The mobility of space

Deconstructing the politics of parking in San Francisco
Cars crowd both sides of Dolores

Jason Henderson is standing on Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley, shielding his eyes from the midsummer sun, as he explains how this area, which once lay in the shadowy underbelly of the Central Freeway, was reclaimed as a pedestrian-friendly park.

"In 1989 the freeway went all the way to Turk Street," said Henderson, an assistant professor of geography at San Francisco State University, describing how the raised concrete roadbed, built in the 1950s, cut across this neighborhood and blocked the sky — until the Loma Prieta earthquake hit and damaged the final section so badly it had to be torn down.

That natural disaster triggered a public discussion about the use of the surrounding space, and a 15-year fight that culminated in 2005 in the dedication of the Green, which is part of the Octavia Boulevard Project. Neighbors and business owners pushed the city to convert a damaged freeway into a landscaped park.

That sort of change fascinates Henderson. "I am interested in how people move around cities, and how urban space is configured for movement," he said.

The young professor was raised in New Orleans and wrote his dissertation on transportation and land use debates in Atlanta — which, as Henderson notes, is "the poster child for sprawl but became a hotbed in the '90s of a national discourse about how we should grow, which became this very interesting debate about reurbanizing."

Henderson's research focuses on the politics of mobility. He decided to move to San Francisco in 2003 because he saw it as an opportunity to live in a city where a car is not necessary and to study the history of the city's freeway revolt, which began in the 1960s.

And while he is proud of this park, which was dedicated as Hayes Green then renamed for the late Patricia Walkup, a Hayes Valley resident who tirelessly advocated for the park until her death in 2006, Henderson thinks the local politics of parking have reached "a spatial stalemate."

"During the freeway revolt of the 1960s, San Francisco rejected the freeway but not the automobile," Henderson explained. "But even as San Francisco residents decided that they did not want big gashes of freeway through their waterfront, the Marina, and Golden Gate Park, the city continued to have laws that said every housing unit was to have one parking space.

"So the city adopted a transit-first policy on paper, but didn't take space away from cars. And if you don't do anything, you're not solving the problem."

The problem in San Francisco is what he called the "essentializing of cars."

"A core idea within the parking debate is that there is a universal love affair with the automobile," Henderson explained. "But Obama is downsizing GM and Chrysler, and for the first time since 1960, vehicle miles traveled have started to go down. Until last year, the mantra was that Americans are going to drive. But then we found out that at $4 a gallon, this country freaks out and changes."

Earlier this year, Henderson published a paper that analyzes the city's politics of parking through the lens of two ballot initiatives from the November 2007 San Francisco election.

"San Francisco's parking debate is not just about parking.