For Central Texans, April brings many things – showers, warmer temperatures, oak pollen. But for me, this April brought the much-anticipated Greater & Greener 2015: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities conference in San Francisco. It was truly one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. The event aimed to explore the role of urban parks in creating healthy, resilient, and sustainable cities. Though there were many engaging sessions that tackled topics like public health, new technologies, environmental stewardship, and park innovation, my favorite part of the conference was a mobile workshop called Reclaiming Urban Infrastructure for the Public.
The workshop explored the changing nature of San Francisco’s highway system – specifically, three areas of the city that have experienced revitalization as the result of the removal of highway infrastructure.
At the Embarcadero, an elevated highway was torn down because it sustained damage during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Once the highway was removed, the Embarcadero was transformed into a thriving, palm-lined promenade that incorporates public transit, gathering spaces, private offices, hotels, and public art. Situated along the scenic eastern waterfront of the Port of San Francisco, it is difficult to imagine a better use for the space.
The Octavia Street corridor was once a derelict area of town scarred by large infrastructure and redevelopment projects. Through the removal of the Central Freeway and construction of the new, pedestrian-oriented Octavia Boulevard, the areas has become a vibrant gathering place with a mix of retail, residential, office, restaurants, public transit, and gathering spaces.
But by far the most scenic of these examples was the Presidio and Crissy Field (pictured above). Once obstructed by an elevated highway that provided access to the Golden Gate Bridge, these stunning public spaces are becoming connected in a new and exciting way. The highway is being reconstructed at a much less obtrusive scale, even tunneling underground in two spots to allow for greater access at the pedestrian level.
Another remarkable thing about each of these redevelopment projects has been their effect on traffic congestion. In each case, a large highway was removed to make way for more pedestrian-friendly public spaces. And in each case, traffic engineers measured a decrease in traffic congestion as a result of the projects. As it turned out, the City’s grid system was much more efficient at handling traffic demand than were the highways.
Like Austin, traffic in San Francisco is unbearable. These projects have by no means solved the city’s traffic problems, but the fact that they were able to improve congestion while at the same time creating thriving, beautiful public spaces is worth considering as we tackle similar issues within our own city.