Parks and Recreation Department to engage the park regulars
in efforts to improve conditions.
Early in 1994, CUFL held a community meeting in the park to gather
the perspectives of park users and social service providers. Six
goals were identified: provide a mix of uses; improve the park’s
image; create a safe park for all; improve existing facilities and
provide new ones; involve community members in replanning the park;
and provide housing and other services for homeless people who use
the park. Budget constraints precluded the last of the six, but
the other goals were adopted and eventually met.
The first priority for park regulars was to reopen the restrooms
and turn on the drinking fountain; they also wanted better lighting,
a barbecue pit, replacements for worn-out tables and benches, and
a new roof over the patio where people gathered on rainy days. Asian
and Latino neighborhood residents wanted to make the park “more
like a plaza,” and others wanted a neighborhood park with
emphasis on sports and recreation for children and youth. But such
a park already exists four blocks to the south. All in all, the
broadest goal for improving Lafayette Square was achieved: to create
an urban gathering place largely for adult users.
CUFL received a grant from the private, California-based LEF Foundation
and engaged Hood Design and William A. “Willie” Pettus,
an Oakland architect who specializes in affordable housing and community
planning, to lead design workshops and write a master plan.
Meanwhile, the city received a $198,000 grant from the National
Park Service’s Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program
for demolition of park structures. “We had a closed and abandoned
restroom and shelter structure sitting right on the corner of a
prime entrance area into downtown Oakland,” says Kerry Ricketts-Ferris,
a senior park planner for the city. “We wanted to rebuild
them elsewhere in the park so that they could accommodate the needs
of the people 24 hours a day and would be more functional and aesthetically
When Oakland voters approved a $60 million, general-obligation
bond initiative called Measure I, $2 million was earmarked for implementing
the foundation-financed master plan developed by the Hood/Pettus
team. “We recognized that a variety of partnerships had already
blossomed around the idea of improving the park,” Ricketts-Ferris
says. “The city reviewed all the plans on a regular basis
and issued payments through [CUFL] for work to the contractors.
The city was a third-party agent,” a working arrangement under
which CUFL was able to raise an additional $100,000 for the project,
Some workshop-generated ideas were incorporated into the final
design, including that areas in the park should be perceived as
separate yet visually integrated and that the park include a play
area for children, a picnic area, new bathrooms, and, as a central
feature, a stage and canopy. Ideas that did not go into the final
design included restoring the historic park layout; making a fountain
with flowerbeds and historic light fixtures as a central focus;
placing a fence around the park so that it could be locked at night
to keep people from sleeping there; and adding such items as a sandbox,
a basketball court, a flagpole, an information kiosk, and a park
Before the redesign, Lafayette Square was a flat rectangle with
entrances at each corner, picnic tables, a shelter, a locked toilet,
and an array of mature trees. The boundaries of a park—and
the ways of entering the space—affect those who wander in
and the experience they have once inside the park. Fences, hedges,
or berms can funnel people into one or more entrances, and from
within the open space, those boundaries may provide a pleasing sense
of enclosure. On the other hand, a small park that is essentially
open around its edges permits entry from any direction but may dilute
the pleasurable experience of being in a green oasis separate from
The designers chose the latter approach, providing multiple entries
that encourage users to freely enter, and, once inside the park,
take in the surrounding city environment. They made the square a
collection of spaces with semitransparent walls; inhabitants are
conscious of others but can also maintain a sense of privacy.
The park’s most heavily and continuously used section is
located near the midpoint on the western side. Here a wide concrete
walk leads into the space where the unemployed men—largely
African American, middle-aged, and older—gather every day,
from midmorning to dusk, beneath a wide-spreading live oak tree.
Picnic tables and benches, a small paved plaza, and proximity to
the small toilet building, which fronts 10th Street to the south,
make the space welcoming to them. Many, in fact, return every day
to a place they’ve claimed as their own, just as others in
their situation have done for at least 70 years. An adjacent horseshoe
pit is rarely used, and the city’s plans for live performances
and movies in the central shelter, with audiences sitting on the
sloped lawn, have not been implemented for lack of funds, Ricketts-Ferris
The seating areas on the square’s eastern and northern edges
are partially screened from the central gathering space by a grassy
hillock and sloped lawn. Along Jefferson Street on the east, where
an area is covered in granite chips and punctuated with four-person
tables and benches, a pedestrian can detour slightly from the sidewalk
and take a rest, chat with a friend, or eat lunch while barely being
inside the park. This seclusion from the park’s interior welcomes
people who may feel apprehensive about the unemployed and homeless
The northern edge, where a bosk of purple-leaf plum trees extends
from just inside the park to the edge of 11th Street, presents a
different experience. The pedestrian finds herself inside the park
seemingly without having entered it. Tiles in concrete paving recount
the history of Oakland; wooden benches are interspersed among the
plums. Across the street, there’s a parking lot, eventually
to be replaced by an office building. It’s a good spot—slightly
separated from the interior of the park by a lawn—for the
At the square’s northwest corner, 11th Street and Martin
Luther King Jr. Way, an open-sided mini-plaza with chess tables
permits people to amble among honey locust trees, take a seat close
to the sidewalk, or walk into the center of the park. Farther along,
the western edge presents a series of low, grassy mounds, picnic
benches, and barbecue grills. The intent was to provide a setting
for picnics and passive recreation for neighbors to the north and
west, an area of single- and multifamily dwellings. Here the grass,
shade trees, barbecues, and three metal structures for climbing
vines (inspired by rows of bean-vine props in neighborhood gardens)
Near the northwest corner, a low, metal fence delimits a children’s
area containing a bright red play structure and comfortable perimeter
benches. Asian-American parents and children who live south of the
park use it, as do those who walk from schools or daycare centers
in Chinatown, four blocks to the east. These users rarely traverse
the park or use the rest of it.
