A new report ranks San Francisco’s park system as one of the best in the country — as long as you are not a low-income resident. 

The city-based nonprofit Trust for Public Land launched its 10th annual ParkScore index report, which judges park systems in major U.S. metropolitan areas by factors such as park spending per resident, acreage, accessibility, and equity. 

Though San Francisco landed sixth place overall in the nationwide ranking, moving up two spots from years prior, members from the nonprofit say the city’s nonwhite and low-income residents aren’t enjoying ready access to these urban oases. 

Although better than many urban areas, including Oakland, the report found that San Francisco neighborhoods with high concentrations of residents who identify as people of color had 56 percent less access to parks than white neighborhoods. This was calculated by measuring the available park space within a 10-minute walk. 

“Everyone anecdotally knows there’s disparities in how parks are distributed. At the end of the day, that’s not right, and that’s not fair,” said Will Klein, the project manager for parks research for the Trust for Public Land.

Overall, most any San Franciscan can find a park, playground, or green space within a 10-minute walk from where they live. The city was the first to achieve this feat in 2017 and, since then, only Boston has earned this distinction. 

But the swath of Golden Gate Park and the Presidio is located in the northwestern part of the city and surely tips the scales, as the former borders six neighborhoods and the latter borders five. Nearby Presidio Heights has a majority white population of affluent residents. The Inner Richmond, which touches Golden Gate Park, also has more white people living there than people of color. 

The nonprofit added the equity metric this year as a nod to racial reckoning in the country and to point to ways park systems can improve.

In fact, San Francisco scored better than other metropolitan areas in the country. Of total park systems reviewed, nonwhite residents had an average of 44 percent less access to parks, and low-income residents had 42 percent less park space. San Francisco was more equal than other Bay Area cities, like Oakland. 

Still, there’s lots of work left to close the gap, as the implications go far beyond who has a park nearby, said Alejandra Chiesa, Bay Area program director for the Trust for Public Land. Chiesa said accessibility to outdoor spaces enables residents to benefit physically and mentally. Some medical experts have found that exposure to the great outdoors can lower stress hormones and blood pressure. 

“Parks are a big component of healthy livable communities. An equitable society and community is critical for a healthy city in general; it can’t be divided,” Chiesa said. “Someone shouldn’t have all the access while other people don’t.”

read about garfield park’s remodel:

It’s something residents and leaders clearly feel strongly about. Robert Morrissey, a 69-year-old Tenderloin resident, was sitting on a bench at the Alioto Mini Park at 20th and Capp streets in a matching camouflage-print sweatsuit, picking at his food. 

Morrissey said he visits the Mission mini-park at least every other day after picking up grub from Pete’s Bar-B-Que. “Anything I can consider a park is great, but the bigger, the better. It’s so good for the psyche, and the environment.”

Perhaps the pandemic emphasized the role of parks and social equity even further. As one of the only places to socialize and exercise safely, those with access to capacious outdoor areas had a leg up compared to those who didn’t. Grassy fields at Mission Dolores hosted extracurricular in-person classes or learning pods for Zoom-fatigued students. 

But others provided much needed space to hold outdoor Covid-19 testing and vaccination sites. The first major mass Covid-19 test organized by UCSF and the Latino Task Force took place at Garfield Square on 26th Street.

“Parts of San Francisco have been used for a Covid-19 response, for free meal and PPE distribution,” Klein said. “I think that speaks to the trust that people have in local parks and the parks agency.”

So with the advantages of expanse in mind, Klein and Chiesa are still challenging the country to spread the wealth of space to low-income communities. In another of the report’s findings, low-income neighborhoods in San Francisco had about 55 percent less park space than high-income neighborhoods. While the Mission has its fair share of parks and green spaces, and even a few large ones like Mission Dolores and Bernal Heights Park, it also has many playgrounds and “mini” parks, like Alioto and the one at 24th and York streets. 

Spacing can cause these parks to be extra crowded at times, but that doesn’t really bother Adela, who says she’ll just leave and go to another one. As a nanny to a one-year-old and mom to a seven-year-old, she visits playgrounds and parks every day, and feels lucky there’s several in the Mission. Four days a week she goes to Mission Playground, which was rumbling with running children and a live band one recent June afternoon. 

She and her other nanny friend, Hiliana, used to frequent Dolores Park but transitioned to the playground, because the kid Hiliana nannies is getting “older and wants to run and jump around. We let them play — except the sand pit. That’s dirty,” Adela explained. 

Although the Mission offers numerous places to play, it’s a bit of a different story in the Bayview, said Hiliana, who is also a mother. There are “outdoor spaces” within walking distance, but they’re not as inviting for children and don’t feel as safe to frequent. “I don’t take my kid there; there can be some crazy stuff going on,” she said. 

