Oh, San Francisco!
The City by the Bay is a treasure trove of parks and gardens.
By Mark Hinshaw and Marilyn Clemens, ASLA
Perhaps no other city in North America instantly conjures up so
many visual and visceral images—even for those who have never been
there. The sharp clanging of the bells on those quaint cable cars
as they travel up the steep hills. The majesty of the Golden Gate
Bridge. The hoopla of Fisherman’s Wharf. The cacophony of Chinatown.
The urbanity—and wildness—of Golden Gate Park.
San Francisco is eminently photogenic, whether shrouded in fog
or flooded with sunlight. You are virtually assured of some sort
of unexpected adventure. At times, the city seems like one vast
piece of performance art in which you can simultaneously be on stage
and in the audience. But beyond its natural beauty, the city also
offers many extraordinary public places that happen to be works
of a very talented array of landscape architects.
While attending ASLA’s 2007 annual meeting, you can actually pack
quite a lot into one day by taking transit and relying on your own
foot power. This excursion will take you to some classic San Francisco
spaces that are still intact and thriving, as well as to some relatively
newer spots. Along the way, you’ll absorb plenty of the city’s character
and quirkiness. San Francisco is well served by transit, but you
can also rent a bicycle or car to explore those parts of the itinerary
farther away from downtown, such as the Presidio and the Great Highway.
Some Downtown Highlights
Start at Union Square, just two blocks from the conference
hotel, the Hilton San Francisco. This immensely popular full-block
space is the ultimate prototype for anyone looking to create a civic
“heart” for an urban center. Platted out in the mid-1800s, along
with Washington Square, it was given its present name just as the
Civil War broke out. Its center is marked by the Dewey Monument,
a 95-foot-tall Corinthian column topped with a bronze goddess of
victory erected in 1903 to honor Admiral Dewey’s 1898 victory over
the Spanish at Manila Bay.
In 1942, the entire square was reconstructed with what is claimed
to be the world’s first underground parking garage. Built in wartime,
the structure was meant to double as a bomb shelter. For more than
55 years, the square had a traditional symmetrical design centered
on the Dewey Monument, with rectangles of shrubs surrounding 25-foot
topiaried yews and benches lined up around each planting bed. Occasional
events were staged here as well as “permitted” political demonstrations
in the 1960s and 1970s. But because the plaza was above sight lines
from the surrounding sidewalks, it did not have the “eyes” on it
that make for a comfortable place for all users and was just used
as a cut through and a place for street people to congregate. The
Recreation and Parks Department knew it had a problem and pondered
what to do with this important space for many years.
In 1997, an international design competition produced what you
see today, which reopened in 2002. Designed by landscape architects
April Philips, ASLA, and Michael Fotheringham, ASLA, the current
design was the subject of a critical article by Clare Cooper Marcus
(see “A Still Imperfect Union,” Landscape Architecture, December
2003). It does seem a bit overdesigned and would have been better
if a few things had been edited out (such as the totally inappropriate
See’s Candy store). But the alternating bands of grass and sitting
steps along the south side are brilliant and serve to make the place
not unlike the supremely sociable Piazza Navona in Rome, where people
simply perch and watch one another. The plaza’s edges make strong
visual connections with the streets, so it feels much safer than
before. Art shows and other events occur regularly. It’s clearly
the city’s public living room. Something interesting, and often
idiosyncratic, is happening both day and night. One of the best
times to experience the place is late at night, when the traffic
dies down and the lights from the buildings and billboards surrounding
it give it an otherworldly atmosphere. People sit quietly on the
ledges, conversation is hushed, and couples find it a convenient,
if rather public, place to cuddle.
