A Vision For Transforming San Francisco’s “Unaccepted Streets”

Local_Code.jpgA proposed design for an unaccepted street, from Local Code, courtesy Nicholas de Monchaux

Throughout San Francisco’s history, from the early street grid to the more recent expansion of freeways, slivers of land that don’t fit into the master plans of architects and designers have been cast aside, lumped into a category the Department of Public Works (DPW) refers to as "unaccepted streets." These "paper streets" are mapped but not maintained by any agency. As Chris Carlsson so beautifully chronicled in his Ghost Streets tour, many of these alleys and street stubs are cared for by neighbors and transformed into small gardens or pocket parks.  Many more, however, are forgotten urban scars and latent public space.

Berkeley Professor of Architecture Nicholas de Monchaux estimates that there are 529 acres of unaccepted streets, just over half the land area of Golden Gate Park. In Local Code [PDF], one of six finalists in UCLA’s WPA 2.0 design competition ("Whoever rules the sewers, rules the city"), de Monchaux details his vision for replenishing 1514 of these unaccepted streets by linking contemporary geospatial planning tools with existing public processes through the DPW to implement  "a range of local infrastructural gestures, from soil remediation, to victory gardening, to playgrounds and pastures."  

Local Code borrows from the work of  "anarchitect" Gordon Matta-Clark, who in the early 1970s discovered that New York City auctioned off pieces of unusable land that resulted from surveying anomalies and public-works expansion, so called "gutterspaces," fifteen of which he purchased and developed for Fake Estates, an architectural intervention meant to dissect notions of materiality, property ownership, and prestige.

With Local Code, de Monchaux hopes to accelerate the pace of converting streets into green spaces, particularly in the underserved neighborhoods in the shadows of freeways, where unaccepted streets are abundant.  "If you look at the unaccepted streets, it is like heat map of all the areas with health problems, pollution issues, and neglected spaces," he said.

unaccepted_streets_small.jpgA sampling of DPW’s map of unaccepted streets. Click image to enlarge. Download PDF

"Right now San Francisco has taken a very enlightened view on theses sites," added de Monchaux, who worked with DPW staff while developing Local Code.  "Not only are we not going to stand in your way and tell you that you can’t do it, but we may even be able to dedicate DPW resources to help you."

Professor de Monchaux hopes to capitalize on the DPW’s Street Parks Program, which encourages community members who are dedicated to greening and maintaining an underutilized street to turn it into a park. In early September, after a surge of new parks over the past year, the Street Parks Program completed its 100th Street Park with the completion of a community garden at the corner of Broadway and Himmelman streets in Chinatown.

He sees his parametric design concepts as shortcuts to facilitating the conversion of these spaces. "One of the stopping points is that the community often has to hire a designer for each case. I would love to hire top-notch landscape architects for every one of these projects, but we can’t afford to do that."

Rather, de Monchaux has developed general classifications for the sites based on elevation and topography, microclimate, soil type, hydrology, population density, crime, and access to existing networks of open space and bicycle routes. Using these general ratings, Local Code would provide the building blocks and general principles for transforming the spaces, but would leave the specifics up to community input and process.

With the project, de Monchaux asks how technology might be used to open the designing of the city to its residents: "How might you use important tools like GIS to work the kind of change and hack the city in accordance with the way the city wants to be?"

DPW Director Ed Reiskin, who saw the project for the first time after Streetsblog brought it to his attention, thought the concepts were good. "In the big scheme of things, any idea or process that would turn underutilized spaces into better space, I’m all for.  I think that would be fantastic."

Reiskin reiterated that "unaccepted" does not imply "unused," that even when the city doesn’t maintain a street or alley, the people who live on it often do. Reiskin also placed the Local Code vision for unaccepted streets within the parameters of work the city is doing to reclaim street space for green space.

"There’s a larger theme of things that we’ve been doing independently and ad hoc," said Reiskin. "From Sunday Streets, to Pavement to Parks, to sidewalk landscaping, there is all this public space that has the opportunity to be more useful, more pleasant, all around the city. I kind of see it as all somewhere within the larger realm."

Professor de Monchaux, who is also a regular contributor at the Santa Fe Institute, where he studies complex systems and emergence, sees parallels from biology in the sustenance of urban centers and suggested that the more diverse the uses of urban space, the better it would be for the long-term health of a city in flux. He hoped the tools presented in Local Code would not be used to gentrify the neighborhoods where they are implemented.

