PEOPLE'S PARK SLATED FOR DESTRUCTION - 2021
A sacred space? A toxic space? A homeless space? A contentious space? A space to be demolished?
Preserving People's Park?
The Importance of Protecting the Legacy and Symbol of Community Participation and Radical Democratization of Space
Alyssa Tohyama, UC Berkeley
Alyssa Tohyama is currently a student at the University of California, Berkeley, pursuing a degree in Architecture with minors in Global Poverty and Practice, History and Theory of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, and Architectural History. She is interested in the overlap between the built environment and inequality and is pursuing a career in creating built solutions for poverty alleviation. She currently works with the unhoused community in the Bay Area doing outreach and meal service.
Social, Cultural, and Political Factors
During the late 1960’s, there was an increase in disdain for modernist, top-down design. An understanding of the faults of technical rationality and its inability to solve social issues led to a rise in community design, which encouraged community participation and grassroots organization.(8)
Berkeley was also a city that was known for its political dissent and counterculture, and had been boosted in the media nationwide during the Free Speech Movement in 1964. Many young people were attracted to the energy and political environment in Berkeley and by 1969, there were 20,000 non-students in their early twenties who had moved to Berkeley.(9) The political environment, the promotion of grassroots organization in design, the influx of highly motivated young individuals in the area, and the desperate need for a green space were all big factors that led to the perfect environment for the creation of a community designed park. All signs pointed to the dilapidated lot in the center of southside Berkeley.
Neglected Lot to Flourishing Park
Block 1875-2 remained undeveloped for almost a year and a half. It was covered in weeds, garbage, and left over debris and foundation material from the demolition. Random junk and trash piled up on the site, and there were potholes everywhere (see fig.1).
Mike Delacour and Wendy Schlesinger, who were both students at Berkeley, got together a group of Berkeley residents and proposed their plan to turn the empty lot into a public park where they could hold various events. They put an ad in The Berkeley Barb (see fig. 2), calling for members of the community to come on April 20, 1969, to help turn the dilapidated lot into a park:
"We we want the park to be a cultural, political freak-out rap center for the Western World..."
Since its inception, People’s Park in Berkeley, California has remained a controversial site. Originally constructed in Spring of 1969 by thousands of members of the surrounding Berkeley community, it was a prime example of the power of community participation and was called the “most significant advance in recreational design since the great parks of the late nineteenth and twentieth century” by Alan Temko, a Pulitzer Prize winner and architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.(1)
The idea of a “people’s park” had existed since the late Cold War era—coalitions and activists were converting empty lots into “liberated zones” as a form of spatial protest. The concept of people’s parks is part of a larger movement of environmentalism and territorial reclamation.(2) Although the property technically belongs to the University of California, Berkeley, it was overtaken and transformed by thousands of members of the Berkeley community, and it continues to function as public space, providing an encampment for Berkeley’s homeless community and a green space for Berkeley’s residents. The university’s plan for converting People’s Park into a student housing/supportive housing hybrid does not actually accommodate the needs of the homeless community, and it threatens the erasure of an extremely significant historical event in Berkeley's history. Ultimately, the site should continue to be open to everyone and should be preserved and maintained both as a historical site as well as one of the last remaining green spaces on the southside of Berkeley.