Jump on one of the cable cars ascending Powell Street. Jump off
at California and Powell and walk west up the hill half a block
to the summit of Nob Hill. With the Mark Hopkins Hotel on
your left, the Fairmont Hotel on your right, and the beautiful Grace
Cathedral visible straight ahead, you are at the high point of the
19th-century railroad and mining barons’ civic investment. Huntington
Park is here; originally an axial park layout with two fountains,
both gifts of wealthy families, the park gradually suffered vandalism
and drug traffic until the 1980s when, inspired in part by the renaissance
of Bryant Park in New York City, the neighboring residents and business
owners said, “Enough.” Through a combination of private fund-raising
and moneys from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department’s
Open Space Program, the park was restored, the fountains repaired,
and it is enjoyed by all—tourists and residents. Chinatown, with
the highest population densities in the city, is a few blocks away,
and the restoration of the Huntington Park playground for the neighborhood
children was a primary goal of the residents. As at Union Square,
you can enjoy this space at night when the city has calmed and the
fog is swirling, scrambling light.
Back down at California and Powell streets, take the Hyde Street
cable car line north through Chinatown to Russian Hill. In minutes,
you will pass by Lombard Street, at which the cable car will
stop and the conductor will announce “the crookedest street in the
world.” Jump off and amble down this twisting lane of bricks and
plants and stairs. At the bottom, looking up is even more bizarre,
especially if cars are slowly snaking down, turning to and fro.
This one-block stretch of Lombard has been the setting for countless
At the corner of Chestnut and Leavenworth is a Thomas Church
garden at the Fay House, recently restored and opened to the
public for limited hours, but you can peek in from Leavenworth Street.
Walk down Chestnut and visit the San Francisco Art Institute
on your left, with Diego Rivera murals in the courtyard. Up ahead
look for Washington Square, the heart of North Beach, home
of the 1950s beatniks, their intellectual offspring, and dreamers
of every stripe. Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism,
calls this the perfect neighborhood park because of its simplicity,
transparency from all sides, and evident public nature. The social
scene in this eight-acre, gently sloping park changes every hour,
starting early with large groups of Chinese doing Tai Chi and elderly
Italians strolling. Later you’ll see locals sunbathing, gawking
tourists with kids in tow, or chatty waiters taking a break.
Visible from the square is Telegraph Hill, crowned by Coit
Tower. You can take a bus or trek up the hillside, which is
gorgeous and affords views of the city. Either way, it’s worth it
(see “Maintaining the High Ground,” Landscape Architecture,
September 2005). The grounds around Coit Tower are supremely pleasant,
with framed views of the cityscape and the bay beyond. Some of the
most publicized views of San Francisco are from early 20th-century
city parks that are quite plain but extremely well positioned on
hilltops: Telegraph Hill, Alta Plaza, Lafayette Park, Buena Vista
Park, and Alamo Square.
A short elevator ride to the top of Coit Tower is worthwhile, unless
lines are long. But don’t forget to check out the wonderful Works
Progress Administration-era murals painted inside the tower’s first-floor
walls. From the circle at the base of Coit Tower make sure you descend
the Filbert Street stairs. The plantings along the stairways
have been lovingly tended by residents over the years. At the bottom
you will arrive at Levi’s Plaza. Designed by Lawrence Halprin,
FASLA, for the Levi Strauss headquarters and divided by Battery
Street into two distinct parts, this complex is an expansive array
of grass, water elements, broad steps, granite boulders and blocks,
and mature tree specimens. At any time of the day, people settle
into spots of sun or shade reading books, eating lunch, laughing,
hugging, snoozing, and people watching. Some sit out in the open;
others seeking privacy snug back into a planted recess. It feels
like a world unto itself, a refuge and a retreat—even if filled
with hundreds of people.
Step outside the grassy part of Levi’s Plaza onto the Embarcadero,
which runs along the waterfront. For years, the elevated freeway
obscured this part of the harbor. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake
severely damaged the freeway, the city wisely decided not to replace
it. Today, the Embarcadero is an impressive boulevard, lined with
majestic palm trees along a central median. Historic trolley cars
from around the world ply its length. On the bay side, the mission
revival-style pier bulkheads offer framed views to the bay beyond,
and joggers, bikers, and tourists take this windy, exhilarating
route between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building on a regular
basis. On the Levi Plaza side, many buildings face away from the
street and remnant surface parking lots on Port Authority lands
Jump on a trolley south to the recently renovated Ferry Building
at the foot of Market Street. The plaza in front of the building
was designed by San Francisco’s own Roma Group. Underused when it
was obscured by the freeway, it now glistens as an active landmark.
