Using water to redefine a place San Francisco, CA


The Parkmerced Vision centers the ecology of nearby Lake Merced in its plan for a more sustainable community. Photo: Maximus Real Estate Partners

Parkmerced’s apartment buildings will be designed by different architectural firms to maintain diversity of styles and approaches. Photo: Maximus Real Estate Partners


Parkmerced, located in the Southwest corner of San Francisco, was built from 1942-1951, just as the dream of suburbia was taking hold in the United States. Promoted as “restful suburban living in the heart of the fabulous city by the Golden Gate,” it came complete with unique block and street patterns, golf courses, and car-centric design. Parkmerced is one of eight similar developments in San Francisco.

Lake Merced initially served as the emergency source of drinking water for San Francisco, but today, Parkmerced’s non-porous pavements and pipes channel stormwater directly into the city sewers, preventing 75-80 million gallons of stormwater from reaching Lake Merced annually. In turn, this requires an additional 55 million gallons of water from surrounding communities to be flown in each year for the Lake to maintain a sustainable water level. Parkmerced also experiences sewage overflows during wet weather, sometimes severe enough to cause sewage water to run in the opposite direction.

By contrast, the Parkmerced Vision redevelopment plan proposes to treat the ecology of Parkmerced as a “complete performative ecological system,” not only for stormwater management but for other elements to create more sustainable living patterns. Beginning in 2005 and for several years after, the Parkmerced Vision team conducted more than 500 outreach meetings with residents and community members to create a plan that examines every part of the neighborhood as a total environment both above and below ground.

Developed by the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, under the leadership of Craig Hartman, the new plan aims to significantly reduce household water use and waste, as well as energy use. It will cut automobile trips by 50 percent per household. Together, these changes contribute to the plan’s goal of creating the first carbon net-zero development of its kind in the United States.

One key to the plan’s goals of reducing car trips and increasing walking is to break down large blocks to create a finer street pattern and establish a “social heart” for Parkmerced, while also more than doubling the housing density and adding neighborhood retail, offices, schools, community centers, and new open spaces and parks. Landscaping features will be designed to recapture stormwater onsite, for example by daylighting all of the stormwater collection sites as attractive natural areas, and connecting different open spaces and parks throughout the development. These changes will create a complete, continuous system that can conduct stormwater to a nature corridor, eventually filtrating back into the Lake Merced watershed, to replenish the diminishing lake.

In 2016, Parkmerced broke ground for first five new residential developments, designed by different firms and featuring context-sensitive landscaping. Over time, the plan will reintroduce the natural ecology of Lake Merced back into the neighborhood, showing how a community can learn to integrate the natural environment into its character, and work with respect to its past as well as regard for its future.

For more information about the Parkmerced Vision, visit its website.

Taylor Griggs is an undergraduate student at DePaul University, completing a degree in Urban Sociology & Geography.