Today, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is a living, dynamic landscape, a space for recreation and refuge, and an informal record of its own cultural and environmental history. In 1865 however, this vast, urban garden was “nothing” but acres of largely undeveloped sand dunes and grasses. Its presence in the heart of southwest San Francisco represents the massive, human transformation of an environment. Donald Worster’s framework for environmental history can be used to understand Golden Gate Park as it is currently, the landscape that preceded it, and the processes that drove its transformation. Worster uses the concepts of ecology, modes of production, and ideas to create “levels of interpretation” for historic environmental changes1. Applying these tools when reading Golden Gate Park’s present landscape and photos of its past landscape provides significant insight into why this area has changed so dramatically.
Before the Park
Historically, the lands now occupied by Golden Gate Park had a quite different ecology. The photograph from 1865 in Figure 1 in the Appendix shows great, rolling dunes topped with grasses. Grainy mounds cascade from the horizon to the ocean where sand and water seamlessly converge. There are no signs of agriculture or industry. Besides a few houses along a single-lane road, it appears to be an area relatively undisturbed by humans. In 1865, the wild ecology of this space was probably not one considered very useful or productive by many San Francisco residents.
The past uses, or lack thereof, for this land reveal how it was perceived. A map of the City and County of San Francisco from 1866 (Figure 2 in the Appendix) aptly reflects his. At the northeast end of the peninsula, the tight, linear development of a burgeoning city is depicted, while to the south and west the map simply shows empty space. After all, that checkerboard in the northeast represented progress– shops and trade, art and industry. To the southwest were dunes. What could one do with those? There was not much there to mine or log or grow. The dunes were a challenge to builders or farmers. They were, as the caption beneath Figure 2 says, the “outer lands.” In the 1860s, the area later transformed into Golden Gate Park was undeveloped, waiting for human “improvements.”
Golden Gate Park Today
Since 1865, humans have drastically reshaped the ecology of the lands now titled Golden Gate Park. The aerial photograph of the contemporary park in Figure 3 (see Appendix) reveals a giant, green rectangle transected by roads and bounded by a highway on the west and a sea of streets and buildings on the east, north, and south sides. Unlike the free-form dunes of 1865, the park is a neatly contained geometric space, cut off from the ocean by the highway and a cement barrier meant to keep the remaining sandy beach where humans would have it. Within the park’s borders are forests, lakes, and meadows. The landscape is a veritable salad of plant species. On a walk through Golden Gate Park one might see a lilac bush blooming beneath a eucalyptus tree or blackberry brambles beside a juniper. Ducks, pigeons, and squirrels all make their home there. Exploring the park now, it might be easy to mistake it for a “natural” environment, but the maintenance it requires and the activities and built environment it houses would prove the contrary.
Golden Gate Park’s ecology is intimately connected with human modes of production and ideas. For one, the manmade lakes require regular maintenance. In 1997, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article detailing the need for increased funding to repair Golden Gate Park’s decaying infrastructure. Apparently, the idyllic lakes were leaking thousands of gallons per day. Similarly, the paper mentioned that much of the vegetation was in need of care. Gardeners and volunteers were, and still are, needed to trim trees and replace numerous dying plants.2 In order for the park to remain a verdant retreat, citizens and government officials must decide that this public good is worth the cost of maintaining it. The park’s survival is dependent on human perceptions of it. Clearly, the upkeep of this space is tied up with the city’s prosperity and values.
Human modes of production and values are also apparent in the park’s buildings and uses. Through the years, humans have created spaces in Golden Gate Park to house a variety of activities and ideas. Leisure space is definitely a prominent feature here. From the Angler’s Lodge to the tennis courts, one can catch glimpses of past and current recreational fads. Park-goers also temporarily transform the forests and meadows into spaces for relaxing and socializing. For instance, add humans to a grassy hillside and it becomes a place to drink to the day’s great bike ride or celebrate someone’s birthday. Beyond leisure, spaces have been carved out for more formal communication of values. For example, the new California Academy of Sciences is simultaneously a place to work for some individuals, a place to play for others, and a statement on the imperative for humans to better understand and interact with their environments. With its undulating, grass-covered roof and “green” construction, the Academy is a symbol of growing concerns about humans’
impacts on the natural world. Similarly, the National AIDS Memorial Redwood Grove has been designated a monument to the brave individuals who have battled AIDS and as a place
of refuge for everyone impacted by this disease. Here the park’s landscape has been shaped to serve the above purposes with quiet places to sit and memorials like the one in Figure 4 in the Appendix, a boulder inscribed with, “The Pines-In Memory of Don Miller.” From its fly fishing ponds to its grassy slopes, Golden Gate Park is a landscape created by humans for humans.