As a rule, men frequent city parks more heavily than women, and
Lafayette Square is no exception. Casual observation indicates that
usage is virtually 100 percent male at many times of the day. Occasionally
one or two women join the unemployed men, but otherwise the few
women who visit the park are office workers or mothers with children.
The men, who clearly enjoy using this park daily as a kind of outdoor
living room, may by their number and visibility throughout the day
intimidate many women from using the outdoor spaces.
Lafayette Square remains free of graffiti and other forms of vandalism,
but Ricketts-Ferris and Hood have different perspectives on the
city’s general level of maintenance. She says the park requires
fairly low upkeep compared with others in the city and attributes
that to the selection of materials and the way the irrigation system
and plantings were designed. Design integrity has not been compromised
for lack of maintenance, she says.
Hood, on the other hand, is disappointed with the general level
of upkeep. Weeds are growing in the decomposed granite area bordering
Jefferson Street, although this was perhaps a dubious choice of
material. Oakland park personnel won’t use herbicides, but
the city doesn’t have the manpower to pull weeds by hand.
Money from a trust fund to employ park regulars in part-time maintenance
positions has run out.
“For a designer, a really big issue to address is how long
a park will last,” Hood says. “The city spent two million
dollars on this redesign, yet it doesn’t care about maintenance!
The park in front of city hall, of course, is immaculate.”
A particularly attractive feature is the original ironwork, which
includes the play area’s fence, the vine towers, litter containers,
and tree guards for the purple-leaf plums in Memory Plaza. Created
by a local firm (Creative Iron, Oakland), the ironwork is substantial
Not working as planned is a runnel traversing a grassy hillock
where the observatory stood. Water in the runnel, aligned with summer
solstice’s sunrise and lighted at night, was to provide a
pleasant background noise, but it malfunctioned soon after that
part of the park opened and hasn’t been repaired. Other features
are uncompleted, notably a series of bronzed plaques created by
artist James Moore, working with local children. The plaques are
to be inserted into curvilinear walls along the park’s east
side, but only a few are in place.
Lafayette Square regulars, with whom Hood established a friendly
relationship during design workshops, greet him when he visits the
park today. However, he would like to see more use by middle-income
residents of new town house and apartment complexes on the edge
of downtown. That vision is not, however, consistent with studies
showing that middle-income professionals living near urban open
spaces rarely use them. Instead, they barbecue on their balconies
and patios, window-shop downtown, eat at sidewalk cafés,
and when seeking outdoor recreation, take off for the beach, the
mountains, or a scenic state park. The users of downtown parks (New
York’s Central Park being a notable exception) tend to be
shoppers, tourists, and office workers and not those who live nearby—unless
they are poor and unemployed. Lafayette Square is a prime example.
Asked to explain his goals as designer of Lafayette Square, Hood
talks about history and preservation. “Our biggest set of
ideas came out of trying to understand how the park evolved over
time: why it fell into disrepair and the political, social, and
economic issues,” he says. “Then, instead of erasing
everything, to begin to layer new ideas on the old. The park became
a collage of ideas dealing with history, but in a very formal way.”
And what of the social goals for Lafayette Square, that it would
be a place where suit wearers would mix with wearers of worn overcoats?
My observations indicate that this has not occurred. The unemployed,
older men use the park, and the suit wearers (male and female) tend
to congregate elsewhere, in a newly refurbished park/ plaza outside
city hall or in the plaza spaces at the base of two new federal
office towers. But what has succeeded is the effort to design the
park edges so that those who do not belong to the dominant, older
male hangers-out will feel comfortable.
Clare Cooper Marcus is professor emerita in the Department of Landscape
Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and principal
in Healing Landscapes in Berkeley.
Walter Hood, Alma Du Solier, and Grace Lee, Hood Design.
Rich Seyfarth, Rich Seyfarth Landscape Architect.
William A. “Willie” Pettus, architect.
Steve Costa, Healthy Cities Fund, money management and project overview.
Kerry Ricketts-Ferris, Life Enrichment Agency, Oakland.
BBI Construction, general contractor.
Creative Iron, ornamental ironwork.
| Annual Meeting