"A gentrified neighborhood is a complex ecosystem becoming a monoculture," he said. "Monocultures are fragile–they may be good in the short term, but not forever. When we have cities that are theme parks, they are not going to be able to accommodate change."

"When there is change in living systems, to accommodate these circumstances, the things that were least valuable become the most valuable."

  • The most egregious example of an unaccepted street that I can think of is Townsend St – between 4th and 8th. How can it be that the southwestern blocks leading up to the City’s main train terminal don’t have sidewalks and people are forced to walk in the street with auto traffic. The parking is a complete mess. Funds need to be found to get this street up to par and get sidewalks – nice wide ones – put in. And even better – a 2 lane off street multi-use path going ala the Mission Creek Bikeway plan – http://www.missioncreek.org

    Fix Townsend Now!

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    I am wary of this. Some of these streets have been completely privatized. The one that particularly irks me is Ecker between Folsom and Clementina. The developer of a condo building on that alley simply threw up a locked gate at both ends without DPW cooperation or approval, and without permits, effectively privatizing a public asset. It’s a nice little alley and a part of the Transbay Redevelopment pedestrian improvements, but for now it might as well be in someone’s back yard. The developer, naturally, is not assessed property taxes for this little private thoroughfare.

    So I’m very wary of handing over these streets to private hands. They may be lost to public use forever.

  • Barry Hooper

    Is there a place where one could view the full database in detail (all 1500 acres)? It would be great to identify potential parks in our neighborhood and put the idea into action.

  • This is FASCINATING. Am I reading this correctly, that all of the red streets on the map above are maintained by citizens or companies?

    I live close to one of the streets in questions — Atalaya, near Fulton and Masonic. You’d never know that it isn’t a publicly maintained street; it looks just like any other. (Although there is a garden at the end of it, so I guess that’s kind of unusual.)

    So is the plan to turn as many of these into green spaces as possible? I can’t imagine the people who live on Atalaya would want to give up their parking.

  • Gordon Hansen

    For those interested in San Francisco’s “unaccepted streets,” and especially in efforts to clean up and transform them, please check out the San Francisco Parks Trust (sfpt.org). According to the Trust’s website, the “Street Parks” program “is a partnership between SFPT and the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) to support the development and maintenance of community-managed open spaces on DPW owned properties.”

    Certainly an interesting quirk of City management — but a quirk with plenty of potential for sustainable reclamation and (daresay) beautification.

  • It’s great to see such a powerful statement (“heat map”) about the connections between “unaccepted streets,” health disparities, and environmental issues. Social innovators living and working in the Southeast Sector of the city know these connections to be real. The theory (Broken Window theory) that fixing up these spaces will make much of a difference in people’s lives has been enriched by evidence that building community and raising social capital in a highly localized, grassroots manner is a better starting point. Top-down policy and practice can disappoint, while grassroots generation of social cohesion produces positive health, environmental and other changes more reliably and sustainably. It sounds like “chicken and egg” stuff, but the two approaches prove different in practice.

  • Heather

    These “ghost streets” or “unaccepted streets” as the Department of Public Works calls them, are absolutely fascinating. The neighbors who have decided to engage with these spaces have been really imaginative. This kind of investigation of unusual spaces is exactly what Dubord and the Situationists wanted. They wanted people to seek out alternative possibilities to what exists “through practices such as the derive and pschyogeography ” (Pinder, Visions of the City).The maps that de Monchaux have created are “attempts to ‘undo’ elements of the current socio-spatial order and defend, articulate and promote other values” (Pinder, Visions of the City). In this case, the neighbors took it upon themselves to replenish and maintain their surrounding urban spaces with greenery. De Monchaux’s psychogeographical maps can be used in various hypotheses or attempts to outline new social spaces. The grids of San Francisco were very rigidly planned and implemented, but there are many slivers and nooks of spaces that don’t fit. There are a lot possibilities and opportunities for how these areas can be used, but it requires people to get off of their spectator’s seat and do some wandering. A more mobile engagement with the city allows for people to gain a better understanding how theses space were used in the past and also to imagine multiple future possibilities. It is very much a bottom-up, experimental, social, and local approach to urbanism.

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