The park district

How parks shape District 2’s economy and politics
Francisco Park could become the Marina’s next big tourist attraction. Photo: Naomi Rose

The Presidio, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Crissy Field are among the top 12 most frequently visited places by tourists to San Francisco. What’s more, thanks to former Supervisor Mark Farrell and the Francisco Park Conservancy, a new, albeit smaller park may soon draw even more visitors to the Marina. This makes tourism — specifically visits to parks — a key attribute of the Marina. Yet, the economic and cultural contribution of parks to the Marina District may still be undervalued.

According to Herb Caen, “San Francisco can be a perfectly maddening city. But when there’s a good bar across the street, almost any street, and a decent restaurant around almost any corner, we are not yet a lost civilization.” But Caen missed a key component of any civilization — a great park within walking distance. And, with that added consideration, civilization may be closer to lost than Caen anticipated.


The Bay Area is the world’s 19th largest economy, but stats of this sort commonly miss out on the consumer surplus and resident welfare generated by proximity to parks and recreation. A quick look to the Marina makes clear that park-based tourism is central to the district and city. A deeper investigation, though, reveals that there may be unmet demand for outdoor access.

Annually, more than 20 million people visit the Marina’s three largest parks. According to the Trust for the Public Land, visitors to the state’s parks spend an average of $42 per day. I’d venture to guess that $42 per day falls short of what visitors to San Francisco parks spend. But even if the total was accurate, Marina-area parks would still generate approximately $840 million in spending each year.

Francisco Park, for which the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission recently approved construction, will provide Marina residents and visitors alike with another recreational release. Built atop the former Russian Hill Reservoir, the 4.5 acres will include a dog park, perhaps a playground, and plenty of green space. Park construction will commence when the Francisco Park Conservancy raises $25 million; so far, just over $12 million has been gathered.

The park’s story underscores San Franciscans’ dedication to parks. For decades, the reservoir was filled only with empty promises. In the 1940s, the construction of the Lombard Reservoir rendered the Russian Hill Reservoir unnecessary. Neighbors, though, quickly recognized the land’s potential for park space. Initially, their efforts seemed likely to succeed. In 1955, plans for a park over the reservoir were funded and approved. But, three years later, the city’s Water Department undercut those plans, prompting developers to eye the land for two 20-story apartment towers. Once again, neighbors rallied. They quashed the proposal and pushed for a park.

Decades passed before public support for a park was paired with internal advocacy in City Hall. Good news for community organizers finally came in 2010 with the election of Mark Farrell to District 2 supervisor. From day one of his tenure, then-Supervisor Farrell championed the creation of Francisco Park. His enthusiasm gave the Francisco Park Conservancy the necessary momentum to earn the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission’s approval earlier this year.

Amid the positivity there’s still unrealized potential for parks in the Marina. Anecdotal and quantitative observations indicate a shortage of parks in San Francisco and the surrounding area. A visit to Crissy Field during the weekend can rival Disneyland in terms of people-dodging. Even more impressive, Muir Woods now enforces a shuttle schedule to accommodate the throngs of tourists seeking a respite from the city. The shortage applies to residents as well. According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, just 17 percent of San Francisco residents live in areas with at least three acres of parks or open space per 1,000 residents. This is true even in the Marina. In fact, residents of the 94123 zip code living between Lyon and Fillmore Streets from Chestnut to Jackson Streets have less than one park acre per 1,000 residents.

The economic importance of parks appears in studies of San Francisco-based events, too. Runs such as the Presidio 10 Miler bring thousands of participants and their supporters to the area. This April, well over 3,500 runners joined The Guardsmen-sponsored event. Previous economic analysis of similar events suggests out-of-town participants bring 0.9 other guests with them. If half of the 10 Miler runners were day visitors, then about 5,000 total people gathered in the Marina for the event. When multiplied by the nationwide average day spending of visiting runners and guests, the total economic contribution of this one event comes to more than $292,600.


Some may scoff at the notion that San Francisco needs more parks. After all, it’s true that the city is home to upward of 229 parks. Additionally, nearly 20 percent of the city’s total acreage is parkland, the third-highest rate among major U.S. cities. But a look to other cities and a survey of residents with young kids refutes the idea that the city has met is park potential. If San Francisco wants to truly become a hub of park-based tourism, there is room for growth.

When San Francisco is compared against that same list of major cities, it falls to ninth in park acres per 1,000 residents (6.9); Washington, D.C. (12.9), Seattle (9.8), Los Angeles (9.5), and Oakland (9.3) all top San Francisco on this measure. The city also falls behind in providing play space for youngsters. When it comes to playgrounds per 10,000 residents, San Francisco fails to make the top 40 list. Dog owners, however, can find cause for celebration. There are 3.8 off-leash dog parks per 100,000 residents — good enough for seventh nationally.

Beyond Francisco Park, the Marina may soon have another opportunity to help us catch up in the rankings and attract nature-centric visitors. A proposal from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. would turn the East Harbor Marina into shoreline with a fishing pier. This proposal raises cultural, civic, and economic questions. On the latter consideration, though, the cost-benefit analysis of adding shoreline and a pier would show that if you build them, they — tourists — will come (and so will their consumer spending). Indeed, fishing is one of the most valuable recreational activities: the U.S. Forest Service estimates that a day of fishing creates approximately $65 in economic value per day per participant.

Caen is right — San Francisco can be maddening — which is why to maintain civilization, we must provide visitors and residents alike with an opportunity to escape it. That escape (as well as immense economic and cultural value) can be found in access to parks.



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