In 2006, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made Golden Gate Park officially car-free on summertime weekends. According to the city’s own report, recreational attendance at the park has doubled and tripled on these “healthy weekends”. More than twelve million people had already been visiting in a typical year.
Golden Gate Park is a rectangular strip of land slightly larger than New York City’s Central Park; it’s 3 miles long and half a mile wide. The park was proposed in the late 1860s when San Francisco’s rapid urban growth was leaving little green space. In 1868, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved converting the city’s “Outside Lands” – sand dunes along the seashore — into miles of lush green space. They hoped this would provide a natural haven for city dwellers while drawing realty investment to the mostly uninhabited western part of the city.
However, supervisors were presented with two obstacles: 1) squatters who were already living on the dunes, and 2) the sandy soil and harsh ocean winds. After a long legal battle, resistant squatters relinquished 10% of their claimed landholdings. This allowed the city enough land to proceed with park development.
After these homesteaders turned the land over to the city, some people insisted that the land was too salty, sandy, and windy for vegetation. A newspaper editorial smirked, “A blade of grass cannot be raised without four posts to keep it from blowing away.” Nevertheless, under the guidance of engineer William “Ham” Hall and Scottish-trained gardener John McLaren, the city’s workers persisted and vegetation took root. A barricade was erected to block wind from Ocean Beach, and by 1879 about 150,000 trees were helping to stabilize the dunes. These trees were mostly eucalyptus, pine, and cypress. McLaren eventually diversified the park by collecting plants from almost every country in the world.
In 1903 two windmills were installed to help water the greenery. Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina later presented the park with a flower garden including tulips from the Netherlands; her park is adjacent to one of the Dutch-style mills. McLaren designed the park to look rustic, or as much like a natural woodlands as possible. Gently winding roads allowed for carriages, pedestrians, and bikers to comfortably enjoy the scenery. Nine lakes and ponds were scattered about for nature lovers. There’s also wildlife to be seen throughout the park, from ducklings to a herd of buffalo.
The commitment to a natural-looking park meant that buildings would be limited. A conservatory was erected in 1877 and a music stand was completed five years later. A few more structures came in 1894 when the park was showcased in California’s first Midwinter Fair. This exposition and carnival was meant to boost tourism and the general economy. Horse stables and a five-acre Japanese Tea Garden were constructed to impress visitors.
The M. H. de Young art museum appeared by 1895; it later underwent quake-proofing and other major renovations, and it re-opened in 2005. The top floor of the museum offers a spectacular view of the city through all-glass walls. On a clear day, observers can see the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin headlands, Coit Tower, and surrounding residential neighborhoods.
By 1886, a typical San Francisco weekend would include tens of thousands of people traveling to the park by streetcar. Ever since then, Golden Gate Park has been a popular destination for picnics, playgrounds, and strolls. A parking lot across from Sixth Avenue is traditionally claimed by roller skaters with boom-boxes. The park also has many areas reserved for sports as diverse as archery, fly-fishing, disc golf, and volleyball. Golden Gate Park also has a tradition of large public gatherings, many of them free. The 1967 Summer of Love took place mainly in the park and the nearby Haight Ashbury neighborhood. The Speedway Meadow has long been a popular concert venue, and nowadays a large free bluegrass festival is held in the park every October. The San Francisco Parks Trust offers free walking tours of Golden Gate Park year-round.