Sometimes the most important attribute of a place is what it’s missing. In Dolores Park, one such invisible factor is its lack of barriers. Clearly, this improves the view, but it also has powerful effects on other aspects of park life.
If you spend a whole day, or a whole year, in the park, you’ll see how variable the usage is. In the morning, dogs run across vast fields that by the afternoon are covered with picnic blankets. Some days three or four bands or shows are simultaneously in action in their own nook, yet several times a year a sea of people covering the entire hillside is watching a movie or symphony or rock band or drag show. Where a bouncy castle is one day, a game of croquet or fetch or a birthday party piñata or a food kiosk or drum circle or slack line or studious sunbather will be the next.
This variety is only possible because the park is, for the most part, undivided space. The meadows and groves and hillsides flow into one another, split only by the 19th Street walkway. This lack of explicit differentiation lets people do what comes naturally, looking for either solitude or companionship or entertainment, and at every moment a near-optimal organization emerges. This allows a park covering merely two city blocks to feel much larger. If there are a lot of picnickers, the dogs consolidate uphill; if there are none, they roam. If there’s a band playing at one side and you don’t like the music, you can spread your blanket in a quieter area — no matter which side the band chose. And where there are differences, like a gentle slope or a shade tree, they help people find their own spots naturally, without imposed conventions like “all BBQs go here” or “all bands go there”.
This effect is unique in the city. Even Golden Gate Park comprises mostly divided groves and meadows; yet despite this small-park feel, some lawns are too big to find a friend without GPS coordinates. But while Dolores Park feels big, it’s actually small enough to walk an entire circuit in 15 minutes. And with line of sight mostly unobstructed, you can discover with a glance if there’s something cool happening not too far away.
Necessary and exciting improvements are on their way. Let’s hope that in improving this shared space we don’t lose the subtleties that make it worth improving.