An interior vaulted corridor lined with shops and restaurants is
as active and elegant as the original Galleria in Milan. Several
days a week here a colorful and highly successful farmers’ market
occupies three sides of the building. At the back of the Ferry Building,
you can also hop a ferry boat for Sausalito or Larkspur on the North
Up Market Street, Yerba Buena Gardens sits atop the roof
of the vast Moscone Convention Center, site of the 2007 ASLA
Annual Meeting. The complex took decades to build, after going through
a number of controversial redevelopment plans. Now all components
are complete and the place is a beehive of activity. In the center,
a spectacular waterfall commemorates Martin Luther King and his
teachings. To the east is the stunning Museum of Modern Art
by Swiss architect Mario Botta. Farther south is an enormous elevated
play area for children, with both indoor and outdoor spaces. There
are theaters, cafés, art centers, side gardens, plazas, terraces,
sky bridges, and museums—all with their own individual designs and
none seemingly coordinated with any other. Some of the roof plane
protrudes above street level, which makes the gardens feel a bit
cut off from the city around them. Nonetheless, it is a busy, beautiful,
sometimes frenetic place (see “Is Social Success Good Enough?” Landscape
Architecture, April 2005).
Cross Market Street and you’ll find the infamously seamy Tenderloin.
It was long in need of open space, so the San Francisco Recreation
and Parks Department provided a square at Eddy and Jones streets
in the 1980s, designed by Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey, just
across the Golden Gate Bridge in Mill Valley. The result, Father
Boedekker Park, a block west of the Hilton hotel, seems to have
everything going wrong for it. (It’s on Project for Public Spaces’
Hall of Shame.) The streets surrounding the park are filled with
flophouses, soup kitchens, needle exchanges, hookers, homeless men
careening about yelling at no one in particular, and rough characters
of all sorts.
Yet this small park manages to be clean and well used by neighborhood
people of all ages, including many Southeast Asian refugees who
arrived after the Vietnam war. This was the first San Francisco
public park to be gated at night, a Recreation and Park concession
to protect the park for all to enjoy in the daytime.
Continue to the UN Plaza, designed by Lawrence Halprin’s
firm, a few blocks to the southwest at 7th and Market. A few years
ago it was a sad and derelict place with an empty fountain—but look
at what the city has done to fix it. The threatening, unruly crowds
are gone. Halprin’s fountain is fully restored and is glorious.
The pavement is clean and some problematic grassy areas have been
cut back. On some days little market stalls line the walkway, showing
how seemingly failed places can be brought back from the abyss with
thought and care.
Finally, cross Market Street again, walk south to the new Federal
Building at 7th and Mission, and check out its public space.
The building was designed by Morphosis, a hot architectural firm
that is making a splash with its bold, sculptural assemblages. On
the south side of the tower is a beautiful little space designed
by Richard Haag, FASLA. It is supremely simple, elegant, and referential
to small public squares found in Paris with
their basic planes of crushed granite. The café on the corner will
likely spill out its patrons and animate the space. Although the
plaza is designed to meet security concerns, it does not in any
way say “Keep Out.” This part of town used to be a place where
most people would not feel comfortable, even in broad daylight.
But now they do, thanks to the combined talents of an aggressive
young architecture firm and a mature landscape architect still at
the top of his game.
East of downtown along San Francisco Bay, the Presidio’s
1,500 acres are being transformed from the oldest former military
compound in the United States to a park that forms part of the Golden
Gate National Recreation Area. This unique hilly, wooded preserve
is a region of its own with residential areas housing 2,500 people
and 3,000 employees working in refurbished historic buildings near
stream valleys and forests tied together by a trail system. A National
Historic Landmark District since 1962, the Presidio must maintain,
rehabilitate, and lease its 473 designated historic buildings and
protect and enhance its grounds. Charged with being self-sufficient
by 2013, the Presidio Trust is moving forward, creating more venues
for visitors and more revenue-producing uses.
