Talk of the Mission Town: Dolores Park’s rehab.
by Elizabeth C. Creely
Tuesday, April 28th was hot and clear in San Francisco. Day trippers and sunbathers lolled on the sunny slopes and battered grass of Dolores Park while, a block away, people streamed through the doors of 18 Reasons to talk about the park’s party problem. San Francisco Recreation and Parks was hosting a Dolores Park Action Plan and the room was filling quickly. “Should we utilize another bench?” asked a woman nervously, while the meeting participants signed in and eyed the food: salami, prosciutto, toasted bread, grilled chicken, and a salad of what looked like poached eggs bedded on arugula, all provided by Delfina and Bi-Rite and arranged on a narrow bar inside. “Don’t be shy. Eat the food!” said Shakirah Simley, Community Programs Manager with Bi-Rite. There wasn’t much shyness among the roughly 35 attendees, but there was an air of seriousness, which suited the matter under discussion. The park is nearing the end of a three-year, 20-million dollar upgrade. But the park’s stint in rehab hasn’t stopped the non-stop party: there was an unplanned upgrade in park attendance, too. At least ten thousand people visit the park every weekend, weather permitting. With the amped-up ebullience has come more of everything else, too, including trash which, according to city estimates, costs San Francisco taxpayers 750,000 to clean up.
A PowerPoint presentation played in a loop on a screen in the front of the room. Images of the trashed park alternated with examples of heedless park visitors: there was a shot of someone’s Instagram showing a drained coconut shell lying on the battered green grass of the park. “Rum coconut and mimosas in Dolores Park! We love this place!” read the caption. Another Facebook picture showed four friends, smiling in the sunshine. “We are avid trash collectors. We don’t want the man up our bum,” it said. The “man”- presumably SF Recreation and Parks staff, was being represented that day by a woman, Sarah Ballard, Director of Policy and Public Affairs. “We let you all down,” she said earnestly thus clarifying the heart of the matter. “We got caught flat-footed. We were really confounded by the park’s popularity.” She was, of course, talking about litter.
These days, the park’s popularity is measured by the huge amount of trash left behind by its visitors: 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of trash is scattered among the 14-acre park every weekend by park visitors each weekend day. By comparison, Alamo Square, a city park of similar size, is encumbered with only 2% of the trash that accumulates in Dolores Park. “We feel like this closure has created some opportunities to shift the culture of what’s appropriate at the park,” Ballard said intently. “Our challenge is to keep the good stuff and get rid of the bad stuff.” The problem goes beyond trash cans she said. “More and more and more trash cans can’t solve this.” The SFRP assessed the nature of the trash dumped each weekend and discovered that 65% of the litter could be diverted to landfill. “Right now, that’s not happening,” she said. “But we know that finger-pointing”– she wagged her finger demonstratively at the room- “doesn’t change anything. We need for this to be an organic process. The question is: how do we change the culture of usage at the park?” People nodded their heads vigorously, chewed their bruschetta and took notes.
Two weeks ago, SFRP and Recology launched an “Eco pop up” station, two large recycling and composting dumpsters to Dolores Park to solve the easiest problem first: where to put the coconut shells, beer bottles, plastic cups and other detritus. This is all intended as a prelude to the gradual re-opening of Dolores Park, slated to start sometime in June in two steps. The north side of the park will open in min-June with an ADA-compliant entryway, new lawns, paths and lighting, newly revamped tennis and basketball courts, and new park furniture: benches, picnic tables and bathrooms. “And in case you haven’t heard, Dolores Park will have the first open-air pissoir in San Francisco,” said Ballard. A woman raised her hand with an air of urgency.
“Will there be new bathrooms for woman?” she asked. (The answer was yes).
“And maybe some attendants,” called out a SF Parks and Rec staffer from the back of the room.
“With perfume and stuff?” Patti Lord, a resident, asked skeptically. (The question was left unanswered.) The south side of the park will then close. “But the playground will remain open the entire time,” said Ballard emphatically.
Velina Brown of the San Francisco Mime Troop put her hand up. “I’m here to find out if the Mime Troop will be able to open on July 4th, as we have done for many years,” she said.
“Let’s talk offline after the meeting,” proposed Ballard. She then introduced Ben Lawhon, Education Director from the Colorado-based organization Leave No Trace: Center for Outdoor Ethics, which has contracted with San Francisco Parks and Rec as a consulting organization. “It’s great to see so many of you,” he said. Lawhon, a square-jawed man, wearing an orange corduroy shirt, added: “Clearly this is a park people love.” His slide show also included pictures of Dolores Park’s thick layer of people and litter. “I think you probably recognize these pictures,” he said jokingly. He cleared his throat. Eighty-five percent of the “litter issues” is about behavior, Lawhon said. Peer-to-peer outreach and self-policing by other park visitors is critical to making change happen. “Changing culture is about helping people understand, that, hey. It’s not cool to trash the park,” Lawhon concluded.
“Has this worked in other places?” inquired someone skeptically.
“Yes. But it’s about changing culture,” Lawhon replied. “We gotta take the long view.” Rob Lord raised his hand. “We’ve been hearing about strategies,” he said. “But not about tactics. I want to hear the five things that are gonna be accomplished by the time the park opens. Can we hear some specifics, please?”
Flyers were quickly handed out detailing the specifics; a campaign launching in May called “Use the Can”, which combines public outreach, added service and rules enforcement to “keep Dolores clean and beautiful.” There are three participation levels the community can choose: Park Visitor, Friend or Champion, each with it own level of participation. Visitors can use social media—”our goal is to create content you can share,” said Ballard— and campaign posters to boost the campaign’s visibility. Friends can add the step of using stickers to place on merchandise that are being brought to the park, and Champions can choose to take the bold step of volunteering in the park on the weekend to “actively meet with, inform and urge park goers” to use the added trash receptacles and abide by the principles outlined by Leave No Trace which are, according to their website “To protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly while enjoying the park.”
“We are asking organizations and groups to pick Saturday or Sunday to go into the park and urge people to use the can,” said Ballard. The meeting broke up after viewing a CAN-paign public service announcement, featuring the Knights of Revery.
Afterward, the Lords seemed doubtful. “I’ll do it,” said Rob, speaking about the campaign. “But I didn’t hear about a service commitment that’s going to be commensurate with increased usage. We’re sixty days from the launch of a major renovation. Park maintenance could have increased before the renovations started.” His wife agreed. “I see a lot more people with tour books. I think it’s a by-product of tourism. More people. And we’re Leave No Trace’s first city partner! I think they’re cutting their teeth on us. Why hasn’t the city spoken with someone from a city where they’ve already dealt with density?” Rob shook his head. “I think we’re in for a bumpy ride,” he said.
Inside, Velina Brown was waiting for her offline conversation with Ballard. “I still don’t know if we’re going to be opening on July 4th,” she said. “Our audience is a usually about 3,000 people. They’re completely dwarfed by the other people who are usually drunk and belligerent. And they’re not paying attention because they have their own sound system without permits! As a permitted event, we get there at 8 am in the morning to set up, to take care of that space. So how does being a permitted event benefit us?”