Presidio Tunnel Tops Park supports an inclusive future

Favianna Rodriguez grew up in East Oakland, in a polluted neighborhood with very few trees and few places to play outside. It’s a city she continues to call home.

“The reality in this country for so many people of color is not having access to nature,” says Rodriguezactivist and artist. “My dream is to create art in beautiful natural spaces – art that is also an invitation to play and reimagine those spaces.”

Rodriguez’s dream comes true. This weekend, Sunday July 17, the new 14 Acres Tunnel Peaks Park opens to the public in the Presidio of San Francisco, a former military base transformed into an urban national park that welcomes around 10 million visitors a year. The Presidio spans 1,500 acres, or about 5% of San Francisco, spanning the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The opening day of the innovative eight-year park will include a National Park Service ranger conference at the campfire circle, food, and music and dance performances. Among the new attractions, Tunnel Tops features vibrant, larger-than-life exterior murals by Rodriguez, titled Ancestral Futurism. One of the murals includes a banner reading “Welcome to the Homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone”, referring to the indigenous people who first lived on the San Francisco Peninsula. The vibrant and colorful artwork is part of the Presidio’s effort to reimagine what it means to be an accessible and inclusive urban national park. The design process for Tunnel Tops was built around input from San Franciscans who have historically unwelcome to the Presidency.

Tunnel Tops cost $118 million to build, including $20 million in public funding from the Presidio Trust and $98 million raised by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

The park extends atop the tunnels containing Roaring Highway 1, connecting the San Francisco Bay coastline and restored tidal marshes to the rest of the Presidio.

Tunnel Tops Park covers the tunnels of Highway 1, connecting the San Francisco Bay shoreline and tidal marshes to the rest of the Presidio and allowing pedestrians and wildlife to pass through safely. A free shuttle to downtown San Francisco and extended MUNI Routes 43 and 30 will allow residents without a car to reach Tunnel Tops from other parts of the city. (Photo by James Corner Field Operations)

“The opportunity arose to create a gateway to the Presidio, to connect the historic heart and the wild edge of the park,” says Michael Boland, Head of Park Development and Visitor Engagement for the Presidio Trust.

Tunnel Tops create a safe passage on the highway for pedestrians, plants and wildlife. Lew Stringer, Presidio naturalist and consultant on Tunnel Tops flora, prioritized choosing plants that would help make the park a wildlife corridor and haven for pollinating insects.

“When the highway separated this area, it really created an ecological disconnect,” says Stringer. “We want these plants to create an inviting landscape that will look like a beautiful garden.”

The Tunnel Tops embankment is dotted with native coastal scrub species such as sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and self-healing purple flowers (Sloe vulgaris), as well as drought-tolerant non-native trees and shrubs. Nearly two miles of wide, curving pathways meander through the gardens past iconic views of the Golden Gate, colonial buildings and from an uphill transit stop to a playground and the shoreline of the bay below.

Map of the 14-acre Tunnel Tops Park, which includes meadows, gardens, picnic areas, a natural playground and the Field Station nature learning center. (Photo by Partnership for the Presidio)

Rodriguez hopes his artwork and the design of Tunnel Tops will inspire visitors to connect with nature and their sense of place in new ways, and invite future park project managers to reconsider what a successful park looks like.

“When I think about whiteness and how it works, it’s about imposing a monoculture,” says Rodriguez. “But as an environmentalist, I know that monoculture that’s what kills us. Biodiversity is what we need – and so is representation and cultural diversity. This is what will strengthen the park.

Signs all over the tunnels say Welcome to your national park. But what does it mean to be a national park, especially an inclusive and accessible park, in the densely populated urban San Francisco Bay Area?

In 2021, the Presidio invited 13 community leaders to become the Presidio Activation Board. Activators came together to imagine a national park that would serve their communities and discuss programs, spaces and cultural events that would make visitors feel welcome. Activators represent a variety of communities that have been excluded from national parks, including Indigenous groups, immigrant and refugee rights advocates, environmental justice activists, and neighborhood organizations. As a board member, Rodriguez says the involvement of activators has been transformative.

