Best Design

Above one of San Francisco’s busiest roads rests an urban oasis.

rosebud awards, 2022, design
Red Nose Studio; James Corner Field Operations

The crunch of footsteps on miles of soft gravel pathways and the squeals of children splashing in kid-size water-pump stations are the primary sounds one hears at Presidio Tunnel Tops, not the constant hums and honks of the cars whizzing directly beneath. Opened in the summer of 2022, the Presidio Tunnel Tops park sprawls across 14 acres of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Much of it, as its name implies, is built over the Presidio Parkway, the stretch of tunneled road that connects drivers from the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. Large patches of manicured lawns, a nature-inspired play space, a wind-protected firepit, and sleek wooden picnic tables now dot what was once an elevated freeway. In San Francisco, where getting things built is almost impossible, the emphasis here on clean, accessible, open space for kids is remarkable.

Ten years in the making, Presidio Tunnel Tops is ultimately the brainchild of, well, almost everyone.

The project was created through a partnership among the National Park Service, the Presidio Trust, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Once the elevated freeway was demolished and rebuilt as tunnels, the Partnership for the Presidio raised $98 million and hired James Corner Field Operations, the team behind New York City’s Highline and Seattle’s Central Waterfront, to develop the park’s design—with anyone else who wanted to chime in. The public was invited to submit ideas in person, online, or at one of 14 community workshops. More than 10,000 people contributed their ideas to the park, along with organizations, schools, government agencies, and nonprofits that offered guidance on ensuring that the space was inclusive and equitable. The Presidio Activator Council, a group of artists, advocates, and leaders working on behalf of communities that have historically been underrepresented in national parks, was formed to brainstorm and lead the opening season of activities and events this past summer.

presidio tunnel tops park
James Corner Field Operations

The result of so many cooks in this kitchen? Success.

The park doesn’t seem nearly as large as it actually is when one arrives at the main entry point, just north of the Presidio’s Main Parade Lawn. The Transit Center, home to the drop-off point for a free shuttle, also features an enclosed dining area and restrooms. Next door, the airy Presidio Visitor Center offers an array of interactive exhibits on the area’s history and nature, all designed for accessibility, including a bronze tactile model of the entire Presidio Tunnel Tops. From here, the park slopes slightly downward toward the San Francisco Bay, and wheelchair-accessible pathways traverse grassy meadows and various seating areas. Ranger-led campfire talks and a hands-on field station provide ready-made activities, as does the Outpost, a nature-themed children’s play area that includes boulders, water tables, and a three-person log swing. Matte-black trash, recycling, and compost bins blend into the scenery; the only pops of unnatural color intentionally designed into the space are bright red café-style tables and chairs sparingly placed (but frequently used) at overlooks and, of course, food trucks.

West of the Visitor Center and the Main Parade Lawn parking area is a fenced-off corner of sidewalk, practically hidden behind one of the Presidio’s historic brick buildings. Here, presumably unplanned, sits a perfect view of cars and trucks zooming into a very busy tunneled freeway. The juxtaposition of unstoppable urban bustle beneath the park’s serenity is mesmerizing. It’s a reminder that an inclusive, accessible, methodically designed space has been prioritized (literally) over a thoroughfare. Teamwork, in this case, did in fact make the dream work.•

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