Downtown San Francisco doesn’t typically spring to mind when planning an outdoor excursion. But get past the crowded streets and there’s a multitude of lovely open spaces, replete with honest to goodness foliage.
In fact, the city boasts a large number of privately owned, publicly open spaces (also known as POPOS), providing a haven from the concrete and cubicles of downtown. From spacious, extravagant greenhouses and atriums to modest snippets of landscaping alongside the sidewalk, these 68 identified urban oases vary in size, style, quality and accessibility.
Collectively, the city groups them together in an urban greening program that seeks to provide the quarter of a million people who live and work downtown with a breath of fresh air from city streets. These spaces are not altogether new – some 45 of them were created before 1985 – but apparently they are not very well known. City officials have adopted new rules to raise the profiles of these downtown parks with uniform, well-placed signage.
The signs will include a POPOS open space logo, the opening hours, and information on amenities such as bathrooms and seating. The San Francisco Planning Commission recently approved the legislation, which awaits final sign-off from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
The downtown parks were created as part of city planning requirements on developers to provide public outdoor space. Before 1985, downtown developers were granted permission to build at higher density in exchange for public outdoor space. After the Downtown Plan was adopted in 1985, providing open space became a requirement.
But over the years, many of these parks have languished in obscurity, suffering from poor maintenance and a lack of public awareness. According to the non-profit city planning organization, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Center (SPUR), it’s not obvious from the public sidewalk that many of these parks even exist. Moreover, the out-of-the-way location of some downtown parks can create the perception that they’re off-limits to the public.
In 2009, SPUR compiled a list and a map of the downtown parks, and reviewed each one, singling out the lack of sufficient signage as the “most glaring defect in the implementation of public space requirements.”
Finding the spots on a map isn’t too tricky. SPUR’s guide is available on Google Maps, and a mobile application for the iPhone came out this spring. That being said, getting there on foot turned out to be a true adventure.
Heading downtown, map in hand, I aimed to hit about 25 parks. Spoiled by our fabulous public spaces like Golden Gate Park, Crissy Field and Alamo Square, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.
I was wrong. Jaw-droppingly gorgeous spots like the plaza at 555/575 Market, or the sumptuous greenhouse inside 101 California redefine urban nature. The true gem is the Redwood Park at the foot of the iconic Transamerica Pyramid, which was planted in the 1960s during the building’s construction.
Then there were the unexpected gems I found along the way. On Spear Street en route to a garden at the intersection of Steuart, I came across a grove of redwoods sandwiched between a couple 12-story office buildings. The trees burst forward as if to say, “This is what you’ve been looking for.”
I took a deep breath, for indeed it was.