More Density, More Parks

How to build a sustainable city

Urbanist Article July 1, 1999

Housing vs. Community Gardens

New York City has a reputation for being the most urban of America’s cities. But what I really remember from my visits there are the community gardens. They grow all over the Lower East Side, and I especially remember the children’s gardens in Harlem, and one I saw in Hell’s Kitchen, planted with dozens of bright tulips. One garden I visited was filled with gardeners planning a summer evening party, lighting lanterns all over the park and getting ready for a play by local teenagers. The community garden movement thrives there, where hundreds of reclaimed vacant lots are bursting with flowers, vegetables, hand-painted signs, junk sculptures, classes and programs.

Central Park and Bryant Park are New York’s poster children, much like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. But the smaller parks and gardens are the true community centers for both cities, the hearts of their neighborhoods. People have bonded with nature and with neighbors in these gardens, and it makes living in the huge, cosmopolitan city of New York feel less overwhelming and more like a place that can be called home.

But these small parks are being threatened by another much-needed community resource: housing. Housing advocates are being pitted against community gardeners in a battle for the lots that now contain community parks. Last month, a consortium of funders (including Bette Midler) teamed up to save over 150 of New York’s community gardens. The consortium bought the land from the city and the gardens are now being run by a private entity. Not the best solution, as New York park advocates admit, but not the worst either — at least the gardens were saved.

We face the same dilemma here in San Francisco, although it has taken a slightly different form. To make the city livable, we need considerably more housing. At the same time, we don't want a place of unrelenting building-and-pavement. Urban ecologists want both things: increased housing and increased open space. Is there any way that we can have both?

The Eco-City Answer

As environmentalists, we know that we need infill development and densification in cities if we are to direct our growth into balanced, livable cities with a greenbelt of farmland and wilderness surrounding us. Our greenbelt must be saved from sprawl. Therefore, cities must plan for an increasing population. We need higher densities in parts of San Francisco.

High-density living can be desirable but it only works if we plan it right. We need to encourage the development of everyday amenities, close to workplaces and housing, to take advantage of the positive aspects of having lots of people in one place. We also need to actually implement our neglected "transit first" policy and prioritize our city's land for easy commuting and shopping by foot, bike or transit. We need clever housing designs that emphasize flexibility, privacy, and beauty,and reformed zoning laws that give us the height and density we need to have enough housing for all the people who want to live in San Francisco. Housing must be built here, in the city, not on the prime agricultural lands of the Central Valley.

We also desperately need parks and open spaces throughout the city that offer people rest, leisure,and a chance to be connected to nature. I believe it is possible to achieve both goals. One answer is to increase densities by building taller buildings, but in exchange to create small, community-maintained parks and open spaces on every block. Instead of medium-density tedium,where every foot of land is covered by low, two or three story buildings, we could provide substantially increased housing and create green oases close to development if we could get over our "fear of heights."

This kind of open space is very different from the large, 'flagship' parks. The parks I'm talking about are often created or renovated by the surrounding community, and then cared for by the neighbors who steward and advocate for it as needed. There are a number of models right in San Francisco of small, well-designed parks like Rose-Page Park in Hayes Valley, Alioto Park in the Mission and Michelangelo Park in North Beach that really enhance the quality of life of the neighbors who work on them. Also, Adam Rogers Park, SOMA Gardens, Fay Park, and South Park are all examples of well-loved neighborhood-level spaces. These parks are championed and cared for by their neighbors.


The Coaliton

We need a new coalition of open space and park activists joining up with smart-growth, pro-density environmentalists to fight both for increased density and increased building heights, and for more land for neighborhood parks and community stewardship arrangements. The work of this coalition would lie in brokering deals between the city, community groups, and developers to create more small parks. It would also involve bringing pressure to bear on the Planning Department and with Supervisors to increase height limits and make other changes to the city's zoning code to increase the amount of housing available to San Franciscans. A coalition that could get organized to support this agenda would be making a huge step forward on the path to sustainable living.

Eco-city planner Richard Register has proposed an interesting policy tool that could help bring about the double goal of increasing density and increasing open space. Local jurisdictions could promote what he calls "double transfer of development rights"(double TDRs), which encourage developers to remove a house from one site, turn that site into public open space, and then gives the developer the right to build double or triple the number of removed units on a different site.

The status quo is failing us. It is getting literally impossible to find decent, affordable housing in San Francisco, car traffic is overrunning our city, there are increasing calls to build more parking lots on our scarce urban land, and we do not have a thriving network of urban parks and community gardens. Are we looking at the prospect of a city covered with squat, low-density buildings and concrete for cars, with very little open space or parks?

We must build taller buildings with room for more people if we ever hope to make housing affordable again. At the same time, we must improve our quality of life by expanding and enhancing public space with small plazas, parks and gardens throughout our neighborhoods. These are visionary goals but they can be achieved through specific, realistic steps. It's not so impossible — making a sustainable city. Spur logo

About the Authors: 

Elizabeth Sullivan is a parks activist and president of San Francisco's Environmental Organizing Committee.

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