Some Welcoming Small Public Spaces in San Francisco

Kids at play in San Francisco's popular 24th and York Mini-Park

At L.A. Eco-Village, we’re interested in public space, with some emphasis on how we can give less space to cars and more space to people. A few of the eco-village projects that touch on this include: seating areas (some call an outdoor living room) in our bulb-out, front yard gardens, the Bimini Slough Ecology Park, intersection repair murals and lots of bike activism.

I vacationed in San Francisco earlier this month and I checked out some of their efforts to reclaim public space. A few of these I tracked down specifically having heard about them and wanting to go see them… others I just happened upon. I’ve listed them in the order I encountered them, which doesn’t necessarily make any sense to anyone else. Overall I was impressed with how many folks are out using public space, including walking and bicycling… perhaps the weather had something to do with it (was sunny, clear, cool and a little windy) – all these places were very well-used!

(Apology note: As a tourist, I don’t really know a lot about these projects… and I’ve probably left out critical wonderful background on them… including the folks that made them happen. Thanks to you, apologies for not doing lots of research to write about these more comprehensively.)


I am not 100% sure what this project is generally or officially called… looks like it’s the 17th Street Plaza which is part of the Harvey Milk Plaza project, which I first learned about at S.F. Streetsblog/Streetfilms.

I think that this followed on the successes of Janette Sadik-Khan’s NYCDOT projects that turn street spaces over to sitting, walking and bicycing. Located at the complicated intersection of Castro Street, Market Street, and 17th Street, the city removed cars from one short stretch part of 17th Street. This simplified a lot of turns, and created a small amount of plaza space, which is now shared by pedestrians and streetcars.

Here’s what it used to look like:

What the Castro-Market-17th area used to look like - screen capture from Googlemaps - image is looking west from 17th Street

And here’s what it looked like when I visited this month:

17th Street Harvey Milk Plaza. Image looking west from seat at table at east end of plaza. Note streetcar tracks still in the ground. Pedestrian on left is walking across them.

Basically, the city slapped down some tan-colored paint, some tables, chairs and planters (initially for a short-term reversible trial, later made more permanent) and, more or less, instant plaza!

What I think is interesting about this space is that the streetcar still turns around in it (not in the actual seating area, of course, but through the unimpeded middle area of the plaza.) L.A. is often strict about not wanting to mix modes. Cars, trains, bikes, and peds pretty much must be segregated around here, with lots of signage and rules. But this plaza works well – peds walk across the tracks… a train rumbles through every 5 minutes… and everyone lives to tell the tale.


San Francisco has started to do more permanent versions of Park(ing) Day mini-parks, which they call “parklets.” Parklets are small platforms built in the space of one or two or three on-street parking spaces. They basically extend the sidewalk into the street, creating a small seating area. They’re removable, but they’re in place indefinitely.

Mojo Bicycle Cafe Parklet on Divisadero Street. Photo looking south on Divisadero, Mojo cafe is just to the right, off camera

The first one I read about was at Mojo Bicycle Cafe – a combined restaurant and bike shop – located on Divisadero Street between Hayes Street and Grove Street. That’s along The Wiggle bike route. I, of course, read about this project first at this  S.F. Streetsblog article.

As you can see from the photo, it’s an obvious success. The north end of the parklet is occupied by two bike parking racks (sort of a mini-bike-corral), which were nearly full. Lots of folks hanging out dining and/or sipping coffee at the three tables. I sat at a chair along the storefront, ate and sketched this picture.  The food at Mojo was very good. The bike shop there fixed a small problem with my rear wheel, which took them about 5 minutes… for no charge!

There are now at least 4-5 of these parklets in various S.F. neighborhoods, and an official city process to permit them!


My friend Leigh walked me down Linden Street. This isn’t a huge project, but it made sense to me, so I snapped a few shots and share it here.

Linden Street is located in Hayes Valley, a neighborhood that has seen revitalization (and yes, gentrification) since a stretch of freeway was removed. Linden is less of a street and more of an alley. Linden runs east-west between Hayes Street and Fell Street; this project is at Linden and Gough Street.

This stretch of Linden is just off Patricia’s Green – a park area (that really deserves its own article – maybe next time) of Octavia Boulevard created from the former freeway right-of-way. Linden was home to a few businesses, including a popular Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk (that’s where the folks are standing in line in all the photos below.) Local designers worked with the city to create this project, which opened in 2010.

Through the magic of google maps time-travel, here’s what it used to look like:

Linden Street looking west from Gough - screen capture from Google maps

And here are snapshots of what’s there now:

Linden Alley May 2011 - look ma, no curbs!

I haven’t read too much about this project, but just reading it visually, I saw some great things. There’s a bit of seating, landscaping, bike parking… and there are no curbs! Similar to what I wrote above, the lack of curbs means shared space instead of segregation of uses. The alley has garages, so cars can and do go there… but the drivers need to chill out a bit because they’re sharing the space with pedestrians.

The landscaped areas don’t have curbs either. It looks like they’re designed to soak in at least some of the rainwater runoff. Excellent for reducing pollution in runoff.