University Acquisition of Block 1875-2
The population of students at Berkeley from 1950 to 1964 had nearly tripled, as the university welcomed 27,500 that year.(3) At the time there was not enough housing to accommodate for this new influx of students. This meant that the university had to expand outside of the campus block to accommodate for the influx of students who now needed housing and resources. The university’s expansion was made possible by labelling the project as an urban renewal effort, which meant that federal funding would cover two-thirds of the cost of everything, including the cost of land acquisition.(4)
Roger Heyns, who became the chancellor of the university in 1965, pushed the university to purchase Block 1875-2, the plot of land on which People’s Park exists currently. This plot of land was classified as an urban renewal zone under the premise that it was an “area of hippie concentration and rising crime”.(5) In some ways, this would kill two birds with one stone for the university— it would eliminate the southside hippie subculture and would eventually be land for the university to expand into. The site was bought by the university despite the fact that there was no funding to develop it after its demolition. At roughly 2.8 acres, this block contained 25 homes in good condition with virtually nothing wrong with them, but were classified as “blighted”.(6) Through the process of eminent domain, the residents of these 25 homes were sent eviction notices with little advance warning and were forced to give up their homes. By February of 1968, the 25 homes were demolished. In the grand scheme of campus expansion, this plot of land was relatively small- throughout the 1960’s, the university had acquired and cleared out 45 acres of land, 41 of which were residential areas.(7)
On that day, hundreds of people showed up with gardening tools and supplies, and over the course of three and a half weeks, thousands of people contributed their time and energy into transforming the park.
Jon Read, a local landscape architect, was tasked with creating a design, but overall the organization and layout seemed fairly spontaneous (see fig.4). Sam Davis, who was an architecture student in the College of Environmental Design at the time and contributed his time to help create the park, described the formation of the park as “disorganized with no overarching plan. It was a people run, anti-authoritarian place.” Towards the west end of the park was a stage, created for concerts and free speech. People created meandering paths lined by neatly placed stones and planters filled with flowers that spotted the park. People erected maypoles, built fire pits, and even swings. There was a portion of the park designated for children to play, and was an extremely popular area as there were no other parks in the neighborhood at this time.(10) As time went on, different groups of people added on, and the plan of the park was constantly changing. For three and a half weeks, the park hosted hundreds of people who used the space to play, socialize, and leave their mark by creating new meaning within the park.
People’s Park as a Battleground
Although the university still lacked the funding needed to create a recreational sports field, which is what they had originally claimed the site was for, the university decided to reassert their property rights and created a fence around the entirety of the site. Even though Chancellor Heyns had promised not to interfere, there was pressure from both the Regents as well as Governor Reagan, who had already publicly voiced his disdain for the university’s non-action in other student demonstrations. Reagan believed that he needed to follow through on his 1966 campaign promise to “clean up the mess at Berkeley”, referring to the student protests of the Free Speech Movement. He felt that in order to appease republican voters and to quell what he believed was a leftist attack on university property, he had to reclaim the land and make an example out of People’s Park.
On May 13, 1969, Chancellor Heyns released a statement saying that a fence would go up around the park, and on May 15, a day that would be known as “Bloody Thursday”, Governor Reagan sent in the Berkeley police and California Highway Patrol to block off an 8-block radius to destroy most of what had been planted at the park and put up an 8 foot tall fence around the park. Around 3,000 people had gathered in Sproul Plaza for a separate rally, but it turned into a protest when ASUC Student Body President Dan Siegel, who was on the stage, yelled “Let’s take the park!”. The 3,000 rally attendees turned into protesters as the massive group of people marched down Telegraph and then east towards People’s Park. Things turned violent very quickly. James Rector, who was watching the protest from a nearby roof, was shot multiple times and died a few days later. Alan Blanchard, a carpenter, was permanently blinded by birdshot. Over 130 protesters were taken to the hospital for various injuries, and hundreds more were injured but did not seek out medical care out of fear of being arrested. Reagan then ordered 2,700 members of the National Guard in, who occupied Berkeley for the next two weeks.(11) The turbulent events surrounding the battle for People’s Park have been captured in a mural on a nearby building (fig.6).
