PARKLIFE: Another Tech Chapter for San Francisco’s Historic South Park

160127_2--Main-Plaza

San Francisco’s South Park has long been considered the heart of the city’s tech revolution. When the federal government passed the Telecommunications Act in 1996, freaks and geeks spilled out of long-forgotten Internet startups to celebrate in South of Market’s 550-foot-long oval green space. Now, a redesign of the park by San Francisco–based Fletcher Studio proves a model for bringing together landscape and digital design.

Dating back to the 1850s, South Park was developed as a private green encircled by residences following an archetypical English design. Although lore says that a windmill pumped water to the surrounding houses, with the exception of the oval curb, none of the original structure remains. Fletcher Studio’s scheme features winding paths, seating, and a custom play structure that honors the British origin story. “The design is a meander, a recreation of the picturesque which started in England,” said designer David Fletcher. “It’s about moving through the space and creating framed views.”

The South Park Improvement Association, a neighborhood nonprofit organization led by architect Toby Levy, developed a short list of designers and raised funds to commission Fletcher Studio to develop a master plan. Initial designs led to community meetings and discussions with the city, eventually resulting in funding from the San Francisco Parks Alliance and a million dollar San Francisco Recreation and Parks bond allocation in 2012. The total cost of construction is estimated at $2.8 million. Groundbreaking took place in early November and construction is expected to finish summer 2016.

Fletcher addressed the pragmatics of long-term maintenance and ADA accessibility with a simple design: A single path made out of cast in place concrete “planks” winds across the park, widening into small seating areas around the curves. Low concrete walls thicken to make small stages or informal benches. “It looks like a bone field—an articulated skeleton,” he explained of the vertebrae-shaped forms. Once constructed, sod and variegated native and nonnative plantings will create a drought tolerant landscape.

Central to the scheme is a custom play structure designed by Fletcher Studio and built by Berliner and Miracle Play Systems. According to Fletcher, it is a perfect geometry in plan, but things get wild in the third dimension. Renderings show roller-coastering steel tubes jutting from the earth and supporting play nets and swings. He admits that at $80,000, the play structure costs close to three times more than an off-the-shelf version. Yet he believes it was critical to getting the community engaged with the design process and also helped raise capital. “If you come up with a custom design that people are excited about and it is unique part of the place, people come up with the funding,” he noted.

The whole park design was generated in Grasshopper and the firm used a responsive 3-D model throughout the process. Although Fletcher considers the design an analog process, his team retroactively built a parametric model of the park in order to test circulation flows and relationships to crosswalks and existing trees. The firm is also using video game engine and 3-D software to visualize the experience of moving through the park. “The days of laboring over a single image are over,” he explained. “It’s our fantasy to go to a community meeting and put on a headset.”

Mimi Zeiger
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