The Presidio now offers a choice of scenic walks and trails to
a variety of exhibits, such as the remnant walls of the 1776 Spanish
adobe at the south end of the main parade grounds. If you enter
via the Lombard Street gate, the Letterman Digital Arts complex
is on the right and the Presidio Social Club restaurant in the restored
Buffalo Soldiers barracks is on the left. The parking lot of the
Main Post and parade grounds sprawls before you, just waiting to
be redesigned into the great public plaza the heart of the Presidio
deserves. (See the model in the Presidio Trust offices.) Up the
hill to the south are the Officers’ Club, integrated into the 1776
adobe, and the wooded hills of eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and cypress
At historic Crissy Field the Golden Gate Bridge and the
bay are in full view unless the fog’s coming in. Just behind you
are the Palace of Fine Arts and the Exploratorium.
A short walk to the east beyond the jetty of the St. Francisco Yacht
Club is the Wave Organ, a marvelous stone shelter where you
can sit, look back at the hills of the city, and hear the tide gurgling
up beneath and around you through a number of vents.
Originally, Crissy Field and the whole marina area were wetlands.
Much of the bay edge was filled for the Panama Pacific Exposition
in 1915, and the place was turned into an airfield in the 1920s
as a part of the Presidio military post. The 100-acre site has been
redesigned by Hargreaves Associates (see “Field of Vision,” Landscape
Architecture, August 2003), and the Crissy Field Center, a former
military building, serves as an interpretive center.
For years, joggers, walkers, and cyclists used the bay edge between
the Marina Green and the Golden Gate Bridge for exercise; Crissy
Field was a vast asphalt plane backed with military warehouses.
The redesign of Crissy Field changed all that. Two paths now flank
the carefully restored estuary, and footbridges elevated above the
water level allow you to closely observe the effect of the tidal
inundation without disturbing vegetation or wildlife. The pathway
between the pond and the dunes lining the shoreline is often packed
with people strolling and jogging. Families with strollers amble
next to lovers walking arm in arm. It’s an amazing combination of
civility—a mutual accommodation of human life, habitat, and natural
Under the elevated approach to the Golden Gate Bridge are the grounds
of George Lucas’s Letterman Digital Arts Center. The park,
designed by Lawrence Halprin’s firm, sits atop a massive underground
parking structure that serves the complex. A sinuous watercourse
winds down from a formal promenade cutting across the site to a
serene lake and fanciful pergola (see “Demilitarized Zone,” Landscape
Architecture, January 2006).
It’s worth the trip farther along the shoreline to reach Fort
Point, although it is not a “designed” public space. It’s evident
why Alfred Hitchcock chose this location for an emotionally charged
scene in his film Vertigo. People are literally transfixed
by the view of the massive deep red structure of the Golden Gate
Bridge and the surf that roils and crashes into the rocky seawall.
The view is enhanced by surfboarders zooming over wildly unpredictable
waves that cascade about the rocks.
From here, you can take to the hills, to Inspiration Point Overlook
with its spectacular views back to the city; find the Immigrant
Overlook via Washington Street, facing the open sea, where naturalization
ceremonies have been held for new immigrants; or return down the
hill to Crissy Field or the Lombard Gate. Just think—this might
have been developed with luxury homes had it not been for the tenacity
and forethought of civic leaders, environmentalists, and enlightened
Go back through the Presidio using Arguello Boulevard, a road that
winds through the hilly topography and will lead you past stately
mansions, along the edge of the Richmond neighborhood to Golden
Gate Park. In the mid-1800s, while New York City was building
Central Park, it occurred to the city of San Francisco that it too
deserved a great green open space in the middle of the growing metropolis.
Formerly sand dunes and wild terrain, rejected by Frederick Law
Olmsted as impossible to develop, the park site was surveyed and
planned by engineer William Hammond Hall with assistance from garden
designer John McLaren. By 1880, topsoil was shipped in from surrounding
farms and more than 150,000 trees were planted, largely eucalyptus,
Monterey cypress, and Monterey pines.
Golden Gate Park is filled with numerous delightful areas, and
it would take far more than a single day to take them all in, but
there are at least three destinations that are easy to experience
within a few hours.
