There was a party in Progress Park last month — a socially-distant, mask-wearing, get-your-hands dirty type of party. The volunteer event, which brought about 20 neighborhood residents together for a morning of mulching, weeding and socializing, was hosted by the Dogpatch & NW Potrero Hills Green Benefit District. The nonprofit organization improves public spaces with owner-approved property assessments.
“Dogpatch is a very engaged neighborhood,” Julie Christensen, the executive director of the Green Benefit District (GBD), told me. “There’s a real meshing of the newcomers and old timers here today.”
The draw of The City’s parks and green spaces has strengthened during these months of sheltering in place and avoiding indoor gatherings. San Franciscans are using outdoor public areas to meet with friends, exercise and soak up some rare summer sun. As health experts have told us for years, parks are keeping our bodies healthy and our minds sane.
But ensuring these treasured spots remain vibrant poses challenges, especially as local, state and federal budgets tighten. San Franciscans (who can) should pitch in to keep our parks clean and healthy, so agencies can allocate funds to neighborhoods that need it the most. Help can range from novel solutions, such as green benefit districts, to volunteering and donating.
Trash and vandalism are unfortunate realities in San Francisco’s parks. Fireworks burned a section of Heron’s Head Park this Fourth of July and a fire that was likely caused by a person set the “Spire” in the Presidio ablaze in June.
Meanwhile, the Presidio Trust, which manages nearly all of the 1,491-acre park, is facing significant financial challenges and has laid off staff. And although Mayor London Breed approved the Recreation and Park Department’s budget, which doesn’t contemplate layoffs or reductions in services, city funding is still tight.
“We have to advocate for real money from the general fund,” Sarah Madland with the Recreation and Park Department told me. “The use of public space is up so much right now. Talking about how we can keep our parks vibrant during an economic crisis is critical.”
Solutions, such as green benefit districts, can help. Dogpatch and northwest Potrero Hill, for example, only have one Recreation and Park Department-owned facility — Esprit Park. Since creating the GBD in 2015, the neighborhoods have transformed weed-choked, needle-strewn alleys and abandoned railroad lines into landscaped walking and biking paths. Progress Park, which was once a Caltrans freeway verge, now offers a beautiful, butterfly-filled place to play without receiving any official funding from The City.
The GBD has also helped respond to recent challenges. Over the last few months, vandals have set fires in community parks, ripped up irrigation, and chopped trees down. Increased operations at the Amazon Distribution Center next door to Esprit Park have also led to more pollution and noise. Working with the San Francisco Department of Public Works and supervisors, the GBD is addressing these problems.
“We need these spaces like we’ve never needed them before,” Susan Eslick, a Dogpatch resident for 21 years and current board treasurer of the GBD, told me. “But they’re under threat like never before too.”
Despite the GBD’s successes, other neighborhoods haven’t adopted their own. Setting up green benefit districts takes time and effort. San Franciscans are also, understandably, reluctant to pay more taxes to fund a district. In neighborhoods that have more parks maintained by the Recreation and Park Department or National Park Service, it can make sense to work with the agencies to make improvements.
But that doesn’t mean San Franciscans should rely entirely on those agencies. Those who can should donate and volunteer. The Recreation and Park Department has received over $150 million in philanthropy over the last decade to support capital projects and programs, and depends on the dedicated volunteers who help keep its 224 parks enjoyable. Projects, such as the Presidio Tunnel Tops Campaign, are also supported by philanthropists and grassroots donors
The pandemic has certainly taught San Franciscans the importance of parks. But it’s also highlighted the need for all of us to pitch in where we can for the common good. Let’s give a little back to the outdoor spaces that have given us so much.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.