“Outdoor spaces are trying to build good relationships with communities that weren’t welcome before,” Rodriguez says. “When there’s a goal to invite more communities of color, art and culture, that’s how we do it.”

Rodriguez was surprised by the Presidio’s willingness to make big changes to the design and operation of Tunnel Tops. This includes partnering with community organizations to bring food, hip-hop and festival carts to the park, as well as extending MUNI bus routes 43 and 30 and providing a free shuttle to downtown. city ​​of San Francisco to make it accessible to visitors without a car.

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During the early design stages, the Presidio commissioned five concepts for the Tunnel Tops park. The designs were presented at workshops in parts of the city whose residents have not traditionally visited the Presidio. These were mostly low-income neighborhoods, housing mostly people of color. About 10,000 people from all over San Francisco participated in the design workshop process.

In community workshops, attendees said they wanted Tunnel Tops to be a place where they could bring the whole family for free and spend the day together. They wanted multi-generational activities, beautiful gardens, unique experiences they couldn’t have in their own neighborhood parks, and iconic views.

As a result, the park offers clusters of picnic tables long enough to accommodate family gatherings, a nature center and playground with hands-on activities for kids, and stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge. and Marin Headlands. Nestled in a hilly nook, a ring of fire is surrounded by rocks. Community members wanted a unique experience in a national park, such as naturalist discussions with rangers around a campfire. There are plans for campfire events led by Indigenous storytellers.

Rodriguez says culture is key to changing our relationship with nature and improving accessibility to the park, especially for communities of color.

“The Presidio is beautiful, but it also has this kind of sterile vibe…it reflects a white conservation aesthetic that we’ve seen time and time again in many different parks,” Rodriguez says. “You need more art throughout the park, to make it a more fun and inviting place, and you need more color.”

Rodriguez created temporary murals for Tunnel Tops that will remain in place for three months. The installations are made up of vivid, person-sized stickers created from UV-resistant aluminum that conforms to the texture of the cement underneath. The stickers transform the place between the playground and the nature center into a collage overflowing with organic shapes, enticing plants and animals.

When creating the murals, Rodriguez consulted with leaders of Ramaytush Ohlone, discussing the cultural and ecological significance of local animals and plants. Some of the creatures shown in Ancestral futurism are still around, like hummingbirds and coyotes, but it also features animals that no longer roam the Presidio, like grizzlies and tule elk. In this dynamic patchwork, past and present come together to create a pattern that represents a thriving ecosystem.

Environmental activist and artist Favianna Rodriguez with her art installation Ancestral Futurism, a vibrant collage of colorful organic shapes and local plants and animals from the Presidio’s past and present. (Photo by Alex Grant)

“What Ancestral future means that to look forward, we have to look back,” says Rodriguez. “We need to honor the ancestral wisdom of the region and elevate it, because that’s what will help inform the future.”

The future of San Franciscans’ connection to nature, however, appears to be in jeopardy. In the design workshops, Boland of the Presidio Trust heard deep concerns about urban children growing up cut off from the natural world. As a result, one of the most striking features of Tunnel Tops is the outpost, a playground built from rocks, wood, water, and sand.

Each play structure in the Outpost is based on an element of the Presidio’s history or ecology. For example, one water feature was inspired by the Presidio’s historic role as the original source of San Fansisco’s drinking water. Kids can climb or crawl through a fort made of elegant wooden tangles that mimic the oriole nests found in the palm trees of the Presidio. A 250-year-old oak tree that fell in a storm has been transformed into a climbing structure.

“Climbing a tree is one of those classic experiences,” says Boland. “A child growing up in the Tenderloin – there are no trees to climb. Most city parks don’t allow tree climbing. What we’re trying to do is offer those classic experiences to city children.

Rodriguez was thrilled when, the very day it was installed, the kids started playing on Ancestral futurismjumping from shape to shape.

“I created this art for kids to play with,” Rodriguez says. “I hope they get curious, lie down on the ground next to the mountain lion and wonder who that creature was.”

James C. Tibbs