Some have argued that keeping John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park free of vehicle traffic makes it difficult for low-income San Franciscans to access the green space. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Some have argued that keeping John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park free of vehicle traffic makes it difficult for low-income San Franciscans to access the green space. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Is Golden Gate Park really for all San Franciscans?

Debate over car-free JFK highlights unanswered questions around green space equity and park access

Supervisor Shamann Walton likened John F. Kennedy Drive to the 1950s segregationist south last week, igniting a maelstrom of public backlash and triggering questions around green space equity 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 issue, you have to start with Walton’s original and controversial argument. The Board President was making a statement about how residents of his district mostly drive to Golden Gate Park, as the public transit options are complicated and long. With JFK closed to traffic, so visitors could exercise and recreate outdoors during the pandemic, there is less parking available which disproportionately impacts his constituents and makes it harder for them to access the park, the theory goes.

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

But the data doesn’t back that up.

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

What didn’t change much was where those people travel from to get to the park.

Using anonymous cell phone information, preliminary findings show the share of visits to JFK Drive starting in each of the 11 supervisorial districts remained almost identical over those seven months.

District 10’s share dipped only 0.3 percent. No district saw an increase or decrease greater than 1.5 percent.

That doesn’t mean there’s no equity 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 COVID-19 relief to a wealth gap.

Segregationist legacy

From redlining and predatory bank lending in the thirties to disinvestment to the toxic waste left behind by the shipyard’s closure in the seventies and more, Bayview-Hunters Point has been the victim of segrationist policies for decades.

Some community members say it matters less that District 10 residents are using JFK Drive in numbers comparable to pre-pandemic, and more that they’ve historically been barred from easy access to the iconic green space altogether.

“It often feels that we are in two cities, one that is one of the wealthiest, tech savvy, full of lush green space, and the other filled with ongoing pockets of segregation and invisibility,” said Monique LeSarre, a doctor and executive director of Bayview-based Rafiki Coalition for Health and Wellness.

Ready access to green space is proven to contribute to better health outcomes such as hearth health, obesity and blood sugar as well as improved mental wellbeing.

That’s why San Francisco endeavored to become the first city in the nation to ensure every home is within a 10-minute walk of a park, what Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg called the “gold standard,” by 2018.

“We pride ourselves on making sure that everyone has an opportunity to get out and play regardless of your socioeconomic background,” Ginsburg said.

But LeSarre, whose practice focuses on holistic health solutions, says car-free JFK exacerbates a longstanding sense among Bayview residents that not all green space is for them.

“The geographic cordoning off of The City only heightens feelings of lack of welcome and belonging and exacerbates feelings of disenfranchisement, invisibility as well as health inequities in the poorest and most invisible district in The City, District 10,” she said.

Golden Gate Park access

It can around an hour to travel from Third Street, Bayview’s central commercial corridor, to the Rose Garden on JFK Drive, on the 44 O’Shaugnessy bus.

According to GoogleMaps, weekday itinerary suggestions from other parts of the neighborhood can require multiple transfers, some of which include the 15-Bayview Hunters Point Express, a Muni route launched during the pandemic in response to high demand in the area.

When public transit isn’t a reliable or timely option, people turn to cars.

That’s exactly what’s happened in the Bayview, where almost half of all households own two or more cars, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency Community-Based Transportation Plan.

There are still 4,700 parking spaces in the park, so opening up the roadway doesn’t necessarily improve access.

Plus, data shows about 85 percent of westbound park drivers before the pandemic used it as a commuter thoroughfare, so car access doesn’t even equate to park usage.

“There’s always more we can do to strengthen the vision that San Francisco’s largest park belongs to everyone, no matter how you want to use it,” Ginsburg said.

With the SF Parks Alliance, The City will launch a shuttle service later this summer to transport children from outer neighborhoods, such as the Bayview, into Golden Gate Park.

Walton welcomed this idea, but called it “just one piece of the puzzle.” He said he would continue to push for public transit improvements to right-size the existing imbalance.

Local hazards

Bayview residents are plagued by some of the worst air quality in The City.

A 2018 report from the Department of Public Health concluded air in Bayview-Hunters Point had high concentrations of particulate matter, and residents suffer from high incidences of preventable hospitalizations and chronic illness.

Such realities drive many people in search of clean air elsewhere, but those who can’t or don’t want to leave the area will find a mixed bag of local green spaces.

Rec and Park has spent about $170 million in capital investments in District 10 over the last 15 years, and there’s more to come, according to Ginsburg.

There are some gems in Bayview-Hunters Point: the skate park at Hilltop Park; the ongoing KC Jones Playground renovation; sporting fields at Youngblood-Coleman Recreation Center; the renovation of Shoreview Park, and others. Nearby McLaren Park, though not in the Bayview, was outfitted with a bike park in 2017.

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

District 10 has scored in the bottom two on The City’s annual park maintenance scoresheet since at least 2015. Only six parks within it score at or above the citywide average.

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

Muddled optimism

San Francisco’s Rec and Park department receives high praise from industry insiders for its focus on bridging gaps between weather neighborhoods and those that have borne the brunt of historically racist disinvestment.

The agency allocates over 60 percent of annual capital spending to neighborhoods deemed “equity zones,” though they only comprise about 20 percent of total city park acreage.

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

The former shipyard and construction industry dumping ground will transform into 1.7 miles of uninterrupted shoreline park kitted out with trails, signage and other amenities.

Removal of contaminated soil starts next month with construction slated to end in 2025.

Some fear the park coupled with the commercial and residential mixed use development being built next door will be the latest in decades of gentrification and displacements for The City’s Black community.

Officials have promised this time will be different, baking into the process practices designed to benefit the community such as local hiring, neighborhood input and a clear commitment to celebrating the cultural history of the Bayview.

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

Bayview residents who fear the worst say they could be left to reckon with the same trade-offs 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.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

Carly wrote this story while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 California Fellowship.

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