Looking at the before and after shots, it’s clearer what made this possible: removing some on-street parking. It looks like not a lot of parking was removed, though. Much of the project works in smaller interstitial spaces between driveways; those spaces are smaller than a parking space.

Another shot of Linden Alley. The yellow bumpy pavement stuff is used at driveways.

Kudos to Winslow Architecture and Urban Design and others responsible for this great small project!


This is one that I just happened on – it’s a bit similar to the 17th/Castro plaza described above – fixing a confusing intersection by closing a street and creating a plaza. It’s located at the three-way intersection where Guerrero Street, San Jose Avenue and 28th Street all converge. From this before image, you can see that there was a lot of unused pavement:

Guerrero Park before - screen capture from Google maps - looking south on San Jose Avenue

This S.F. Streetsblog article describes safety problems (both car crashes and crime – which are related, of course) around the site, and shows the park plans. Basically the city closed a portion of San Jose Avenue, put up barriers (including some felled trees, some planters) to keep cars out, painted the pavement tan, and opened a new Guerrero Park.

Here’s what it looks like now:

Guerrero Park after

The park is very down-to-earth: minimal interventions, salvaged materials. Some signage commemorates the areas’ history, and the city’s Pavement to Parks program.

Guerrero Park - looking north onto San Jose Avenue

On the Saturday afternoon when I biked into Guerrero Park, it wasn’t heavily used for stationary activities; there was only one person sitting at its many benches. (At 17th/Castro there was a wait to get the next available seating… though that’s a commercial area, next to a subway station. Guerrerro at 28th is residential.)

What I did observe is that there were definitely folks walking through Guerrero Park. Some folks were going somewhere, some walking dogs. A couple cyclists cut through it. So the lesson I draw from it is that a street-closure mini-park like this can be as valuable as a walk-transportation-facility as it is as a place.

I tend to think of mini-parks as places to hang out, but, by calming traffic and eliminating cut-through traffic, they can basically be great big, wide, safe, wonderful sidewalks. Perhaps I need to revise my thinking of sidewalks as actual places, too…


This is another site that I don’t know much about. I stumbled across the apparently-newly-renovated 24th and York Mini-Park randomly when I was looking for a place to sit down while I checked out the Sunday Streets route. It’s in the Mission on the north side of 24th Street, just west of York Street.

24th and York Mini-Park is a swinging place

It’s a very small park, mostly a playground, with swing, teeter-totter, a small water feature, and a small picnic area. As you can see from these images, it’s got a lot of beautiful artwork going for it. There are murals on the walls surrounding it, and the centerpiece is a great spiral snake (a bit reminiscent of L.A.’s La Culebra but actually nicer) that serves as art piece and jungle gym.

Mosaic snake at 24th and York Mini-Park

close-up of the beautiful mosaic snake at 24th and York Mini-Park

The site was popular – lots of kids, very happy to be there. I was glad to see a good mix of Latino/a families and white families.


While I was volunteering at Sunday Streets, I chanced upon this small artistic bench on Treat Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets.

Ya Basta bench on Treat Street between 24th and 25th in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood

I don’t know anything about this project… but I really like its spirit. It’s a little reminiscent of City Repair projects – colorful, inspiring, caring.

I am glad to include it here, because I’ve mostly covered city projects. Mostly from the city of San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program – I expect in collaboration with communities and under pressure from activists – but nonetheless city projects. I don’t think that this bench was permitted or created by the city… so it shows that a couple of neighbors or an individual can, without necessarily waiting for the city, creatively work to construction valuable public spaces.

The passage painted on it reads as follows:

¡YA BASTA! [Spanish for enough is enough] making the choice to love can heal our wounded spirits & body politic. It is the deepest revolution, turning away from the world as we know it, toward the world we must make if we are to be one with the planet – one healing heart giving and sustaining life. Love is our hope and our salvation.

Which reminds of one of my favorite quotes. My hero Alice Walker wrote this in The Temple of My Familiar:

To the extent that it is possible … you must live in the world today as you wish everyone to live in the world to come. That can be your contribution. Otherwise the world you want will never be formed. Why? Because you are waiting for others to do what you are not doing; and they are waiting for you, and so on. The planet goes from bad to worse.

And I think that’s a great note to wrap up on… It’s inspiring to see all these small steps that San Francisco is taking to turn away from the destructive and unsafe car-centric world and toward a safer, more free and more loving, human-scaled public sphere.

(This is part four of my recap of my three-day San Francisco vacation. Also see my explanation of great bike facilities, Sunday Streets, and some of my sketches.)

2 thoughts on “Some Welcoming Small Public Spaces in San Francisco

  1. Sa mai spui ca nu e tara geniala. Opozitia se strange in cafenele sa spuna bancuri cu basescu. Sau mai bine spus sa dea pilde. Si cui… Tocmai celor care oricum nu voteaza basescu. Adeavarul e ca si opozitia isi merita soarta. Si probabil si noi odata cu ei. Ptiu.

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