That may change soon, according to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, who, through a spokesperson, said its next biggest project is the India Basin Shoreline Park. This will be located in the heart of the Bayview and transform a former brownfield into a waterfront park, fit with shoreline trails and recreation activities. It expects to break ground on June 17, and one portion of the park is expected to be completed by spring or summer of 2022

“It will connect residents of public housing with a clean, restored shoreline. It’s completely shaped by the community, and is very much an example of environmental justice,” the spokesperson said in an email. 

The Department also acknowledged the shortcomings in park access. The spokesperson said nearly “80 percent of its capital dollars” last year went to projects in equity zones, which are neighborhoods with the highest concentration of at least one vulnerable population. In total, about $239 million will come from the 2020 Health and Recovery bond, and “nearly all” projects will be in equity zones. 

“Institutionalized racism has shaped the history of the country, and park systems aren’t immune,” the spokesperson wrote. “We are working to undo that history and creating the most accessible and equitable public parks system in the country.”

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Annika Hom

Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused...

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9 Comments

  1. the result of this ‘survey’ is a bit surprising. i thought SF lags way behind plenty of other cities.
    anyway, you can have a big ass park like GG park but it’s of no use if it’s too far.
    i live in the lower nob hill area and one of the things seriously lacking here in a wider area are parks and trees. yes, there is Huntington Park but what a park really constitutes is a matter of debate. here in SF they call Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley a park. well, that might be a parklet or mini park but it’s definitely not a park!
    additional parks (or mini- parks) are not even part of the discussion when it’s about developing new housing.
    and don’t get me started on trees in SF! SF seems to hate trees! there is hardly any other city around with such a ridiculously small canopy than our city.

    1. agree! I got so sick of hearing London Breed telling us how close we all are to parks. In my old neighbourhood SOMA/Mission the park was indeed about 10 minutes walk away, but 10 minutes of filth and encampment dodging to a tiny park overshadowed by a construction site, overflowing with people and with a fitness class frequently blasting music from the stage. And a permanent mega- encampment along one side. Nothing restful or rejuvenating about it.
      Other Mission parks are filled up with sports pitches- great for people who play, sucking away space for anyone else who is just left with a perimeter to walk.
      Now I am in Parkside I have options galore in all directions.

  2. San Francisco’s inequitable access to parks, playgrounds and outdoor recreation space became particularly acute in March of last year, immediately after the Shelter in Place Public Health Order went into effect. The Tenderloin has four Recreation and Parks Department properties: Boeddeker Park, the Tenderloin Rec Center, Mcaulay Park and the Turk-Hyde Mini-Park. At the beginning of the pandemic, three of the four were closed indefinitely. Only Boeddeker Park remained open, though it took a good deal of community pressure to ensure reasonable hours. The clubhouse, children’s playground and adult fitness machines were closed. The loss of those several spaces had an immediate impact on the neighborhood, and particularly on the 3,500 kids who live there. To those of us who know and love the Tenderloin, the problem was all too obvious.

    Early in the pandemic, kids and youth programs, community organizations and people connected to Tenderloin Community School organized to get the city to respond to this parallel public health emergency. It took longer than expected to gain some traction, but by July we were working with Supervisor Haney’s office, Our Children Our Families Council, the Human Rights Commission, the Department of Emergency Management, and former-Supervisor Yee’s staff.

    Our early “asks” (first formulated in May) were pretty straightforward: regular and frequent temporary street closures, ongoing closure of one block of an alley, a controlled access dedicated children’s recreation area at Civic Center Plaza, and the expectation that the city would work with us quickly. Based on the amount of city and consultant involvement from mid-August on, I was optimistic that we would finally be getting somewhere.

    Almost fifteen months after the Public Health Order, the grand total of what the city has allowed: a half dozen or so one-block Play Streets events last fall and one in early April, limited duration vehicle access restrictions on Elm Street so Tenderloin Community School families could maintain social distancing at drop off and pick up; and the installation of about a dozen concrete K-rails on the 200 block of Turk Street along with bike lane and parking modifications on the 100 through 400 blocks of Turk.

    The 200 block of Turk Street “Safe Passage Park” (SPark) is now two months into a three-month pilot, but installation work stopped the same week it started. SFFD, SFMTA and SF Public Works have come up with ever more concerns, objections and refusals that have prevented further work to make the space safe, usable, enjoyable and beautiful. (See Carly Graf’s April 27 article in the Examiner.) What was imagined as a “front yard” for residents on that block and a park for the rest of the neighborhood has looked like an abandoned project consisting of a bunch of brightly painted disused K-rails.