The new de Young Museum is one. Although the de Young has
been in this location for more than 85 years, a completely new,
privately financed building was built and opened in 2005. Designed
by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the copper-clad
building is both bold and quirky, with soaring, angular forms and
a twisting aircraft control-like tower. Landscape architect Walter
Hood, ASLA, based in Oakland, was involved in the site design, which
includes a stunning sculpture garden adjacent to the museum. The
garden slides beneath a great, cantilevered roof projection. Grassy
planes are intersected by angled pathways, one of which is flanked
by a linear collection of small pieces and chunks of slate, inviting
children to make free-form cairns. Whimsical pieces of art set into
the lawn invite adults to walk up and touch them. This is a place
that sings with living, stunning examples of creativity and craft
in art, landscape design, and architecture.
At the doorstep of the de Young is the restored 1900 music concourse.
Royston Han-amoto Alley & Abey developed a master plan for the
historic concourse and had a major role in controlling the extent
of the underground garage’s impact on the park. They also eliminated
parking around the concourse. A classic grid of pollarded shade
trees surrounds fountains lined up with the 1900 band shell. This
classic center of 19th-century Golden Gate Park now sits between
two ultramodern cultural bookends, the de Young on one side and
the Renzo Piano-designed Academy of Sciences under construction
on the other.
Next door to the de Young is the Japanese Tea Garden. Its
five acres seem vastly larger thanks to the many carefully proportioned
spaces and structures within it. The oldest Japanese garden in the
United States, it was developed in 1894 as a part of a World’s Fair
exposition. The garden was built and maintained by the Hagiwara
family, who lived there until they were evicted and interned during
World War II. The garden was renamed and some of its features were
destroyed, but the original name was reinstated in 1952.
The 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum
now holds more than 7,500 plant species, many of them from Mediterranean
climates like California’s, such as Australia, New Zealand, and
South Africa. People stroll along its sinuous paths, a duck pond
is popular with families, and a boardwalk over waterways is lined
with tropical vegetation.
Where Golden Gate Park meets the Pacific Ocean, take a left and
travel along the Great Highway, which was a desolate asphalt
raceway until the corridor was redesigned by Michael Painter and
Associates in the 1980s to provide bike and pedestrian paths. With
its dramatic crashing surf, low rolling sand dunes, and ice plants
everywhere you look, the Great Highway is spectacular. If you time
this day trip right, the late afternoon sun will turn everything
a dusty gold.
South on the highway and a few blocks inland, you’ll find the almost
hidden entrance to Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove. Lawrence
Halprin’s firm designed a renovation of the amphitheater that includes
massive stepped stone terraces (see “The Spirit of Stone,” Landscape
Architecture, February 2006). The stone steps, which are punctuated
by stacks of rocks in ziggurat shapes, feel like an archaeological
dig. It does not seem possible that a setting with such mystery
and vegetative majesty can be right in the middle of the city. Voices
are hushed, movement is slowed down. The place is entirely transporting.
On the way back to downtown, if possible, go up to Twin Peaks.
If the weather is good, you will have jaw-dropping views of the
skyline, the hills, and the bay. It’s a fabulous way to end a day
of touring places in the city. Lam
Mark Hinshaw is the director of LMN Architects in Seattle and
is a frequent contributor to Landscape Architecture. Marilyn
Clemens, ASLA, is an urban designer at the Maryland–National Capital
Park and Planning Commission in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jennifer
Liw, ASLA, of the Northern California Chapter contributed to this
- San Francisco Architecture: The Illustrated Guide to Over
1,000 of the Best Buildings, Parks, and Public Artworks in the
Bay Area, by Sally B. Woodbridge, John M. Woodbridge, and
Chuck Byrne; San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992.
- Stairway Walks in San Francisco, by Adah Bakalinsky;
Berkeley, California: Wilderness Press, 2007.
- Guide to the Parks: Golden Gate National Recreation Area,
by Ariel Rubissow; San Francisco: Golden Gate National Parks Association,
- San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, www.sfgov.org/site/recpark
- San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, www.spur.org
- San Francisco Parks Trust, www.sfpt.org
- San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council, www.sfnpc.org
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