How South Park is Changing Old Paradigms of Public Space

I love the renovated South Park in San Francisco! It amazes even me to be writing this because I was a big fan of the old South Park and really did not expect to be cheering any changes. The prior version was wonderfully historic: it was dedicated to play and contained some terrific equipment pieces that Richard Dattner and Paul Friedberg had each designed in the 1970s. The updated version- which opened in September- is the work of Fletcher Studio and it represents the future. It is intergenerational with minimal fencing, has porous edges for easy accessibility, showcases plenty of seating and eating areas, and contains a standout piece of customized equipment that adults as well as children can enjoy at the same time.

South Park has a rich and complex history which is honored in the renovation. The original elongated oval shape and the rounded perimeter curbs still exist. The oldest public space in San Francisco, South Park began in 1852 as a private enclave when a wealthy Englishman developed elite residences. His model was the London square where surrounding houses would have a key to the central fenced open space. South Park soon departed from that model by becoming public and by hosting a succession of surrounding uses over many decades: immigrant housing, light industry, young artist’s lofts. It was a hub for the first dot com companies in the 1990s. Today there are architectural, media, tech, and hospitality firms as well as some residences- including affordable and SRO units- in the surrounding buildings.

When the South Park Improvement Association decided to upgrade the park in 2010, they staged a closed competition among three landscape architecture firms. Fletcher, led by David Fletcher, won the commission for that first master plan. Fletcher has been involved ever since with successive and final designs.

The Fletcher designs are based on a thorough understanding of how South Park has always been a hub for the neighborhood.  The resulting plans show an unfenced meandering east-west path that traverses the site and recalls the experience of strolling in a picturesque landscape. There are several north-south axes that are additional entry and crossing points, all of which are marked on the ground by round headed concrete pavers to recall the oval shape of the park. Small tables and chairs are available along both approaches and at either end. There are loosely defined areas of grass and paving, each of which is ringed by low retaining walls that provide casual seating. There is no sense of crowding although the total space is less than one acre large. The new enhancements also address long neglected issues of water infiltration and drainage.

Play was central to the old South Park and it is essential to Fletcher’s plan, too. I have to admit I was wary when I first came to the site. I liked the unprogrammed green areas but worried that the structure that Fletcher designed and Berliner Selifabrik executed would be a gigantic version of a standardized climber. But the closer I got, the more impressed I became and the more I realized how wrong I was.  I was particularly taken by the extensive rope system. These are arranged with openings of varied widths. The unexpected changes erase a problem landscape architect Helle Nebelong has long identified. She describes a situation- especially on standardized equipment- where regularity is not necessarily safe because children can get lulled into expecting uniformity and they are never prepared to confront the unexpected. This play piece illustrates how to brilliantly avoid that pitfall. It also looks a bit dangerous (it is not) which allows kids to feel the thrill of approaching something forbidden.

It became clear to me that kids do not follow any “script”; they can be inventive and they can explore. Metal tubing swoops and dips so that there are many easy at-grade points of entry. There is no “inside” or “outside” since everything is playable. There is an expansive surface of artificial grass with endless opportunities for running across it and for venturing up protruding hills. The tubing often dips to meet these hills. It is exciting to see – as David Fletcher says – “the structure and the ground plane are united,” thereby avoiding the possibility that this equipment would be unconnected to its surroundings. In addition, this play piece combines horizontal actions (e.g. playing on the surface) with vertical ones, including climbing to different heights, maneuvering on modern monkey bars, sliding on a “flubber” mat, and swinging on a “bucket”.

Decades ago Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner, the designers of the play pieces that had been at South Park since the 1970s, had worked independently to extend play experiences horizontally and vertically in their bespoke play areas; they designed whole environments for play. I am delighted that Fletcher’s structure integrates actions in a similar way, using updated materials.

And there is nothing about the structure that hinders adults from having their own types of recreation in the same place at the same time.

There are some things you can’t see and that are important to know. The cost of the structures was less than $300,000 including the artificial surfacing. That is not an insignificant sum but it is also one that is competitive with the cost of two large pieces (many parks segregate the under five year olds from the 5-12 year old set) of unexciting off the shelf American equipment that is installed on an expensive poured-in-place rubber surface. There is no comparison between the independence and varied experiences of Fletcher’s unique piece versus the directional and age specific pieces that are usually employed on American playgrounds

It is necessary to talk about funding of South Park because it, too, was unusual. San Francisco passed a major bond issue in 2012 for improving parks, playgrounds and some of those monies did provide assistance here. The city contributed $1.2 million of the total $3.5 cost. The Eastern Neighborhood Citizens Advisory Committee vote to made a contribution. Their allotment came out of the 1% the city charges developers for impact fees. Those fees are dedicated to “green spaces’ and it is particularly gratifying that South Park was designated as such an urban oasis.

Most significantly, the South Park Improvement Association provided the original seed money ($20,000) that began with the design competition. I don’t think it was an accident that local improvement districts were the motivating leaders here and in Philadelphia (the Center City District and the work of Studio Bryan Hanes to create the excellent Sister Cities Park were in my posting of July 2015 which is archived on this site). I think that we may be looking to other improvement districts in the future to provide inspiration for innovation. In both parks, we see a blending of children and adult spaces into a new paradigm.

South Park reinforces one of the messages I have tried to convey in this blog: it is so critical to start a public project by hiring a landscape or building architect and to give them the latitude to be visionaries. South Park has programmatic variety (for adults and children) and aesthetic appeal that would never have been possible without an accomplished design professional. David Fletcher has said, and I feel it is especially appropriate to South Park., that “The emerging role of the landscape architect is one of leadership of multidisciplinary teams, that can address, design, and often reinvent leftover and overlooked spaces.” Hooray for that and hooray for an outstanding revitalized public space.

Thanks to David Fletcher for these images, taken by Marion Brenner.

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