Is Golden Gate Park Really For All San Franciscans?


Supervisor Shamann Walton compared John F. Kennedy Drive to the segregationist 1950s South last week, triggering a flurry of backlash from the public and raising questions about the fairness of green spaces in San Francisco.

A closer look at the arguments surrounding access and public space reveals a city divided, both by social status and geography.

To understand the larger problem, you have to start with Walton’s original and controversial argument. The council chairman was making a statement about how residents of his neighborhood primarily travel to Golden Gate Park, as public transportation options are complicated and time consuming. With JFK closed to traffic, so visitors can exercise and recreate outdoors during the pandemic, there is less parking available, disproportionately impacting its constituents and making them more difficult to access the park, according to the theory.

Walton represents District 10, home to the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, the city’s highest concentration of black residents and many low-income earners. Households here own cars at double the rate in the rest of San Francisco, theoretically reinforcing Walton’s case that the car ban on JFK Drive hits his neighborhood hardest.

But the data does not confirm this.

During seven months of the pandemic, the Parks and Recreation Department tracked visits to the 1.5-mile car-free stretch of road. The number of cyclists and pedestrians increased by 441% and 42% respectively.

What has not changed much is where these people come from to get to the park.

Using anonymous cell phone information, preliminary results show that the share of visits to JFK Drive from each of the 11 supervising districts has remained almost the same over these seven months.

District 10’s share fell only 0.3%. No district experienced an increase or decrease greater than 1.5 percent.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a fairness debate to be had over access to Golden Gate Park, especially as San Francisco grapples with a range of social justice challenges, from environmental racism. to relief from COVID-19 through a wealth gap.

The segregationist legacy

From predatory and predatory bank loans in the 1930s and divestment to toxic waste left by the shipyard closure in the 1970s and beyond, Bayview-Hunters Point has been the victim of segregationist policies for decades.

Some community members say it matters less that residents of District 10 use JFK Drive in comparable numbers to before the pandemic, and more that they have always been denied easy access to the iconic green space .

“We often have the impression that we are in two cities, one which is one of the richest, technophile, full of lush green spaces, and the other filled with continuous pockets of segregation and invisibility” said Monique LeSarre, physician and executive director of the Rafiki Coalition for Health and Wellness, based in Bayview.

Easy access to green spaces has been shown to contribute to better health outcomes such as household health, obesity and blood sugar levels, as well as improved mental well-being.

That’s why San Francisco has strived to become the first city in the country to ensure that every home is within a 10-minute walk of a park, which Rec and Park CEO Phil Ginsburg , called the “gold standard”, by 2018.

“We pride ourselves on making sure everyone has the opportunity to go out and play regardless of their socioeconomic background,” said Ginsburg.

But LeSarre, whose practice focuses on holistic health solutions, says car-free JFK exacerbates the long-held feeling among Bayview residents that not all green spaces are for them.

“The City’s geographic closure only increases the feeling of lack of hospitality and belonging and exacerbates feelings of deprivation of voting rights, invisibility as well as health inequalities in the most poor and most invisible in The City, District 10, ”she said.

Access to Golden Gate Park

It takes over an hour to drive from Third Street, Bayview’s central shopping corridor, to the Rose Garden on JFK Drive.

According to GoogleMaps, the suggested shortest route on weekdays requires three transfers. Two others rely on the 15-Bayview Hunters Point Express, a Muni route launched during the pandemic in response to high demand in the region.

When public transit is not a reliable or timely option, people turn to the car.

That’s exactly what happened in the Bayview, where nearly half of all households own two or more cars, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency’s community transportation plan.

There are still 4,700 parking spaces in the park, so opening the roadway does not necessarily improve access.

What’s more, data shows that about 85% of westbound park drivers before the pandemic used it as a commuting route, so car access doesn’t even equate to park use.

“We can always do more to strengthen the vision that San Francisco’s largest park belongs to everyone, however you choose to use it,” said Ginsburg.

With the SF Parks Alliance, the city will launch a shuttle service later this summer to transport children from outlying neighborhoods, like the Bayview, to Golden Gate Park.

Walton welcomed this idea, but called it “just a piece of the puzzle”. He said he would continue to push for public transport to improve the size of the existing imbalance.

Local risks

Bayview residents suffer from the worst air quality in the city.

A 2018 Department of Public Health report concluded that the air at Bayview-Hunters Point contained high concentrations of particles and that residents suffer from high incidences of preventable hospitalizations and chronic illness.

Such realities lead many to seek fresh air elsewhere, but those who cannot or do not want to leave the area will find a mix of local green spaces.

Rec and Park has spent about $ 170 million on investments in District 10 over the past 15 years, with more to come, according to Ginsburg.

There are a few gems at Bayview-Hunters Point: the Hilltop Park skate park; the ongoing renovation of the KC Jones playground; sports fields at the Youngman Coleman Recreation Center; the renovation of Shoreview Park and others. The nearby McLaren Park, but not in the Bayview, was fitted with a bicycle park in 2017.

Others are small, tucked away along busy roads or adjacent to freeway ramps, making them a far cry from the splendid solace found in a place like Golden Gate Park, some say.

District 10 has been in the bottom two on the city’s annual parks maintenance scorecard since at least 2015. Only six parks within it score at or above the city average.

“Our parks should be just as clean and updated as any other part of the city, but too often don’t get the attention they deserve,” Walton said.

Confused optimism

The San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks is receiving praise from industry insiders for its willingness to bridge the gap between weather districts and those that have suffered the brunt of historically racist divestment.

The agency allocates more than 60 percent of annual capital spending to neighborhoods considered “equity zones,” although they only make up about 20 percent of the city’s total park area.

India Basin is the flagship effort of public and private partners, described by Ginsburg as a “unique environmental equity and justice project”.

The former shipyard and construction industry dumping ground will turn into 1.7 miles of uninterrupted waterfront parkland equipped with trails, signage and other amenities.

Removal of the contaminated soil begins next month and construction is expected to be completed in 2025.

Some fear that the park, associated with mixed-use commercial and residential development being built next door, may be the last in decades of gentrification and displacement of the city’s black community.

Officials promised this time around would be different, incorporating process practices designed to benefit the community, such as local hiring, neighborhood contribution, and a clear commitment to celebrating Bayview’s cultural history.

Even so, construction and operation of the project are expected to create “significant and unavoidable” impacts on air quality, according to the environmental impact report.

Bayview residents who fear the worst say they could be left behind with the same compromises they face today when it comes to accessing green space and unlocking its health benefits , just a few years and tens of millions of dollars later.

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