San Francisco's parks:
Public space or corporate occupied territory?
Yerba Buena Gardens looks like a public park; has grass, trees,
open spaces etc.
But don't be fooled by appearances, this park is managed and operated
like a private corporate asset.
Photos by John-Marc Chandonia
By Erika McDonald, special
to Fog City Journal
July 27, 2007
San Francisco's parks are some of the city's greatest assets,
providing a place for recreation, entertainment and interacting
with fellow community members. As citizens prepare to participate
in Mayor Gavin Newsom's upcoming
community forum to discuss improvements in local parks, there
is some concern regarding partial or complete privatization of
some park developments.
The Green Party has
a long history of engaging in outreach activities in San Francisco's
many public parks. These activities have included setting up a
banner and ironing boards or portable tables with various materials
such as flyers, voter registration forms, and buttons. We often
call this organizing effort "tabling." For several years
running, we have had a visible presence at Dolores Park for the
annual Independence Day premiere performance of the San Francisco
The Green Party were present
at this year's Independence
Day festivities in Dolores Park.
Recent events involving limitations on this type of political
activity at Yerba Buena Gardens (YBG), however, have given us
pause. Volunteers from the San Francisco Green Party came to this
location on July 21 with the intention of engaging in political
outreach with audience members present for the Mime Troupe show
that day. According to Sue Vaughan, co-chair of the Green Party's
Grass Roots Outreach Working Group (GROW), she and her fellow
GROW members were "swarmed" by security personnel and
told that these activities were not allowed.
The volunteers obeyed YBG security staff, and left the park to
return our political materials to the Green Party office on Howard
Street. Returning later to watch the Mime Troupe performance,
our members requested additional information regarding the rules
and regulations at YBG. This is when the card pictured below was
obtained from security.
We were quite surprised to see the regulation prohibiting "posting
signs or distributing flyers without a permit". Banning the
distribution of flyers without a permit is a drastic departure
from Section 7.08 of the San Francisco Municipal Park Code, which
"No permit may be required to engage in petitioning, leafletting,
demonstrating or soliciting so long as engaging in any of these
activities, or any combination of these activities, does not involve
50 or more petitioners, leafletters, demonstrators, or solicitors
at the same time within an area circumscribed by a 500-foot radius,
provided, however, that a permit is required to solicit in the
Music Concourse Area of Golden Gate Park."
Section 7.02 (G) of the park code defines leafletting as "distributing
leaflets, handbills, notices or any written material to the public."
This definition would therefore clearly include the distribution
The rules on the card we were given are different from those
that are posted at various entrance points to YBG.
The sign does not mention the regulation barring "posting
signs or distributing flyers without a permit".
Yerba Buena Gardens is a public park on city-owned property,
but YBG is under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Redevelopment
Agency and not the Recreation and Parks Department. YBG is a "privately
managed and maintained property", as also stated on the card.
In the days following the July 21 incident, I spoke at length
with Mary McCue, General Manager for MGM Management Group, regarding
the rules and regulations for YBG. She told me that Yerba Buena
Gardens does in fact follow the San Francisco Municipal Park Code,
be viewed in its entirety online.
After speaking with Mary, I familiarized myself with the park
code. I later brought it to her attention that the rule barring
flyer distribution without a permit, as stipulated on the card
we were given, contradicts the park code. She then told me by
email that "the code did change with regard to the flyer
distribution and we need to update that card." According
to the park rules posted online, however, Section 7.08 quoted
above has been in place since 1981.
Also at issue is why security personnel told our volunteers that
YBG was a "private park" and that "no political
activity" was allowed.
Indeed, our investigation into the rules at Yerba Buena Gardens
raised as many questions as it answered. Adding to confusion over
park rules is the fact that members of the Green Party have had
difficulty engaging in political outreach at YBG before. In 2006,
Green Party Congressional candidate Krissy Keefer visited YBG
to distribute flyers, and was told that such activity was not
allowed. Krissy obeyed orders, but later saw then-Democratic Party
Assembly candidate Fiona Ma leafleting. After some intervention
on her behalf, Krissy was able to resume campaigning.
The Green Party certainly respects the work that goes into keeping
YBG and all parks attractive and useful spaces for the public.
I made it clear to Mary McCue when we spoke that our goal is to
understand the rules and to honor them. Regulations relating to
conduct in the parks need be consistent, fair and properly enforced.
The broader issue here is the future of political speech in San
Francisco's parks. Complete privatization of parks clearly threatens
the free speech rights of citizens. The experience of Green Party
members at Yerba Buena Gardens seems to suggest that private management
of parks may be a step in this direction.
Numerous projects are currently being developed under the purview
of San Francisco's Redevelopment Agency, and many of these projects
purport to include "public" and/or "open"
space. The question is if these public spaces, which may also
be managed by private firms, will allow for what should be First
Amendment protected activity.
In fact, private management over public space could quickly become
the norm. If so, will these firms be required by law to follow
the park code? What accountability mechanisms will be in place
to ensure that the rules are properly enforced? These are just
some of the questions free speech advocates should be asking as
the new development projects move forward.