“(The creation of Golden Gate National Recreation Area…would be) a remarkable opportunity to establish a unique national park reserve that will save for the people of the United States and the world a magnificent open space immediately adjacent to one of the major metropolitan regions of the United States.”
- Congressman Phillip Burton, 1971
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was established in 1972 as a new urban park. A timely merging of political, economic, social and environmental forces, occurring in both the Bay Area and the country, paved the way for the creation of the park. The park’s very existence illustrates the power of the environmental conservation movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
Developmental pressures in the Bay Area
During the 1950s and 1960s, San Francisco experienced developmental pressures and shifts in its economy. The rapid development of the Bay Area after World War II was forcing suburban sprawl further and further into what had always been historic farm land. There was growing concern about the diminishing rural countryside.
During this same time frame, the U.S. Army, who had traditionally owned much of the area’s open land, began to identify many of their army bases as surplus. The military, once considered a stable component of the Bay Area’s economy, was now moving its people and its jobs to southern California; as a result, the military began to sell much of its prime real estate to the highest bidder. Real estate developers planned for a large-scale housing community, called Marincello, on former open military land in the Marin Headlands. The plans for over 50 apartment buildings in the pristine open space pushed local environmentalist into action. In San Francisco, large-scale construction proposals at the Presidio and Fort Miley, both undeveloped, picturesque coastal land, also prompted environmental outcries.
Bay Area citizens and local agencies, outraged at the prospect of losing their beautiful and much-loved open space, considered alternatives to the various development proposals. A local activist group, consisting of over 60 Bay Area groups, organized together, calling themselves the “People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area”. This group, together with the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Agency, the San Francisco Park and Recreation Department and Congressman Phillip Burton, began to ask the question: What if this land could be set aside and protected for everyone’s enjoyment? What if the federal government could purchase the land from the military, which spans both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge, and establish it as a national park?
Changes and opportunities in the National Park Service
The National Park Service was also going through some significant policy changes that paved the way for a new national urban park. In 1956, the National Park Service initiated their “Mission 66” program, with a 10 year goal to enhance and expand the national park service system. Because of this program, the National Park Service now had tremendous financial and public support to create new parks. The park service was also analyzing and redefining the purpose and mission of its parks. After re-examining their traditional, rural parks, the service identified most of their visitors as American middle-class families, who could afford the family car and vacation-time that was required to get to these isolated places. During the 1960s, the country’s social upheavals forced the government to recognize the needs of the city’s urban populations as well, understanding that the nation’s bounty needed to be more evenly distributed. There was a new sense through the country that open space, with its restorative qualities, should be made more available to a broader segment of the public; that families who lived in the city shouldn’t have to drive far to get to the coast line or to the mountains. Hence the idea of an “urban park” was born.
Politics at Work
The 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz may have been the political spark that forced all these factors together to create Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In 1963, Alcatraz officially closed as a penitentiary and the government deemed the island as surplus land. While the “The Rock” was viewed as a prize, the daily maintenance of the island was staggering and soon the federal government ran out of ideas for the island’s new use. In 1968, the City of San Francisco expressed interest in developing the property and began to review proposals for new use, including the best one, called “Golden Gate: A Matchless Opportunity”, which proposed a large, regional urban park. In November, 1969, empowered by nation-wide student protests, a group of Native Americans, calling themselves the Indians of All Tribes, INC, occupied the island in protest against the federal laws and policies that affected them.
The Native American’s 17 month-long occupation of Alcatraz, not only highlighted the government’s injustices against their peoples, but also drew the attention of the Nixon administration. The recent political confrontation with the Native Americans brought national attention to Alcatraz and forced the government to solve the future of the property. Perhaps turning the island and all of its neighboring, decommissioned federal land, into a national park, was just the solution. Both Democrats and Republicans were interested in conserving open space and Phil Burton pushed forward his bill, calling for the inclusion of both surplus military land and non-military land. Nixon, who was up for re-election, was encouraged to fly to San Francisco and see the property for himself. After joining a well-publicized tour of the proposed park, Nixon endorsed the bill. On October 27, 1972, President Nixon signed “An Act to Establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area” (Public Law 92-589).
For Further Information and Readings:
Phillip Burton page, to learn about the man with the vision and driving force to create the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton. John Jacobs.University of California Press, Berkeley, California. 1995.
New Guardians for the Golden Gate: How America got a Great National Park. Amy Meyer with Randolph Delehanty. University of California Press, Berkeley, California. 2006.
The New Urban Park: Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Civic Environmentalism. Hal K. Rothman. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. 2004.
The Park that Makes its Own Weather; An Administrative History of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Hal K. Rothman, National Park Service, 2002. (for an on-line version of this document, please visit our Cultural Resources Publications page).
Last updated: January 6, 2016