A majority of the CED faculty were in favor of preserving the park, and several faculty members wrote and signed a letter that was published in the LA Times, calling on Reagan to remove the National Guard. The CED faculty surveyed 1,000 local households, and 94% of them were in favor of keeping the park. Professor Sym Van der Ryn thought the park was an appropriate use of the unused site, saying that “for the first time, hundreds of young people felt the sense of performing meaningful work towards creating a place of their own.” Van der Ryn also proposed a number of university sponsored alternatives, like turning the park into an experimental field station for CED educational use. William Wheaton, the CED Dean, worked on another proposal to create a nonprofit organization that would help to maintain the park. Another plan proposal was to lease the land to the city so that the park would still be open to all. Reagan convinced the regents to vote against all of these proposals to the park plans, and the fence stayed up. Ultimately for Reagan, it was more important to repress, even if it was just symbolically, what People’s Park stood for.
Over the next couple decades, the university would continue to make advances on developing the park, with very little success. An attempt to create the soccer field in 1971 was met with protesters rioting along Telegraph. In 1989, Chancellor Heymann proposed the building of student dormitories on the land, and once again, there were protesters, who rioted on the 20th anniversary of the park. In October of 1989, the university agreed to lease the land to the city as a park, but the university did not stop trying to develop the park. An attempt to create volleyball courts in 1991 was shut down by protesters sitting on the courts and preventing further use or development.(12)
Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, the park had become a safe haven for the homeless community. The conflict between the university and the student population had caused the site to exist in limbo, with neither party able to develop the site for other purposes, and people without homes took advantage of the empty site. Federal law states that you cannot displace someone from their encampment unless there is appropriate housing for them to move to, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, many shelters have shut down or cannot operate at full capacity. There are still many California laws and policies that are anti-homeless and promote the criminalization of poverty. Obstruction of sidewalks, having an encampment more than 3 feet wide, and soliciting passerbys for money or food are all criminal offenses that can lead to fines, misdemeanors, and arrests.(13)
As People’s Park exists now, about 25-30 people live on the site in tents (see figure 7). They have been able to set up their tents without being removed, for the most part. A number of organizations, including Food Not Bombs and Dorothy Day House deliver food, hygiene products, and sleeping mats to People’s Park on a daily basis. Over the years, there has been an increase in nimbyism and animosity towards the homeless in the park. Some merchants from the increasingly gentrified Telegraph Avenue area started an anti-homeless campaign in the 1970’s, calling for the removal of the people residing in the park. Some students and faculty are weary of the park,(14) and as Berkeley’s housing crisis worsens, the university has decided to pursue building student dormitories on the site once again.
The initial plan, proposed by Chancellor Christ in 2018, consisted of student housing, supportive housing for the homeless, and a memorial to honor the historical events of People’s Park. In April of 2020, the university held a virtual meeting and revealed the first renderings of the proposal (fig. 8). The housing development is being done by LMS Architects and Hood Design Studio, and RCD (Resources for Community Development) and Sitelab Urban Studio are doing research for the supporting housing section.
The plan includes 1,200 beds for students and around 75-100 apartments for people currently experiencing homelessness. The plan includes a commemorative walkway and a patch of green space to honor People’s Parks legacy. The supportive housing unit will include mental health and social service resources. The university has not yet stated how they will select individuals who can qualify for supportive housing, but some bars to qualifying will potentially include broad criminal background checks and sobriety tests, which may eliminate a large portion of people who want to apply to supportive housing. There is also no plan in place as of now for what will happen to the people who currently call the park their home once construction begins. Most people who use the park on a daily basis are against the university’s development.(15)
The political meaning that was created and maintained by the formation of the park still exists today. People’s Park is a powerful symbol of radical democratization and community participation that’s legacy will be destroyed both physically and symbolically if the university advances with their plans for building on the site. With a long and contentious history, if the university ultimately wins out, it does not matter whether or not a commemorative walkway will be included. The university, which has persevered in its hypocrisy and contradiction throughout the People’s Park conflict, will have asserted its social control and power over the wants and needs of the citizens of Berkeley, predominantly those who are the most in need. The university has proved time and time again that it is not “a sanctuary of scholarship, a school of citizenship, and a validator of dominant values”(16) as it claims to be.
