Getting lost and finding myself in San Francisco


For the next week or so I have a packed timetable of study visits, interviews and tours. I’m going to be meeting with academics, artists, practitioners and community leaders to find out more about how they do things at Oakland Museum, Yerba Buena Arts Centre, Exploratorium’s Office for Public Spaces and MAH Santa Cruz.

Since arriving in the City by the Bay, I’ve explored some of the wonders of Golden Gate Park and flagship arts organisations like SFMOMA.

I’ve been impressed with the commitment to sustainability and research throughout the building and work of California Academy of Sciences (above) and immersed myself in the nostalgia of the Summer of Love Experience at the beautiful de Young Museum. Here was the San Francisco of yesteryear; counter-cultural, with artists and activists at the forefront of political and social change. 50 years on, I wandered through an exhibition devoted to the art, fashion and rock and roll of 1967,  surrounded by the baby-boomers who had been there, done that.

But now, after a weekend of sightseeing and exhibitions, a day of doing things differently. Channelling my inner Walt Whitman and inspired by John Muir,  I decided to wander, get lost, see where I ended up.

“I only went for a walk….for going out I found was really going in” (John Muir)

I set off, with no destination in particular, heading west. Eventually I came across Mountain Lake, one of the last natural lakes in San Francisco. 200 years ago, San Francisco was full of freshwater habitats, creeks and ponds.  After many years of neglect, Mountain Lake is now being revived as a valued part of the city’s natural heritage.


It’s a long term project, still in its early days, that brings together park staff, scientific partners and hundreds of community volunteers.  Mountain Lake sits within the Presidio of San Francisco, a park and former U.S Army military fort on the northern tip of the peninsula, part of the Golden Gate Park Recreational Area.   After a hard-fought battle, the Presidio averted being sold at auction and came under the management of the Presidio Trust.  The Trust now manages most of the park in partnership with the National Park Service. The Presidio Trust Act called for “preservation of the cultural and historic integrity of the Presidio for public use.” This includes the restoration, care and lease of over 800 buildings.  The Act also required that the Presidio Trust be financially self-sufficient by 2013. How to balance the needs of preserving the integrity of the National Historic Landmark District in the face of new construction, competing pressures for natural habitat restoration, and requirements for commercial purposes is an ongoing concern.  But this afternoon, with tule reeds blowing in the breeze and red-winged blackbird (in the photo) within arms length, the gains and potential for both nature and people are clear.

Aside from Golden Gate park , the Presidio and a small number of neighbourhood and pocket parks, it strikes me that the predominant public space in San Francisco is the sidewalk. As I walk around the city, I keep spotting planted trees with large green bags and Friends of the Urban Forest signs, on the pavements and beside roads.


Friends of the Urban Forest ( was set up after the City and County of San Francisco cut funding to urban forestry in the late 1970’s.  With some leftover funding from city grant money, George Williams hired Michelle Anderson and they decided to take matters into their own hands by organizing neighborhoods to plant and care for their own trees.

Today, FUF is a thriving nonprofit organization committed to revitalizing San Francisco’s urban forest, building community, and taking a local leadership role in mitigating global environmental problems through the simple act of planting trees. FUF has planted more than 50,000 trees, has a strong partnership with the City and County of San Francisco, is well loved among San Franciscans, and has an outstanding reputation among urban-forestry organizations nationwide.

It has a Youth Tree Care program (now called Green Teens), one of the nation’s few paid urban forestry vocational skills training programs. It has just launched The Urban Forest Map, an online database and map of San Francisco’s trees. Anyone can look up — or add — information about trees, such as their location, health, species and more. And there is even an additional call to action;

if you have a lemon tree, be sure to add it to the Urban Forest Map so it can be counted in the Just One Tree campaign, which aims to make San Francisco self-sufficient in its lemon needs and serve as a model for how a city can grow more food locally.

The street tree is an often overlooked but significant public asset (please take note Sheffield). So what would a scaled-up call to action look like in UK?  The timing is critical.  Tree planting is at an all-time low.  It makes me think of Manchester’s City of Trees, which sets to re-invigorate Greater Manchester’s landscape by restoring underused, unloved woodland and planting a tree for every man, woman and child that lives in the City Region, within a generation.  The stories of their planting is the heritage of the future, as much as the trees themselves.

Onwards, past yet more trees, until I reach a destination of sorts and the end of my day’s wanderings, the Legion of Honour (art museum).  Outside, a plaque catches my eye. The joy of happenstance again.


Frances E Willard, it turns out, was an American educator, temperance reformer and womens suffragist.  She developed the slogan “Do Everything” for the Womens Christian Temperance Union, encouraging its membership to engage in a broad array of social reforms through lobbying, petitioning, preaching, publishing, and education.  Her vision encompassed  labor reforms and the global expansion of women’s rights. She was instrumental in the passage of the Nineteenth (Womens Suffrage) Amendment to the US Constitution. Its yet another reminder how interconnected we are.  I’m not so far from Manchester (home of the suffragettes) after all.


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