    More than a year ago, we set out to create emergency play spaces for TL kids. Over the course of that year, our Zoom meetings have ballooned to over 60 invited participants – about half of whom are city employees from the above-mentioned departments as well as the Department of Public Health, the Covid Command Center, and the Mayor’s Office. The pandemic is close enough to being “over” that the Covid Command Center is ceasing operations at the end of the month.

    Compared to the rapid implementation of the mis-named “shared” spaces program whose parklet-like structures are replete with fire code violations, safety hazards, structural integrity problems, bike lane takeovers, and ADA violations among other things, the city’s lack of accomplishment on these public health emergency recreation projects is fundamentally a failure to treat the kids in the Tenderloin with even minimal respect. Because this has been a multi-person, multi-organization effort, I want to stress that this is my analysis and standpoint and may differ from that of others involved in these projects.

    1. we are talking here about actual parks, you know, with greenery, trees and such.
      closed streets, shared spaces and parklets are not parks!
      Turk Street “Safe Passage Park” is NOT a park, it’s just a closed streets.
      what we need is more real parks like Boeddeker but much greener and bigger. Boedekker is mostly pavement and artificial materials.
      the City redid Sgt Macaulay Park recently and they didn’t let the opportunity go to waste and removed something like 8 mature cottonwood/poplar trees. now it’s mostly artificial surfaces and concrete.
      when they demolished the old Galaxy theater on Van Ness and Sutter it opened new perspectives and vistas. one could dream what if? as in instead of mid/high price range housing (Etta) maybe a park occupying half a block.

      1. I am talking about recreation areas, which includes parks but also play structures and indoor spaces. Yes, it’d be great to have more and greener Boeddeker Parks in the Tenderloin, but there’s no space. That does not take away from the importance (and strong desire for) smaller spaces that can be carved out of the existing cityscape by making minor alterations to the streets and sidewalks.

        Certainly, mature trees and other plants are needed in the Tenderloin and elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean other types of spaces have no value. Safe Passage Park is still supposed to include movable planters to fill the openings between the K-rails – well, every other opening. That was the “compromise” after SFFD resisted the idea of a simple and nice way to keep young children from crawling or running into the street.

        I know hundreds of young children in the Tenderloin who can take a jump rope, some chalk, or a few toys and get crucial and enjoyable outdoor time in pretty much any space that doesn’t place them in imminent danger. Creative repurposing of street spaces provide immediate benefit for neighborhood children who live in small apartments and whose older family members don’t have the time take the bus (oops, no 31-Balboa) to Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach, the Embarcadero, or even the much closer Hayward Playground and Field. Indeed, parents with young children have been asking why SPark is still unfinished and unusable. They know full well how much they need that space. It is more than unfortunate that the city can’t even get its act together enough to give just that little bit to the community.

        Without bulldozing a block or two of the neighborhood (which is something I would find horrific), the city isn’t going to be able to create a bigger and better Boeddeker in the TL. Well, there is the option of razing UC Hastings and/or some of the nearby city, state and federal buildings.

  3. An egregious example is the former Strybing Arboretum, which used to be free for all and was the only substantive open green space in the Inner Sunset.

    The San Francisco Botanical Garden Society paid to re-name it San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum and then got the city to allow them to charge admission.

    It is now $!2 to get in on weekends!

    IF you have evidence that you are living in San Francisco, you can get in “free,” but any guest will have to pay!

    They have also destroyed one large garden to make space for food trucks, and they have now denuded acres for a new building in back.

    This is but one example of how poorly this city administrates open space.

    And an excellent example of how government caters to the needs and wishes of elites while giving a middle finger to those of elite and entitled interests!

    1. Last time I checked, the Arboretum was within the boundaries of Goldlen Gate Park (1,013 acres). I can see folks in the TL having a legitimate complaint about access, but not Inner Sunset residents. You are correct that it is free to all San Francisco residents.

  4. Almost all of these parks were created when the city was mostly white, but somehow the park system is racist?

    Does this “non-profit” have any connections to Shamann Walton?

    I don’t know most of the dates, but many of the neighborhood parks were created with funds from the WPA during the great depression to get people to get outside.

    https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=W.P.A._Construction_in_San_Francisco_(1935-1942)

    Prior to 1950, San Francisco was around 90-95% white

    1. Prior to Spanish colonialism, the US war of aggression against Mexico, and the Gold Rush, California was “mostly” Native American, and “somehow” this isn’t an issue for you.

      Not to mention, the entire legal framework for local, state and federal governments were both founded on racial distinction (which really means domination) and have allowed for multiple reiterations and extensions of the racialization of human bodies, land use, employment, access to public goods and institutional power.

      Yes, history matters to the present and how societies have developed. But the way history matters certainly, includes the ways institutional gate-keeping over time has affected demographics. Undoing the past isn’t doable, but addressing historical failures is.

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