Interpreting the Transformation
While the story behind Golden Gate Park’s establishment is an essay in itself, it can perhaps be summed up as the application of political will and technology to a landscape. Without these two human elements, the sand dunes of 1865 might still be there. To begin with, someone, or rather a group of people, had to decide that the outer lands were worth developing. Amidst public clamor for a park in the 1850s and 1860s, city officials and businessmen saw an opportunity to reclaim the outer lands. San Francisco was to have its own Central Park that would increase property values in the hinterlands of the peninsula and draw development there.3 To accomplish their goals, they hired young engineer William Hammond Hall. This determined man applied his engineering skills, lots of imported water, and a slew of nonnative plants to the dunes to slowly establish the city’s great park.4 In doing this, he proved that the outer lands could indeed be conquered, thus bestowing them with new value.
Since Hall coaxed Golden Gate Park from the sands, various individuals and groups have sculpted the park to reflect their values and needs, creating what is seen there today.
Over the years, an eclectic mix of amenities has been compiled in this space, reflecting changes in culture. To illustrate, whether fly-fishing pools or an equitation field in the park would be strongly petitioned for today is rather debatable. Conversely, the creators of Golden Gate Park had no conception of AIDS or climate change and therefore would not
have understood the need for the Memorial Grove or new Academy building. This is part of the beauty of the park’s transformation–it’s ongoing. From its very beginning this landscape has been changed by San Francisco’s needs and desires and continues to be shaped by its current users.
Golden Gate Park is an excellent example of the transformative potential of humans’ interactions with their environment. The present park full of people and their structures is vastly different from the sand dunes found there in 1865. Worster’s concepts of ecology, modes of production, and human ideas can be lenses for viewing these present and past landscapes and the interactions that have made the park what it is today. Interpretation of this space using these tools clearly reveals Golden Gate Park as an artifact of human culture that is continually formed and reformed with changes in ideas and modes of production.
Figure 1- “View From Cliffhouse, 1865. Golden Gate Park Not Planted Yet…”1
Figure 2- “Map of San Francisco and the ‘Outer Lands’ – 1866″ 2
Figure 3- “Aerial of San Francisco and Golden Gate Park” 3
Figure 4-”Values and Nature- the AIDS Memorial Redwood Grove, 2009″ 4
1. Major problems in American environmental history documents and essays. Edited by
Carolyn Merchant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, 2
2. Garcia, Kenneth J. “S.F. Treasure’s Sad Decline / Decades of neglect take their toll on city landmark.” SF Gate. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/ article. cgi?f= /c/a/ 1997 /07/ 28/MN04GGP.DTL (accessed November 29, 2009).
3. Brechin, Gray. Imperial San Francisco Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (California
Studies in Critical Human Geography, 3). New York: University of California P, 2001
4. Ibid., 82-83.
1. View from Cliff House, 1865. Golden Gate Park not planted yet, just sand hills. Only
residences Seal Rockhouse and a few small houses. 1865. The Bancroft Library,
University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA. In Calisphere.
November 29, 2009).
2. Wollenberg, Charles. Golden Gate metropolis perspectives on Bay Area history.
Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, 1985.
3. Garcia, Kenneth J. “S.F. Treasure’s Sad Decline / Decades of neglect take their toll
on city landmark.” SF Gate. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin /article .cgi? f=/c/a/ 1997 /07
28/MN04GGP.DTL (accessed November 29, 2009).
4. Marker in the National AIDS Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco,
CA. Personal photograph by author. October 09, 2009.