Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Crissy Field Promenade

Along with Levi’s Plaza and a few other sites in the downtown area, on the landscape architecture bicycle tour I also showed the group Crissy Field. Most of them had been there before, but it has in interesting history and it offers a nice contrast with Levi’s Plaza. It’s one of the most popular sites in San Francisco, but the design is subtle, building meaning out of simple materials and broad, easily overlooked gestures. Levi’s Plaza is about intricate detailing, the designer working with the masons so that every brick, granite paver, and boulder aligns to the quarter inch. It’s hand-crafted; the size of a brick is designed to fit in a mason’s hand and some of the granite deliberately shows the marks of the masons’ handheld chisels. And though the plaza has a framed view of Coit Tower, the design is about creating a self-contained space and to some extent shutting out the city — the fountains counteract traffic noise, trees screen undesirable parts of the views, walls and bollards protect from vehicles. Crissy Field is a bigger landscape, operating on a more expansive scale. The tool of its creation is the bulldozer, and it builds meaning out of its grading, the excavator digging out the marsh, the grader leveling the lawn. It’s a transparent design, a design that directs people’s gaze outwards to the San Francisco landmarks — the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the downtown skyline — rather than inward on itself. And just as the views open to the bay, the history of the site extends beyond its edges, to the Bay Area’s evolving cultural ideas about progress and the natural world.

Aerial View on Crissy Field, 1921–1923, National Archives, public domain

Douglas O-25 at Crissy Field, National Park Service, GGNRA

To give a quick overview of Crissy Field’s history: It was originally a tidal wetlands; native Americans collected shellfish and maintained camps in the area. Around 1776, the Spanish set up the Presidio, a military outpost, on the adjoining land. The US army took over the Presidio in 1846 and began filling the wetlands with rubble, culminating in 1915 with the establishment of an airfield there for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Expo. The site saw some historic flights in its early years but never worked well as an airfield — it’s on the leeward side of a hill beside the air tunnel formed by the golden gate — and the airfield was little used after 1936 and closed in 1974. In the 1990’s, the army turned the Presidio over to the park service and Crissy Field underwent a major renovation, restoring the airfield to its original configuration and recreating a tidal marsh on the site. It’s now one of the most popular recreation areas in San Francisco.

It’s understandable that people’s first instinct was to fill the bay and create land that could be used for things like an airfield. Massive sections of the bay are only twelve to eighteen inches deep, and a lot of land that we now take for granted was originally water or swampy land. In fact, most of the bicycle tour in downtown San Francisco and along the waterfront was over areas that were formerly water, and in fact workers building Levi’s Plaza discovered a buried shipwreck from the gold rush era while they were excavating the site. Past generations considered the swampy, shallow edges of the bay to be worthless, so they steadily filled them in, turning the wetlands into what they considered valuable land. More than one third of the bay was turned into land — there’s a great map of it here — and at one point the Army Corps of engineers estimated that another third could be converted as well.

Crissy Field Promenade and Marsh, Click to Enlarge

That attitude — memorably challenged by the ‘Bay or River?’ campaign — began to change in the 1960’s with the growth of the environmental movement, the foundation of Save the Bay, passage of environmental laws, and the creation of state agencies to regulate the treatment of the bay and other waterways. People began to value the bay and want to preserve it. And while there were many important moments in that movement, the recreation of the marsh at Crissy Field — turning 18 acres of usable land in San Francisco into a tidal marsh — marked an important inflection point in the treatment of the San Francisco Bay. Previously the Save the Bay movement had only blocked filling the bay, but with Crissy Field marsh, land was given back to its waters. Later wetland projects such as the ongoing restoration of the salt ponds in the south bay owe much of their provenance to the success of the Crissy Field marsh.

But even as I talk about the importance of the marsh, the founding of Save the Bay, and the development of the wider environmental movement, it was also important that the renovation project in the 90’s did not erase the site’s history as an airfield. The first dawn-to-dusk transcontinental flight, the first round-the-world race, and the first non-stop flight to Hawaii are just some of the important events in its history as an airfield. The lawn is an important interpretive element for that history. People can stand on the lawn and imagine what it might have been like to take off from the site in an old propeller plane. And just as the lawn helps people interpret the aviation history, it also helps them understand how people in the past (and to some extent still today) viewed and treated the San Francisco Bay. They wanted to convert it into usable space. They used to fill the bay, but now we try to preserve and honor it. Seeing the marsh and the airfield side by side — the flat mono-culture of the lawn allowing people to walk their dogs and play frisbee versus the rich habitat of the marsh that is inviting to plants and animals but features signs telling people to keep out — tells the story of the tensions that are present even in land use decisions today. There’s probably no better place to stand and talk about the evolution of cultural attitudes towards the natural world than on the promenade beside the marsh and the airfield.

I mentioned that the meaning of this site is expressed through landscape architecture’s most fundamental element, grading. The site is graded so that the lawn is at eye level as you walk or ride along the promenade, a deliberate design move to highlight the historical feature. It’s a simple, basic principle: if you want people to pay attention to something, whether it’s a product in a store or a historic airfield in the landscape, raise it up to eye level; there’s no better way to establish it in a person’s consciousness. The bare, unornamented and unplanted, dirt bank is also a deliberate design move. This site, the land you walk or ride on, was created by dumping soil on top of the bay. The long naked bank subtly reinforces that.

The last element I talked about with the folks on the tour is that the promenade is a key stretch of a popular bicycle route that helps create many people’s mental image of the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of the people you see are locals, but a high percentage are on rented bicycles, tourists who rent bicycles at the ferry building downtown, ride along the Embarcadero, pass Fort Mason and Marina Green, ride the promenade, cross the Golden Gate bridge, and end their ride in Sausalito, where they catch a ferry back to their starting point or turn around and ride back the way they came. It’s a classic sequence, and the promenade is arguably the best section. Certainly, it’s memorable to cross the Golden Gate bridge, but it’s not always an enjoyable experience. The path on the bridge is narrow and noisy, and there’s often conflict, spandex-wearing cyclists raging at dawdling tourists. Other sections have their own challenges. Fort Mason and Fort Point have hills, and the Embarcadero has traffic. The promenade is the part of the route where everyone can relax; it has no cars and it’s wide enough for bikes and pedestrians to peacefully co-exist. That might not seem like such a brilliant design move, but it’s surprisingly rare and undeniably effective. Sometimes all you need for a great design is a wide enough path and a long clear view of the Golden Gate Bridge, simple elements that can create a complex sense of place and a strong cultural landscape identity.

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