A growing number of Berkeley residents have shifted in favor of the student dormitory and supportive housing developments, predominantly because of the growing hostility towards the homeless community. It is important to not conflate homelessness and People’s Park- the elimination of one of the last green spaces in Berkeley does not equate to the reduction of homeless people in the area. Homelessness is a multi-dimensional and systemic issue that will not be solved solely through the decimation of the park.
People’s Park, after 50 years and thousands of people putting their lives on the line in its defense, is at risk of being permanently obliterated by the university. It seems as though it is more of a reassertion of the universities power and ownership over the land and perhaps an appeal to those who oppose People’s Park and the people who live in it than a housing solution. The university still has 9 other parcels of land to build housing on, notably the Oxford Tract on the northside of campus and the Smyth-Fernwald lot.(17)
People’s Park must be preserved as it is a powerful example of the ways that community design and grassroots organization can impact the larger landscape and create opportunities within a neighborhood that needs green space. It has been a model for other people’s parks across the country, and it empowered design professionals and local residents alike to get out their shovels and create real, palpable change in their neighborhoods. Even if the park no longer resembles its original form, there is still opportunity to develop it further and use it as an educational and social tool through CED initiatives in the future, and that will not be possible if the university builds on the site. These examples of spatial protest and community designed landscape architecture are crucial to preserve as testaments to the power of individual agency and community influence.
(1) Berry, Frederick A. F., Thomas Brooks, and Eugene D. Commins. 1969. A Report on the People’s Park Incident. [s.n.].
(2) Lovell Kera N. 2018. “‘Everyone Gets a Blister’ : Sexism, Gender Empowerment, and Race in the People’s Park Movement.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 46 (3 & 4): 103–19.
(3) Wurster, William Wilson, and Suzanne B. Riess. 1964. College of Environmental Design, University of California Campus Planning, and Architectural Practice : An Interview. Regional Cultural History Project, University of California.
(4) Silverstein, M & Van Der Ryn, S 1967, Dorms at Berkeley, an Environmental Analysis, viewed 22 November 2020,
(5) Mitchell, Don. “Iconography and Locational Conflict from the Underside.” Political Geography 11, no. 2 (March 1992): 152–69. doi:10.1016/0962-6298(92)90046-V.
(6) Sommer, Robert, and Robert L. Thayer. "The Radicalization of Common Ground: People's Park, Berkeley: An Unnatural History." Landscape Architecture 67, no. 6 (1977): 510-14.
(7) Robinson, Erin. “Creating ‘People’s Park’: Toward a Redefinition of Urban Space.” Human Ecology Review, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 87–110. EBSCOhost.
(8) Comerio, Mary C. 1984. Big Design, Little Design, Community Design. Center for Environmental Design Research, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley.
(9) Silverstein, M & Van Der Ryn, S 1967, Dorms at Berkeley, an Environmental Analysis.
(10) Robinson, Erin. “Creating ‘People’s Park’: Toward a Redefinition of Urban Space.” Human Ecology Review, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 87–110. EBSCOhost.
(11) Mitchell, Don. “Iconography and Locational Conflict from the Underside.” Political Geography 11, no. 2 (March 1992): 152–69. doi:10.1016/0962-6298(92)90046-V.
(12) Shiffman, Ron. Beyond Zuccotti Park. [Electronic Resource] : Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space. First edition., Project Muse, 2019. EBSCOhost,
(13) Ananya Roy, Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales, Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, and Clare Talwalker. 2016. Encountering Poverty : Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World. Poverty, Interrupted. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
(14) Allen, Peter. "The End of Modernism?: People's Park, Urban Renewal, and Community Design." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 70, no. 3 (2011): 354-74. Accessed November 21, 2020. doi:10.1525/jsah.2011.70.3.354.
(15) Saliman, Aaron. "UC Berkeley Begins Environmental Impact Review Process for People's Park Development." The Leaflet. May 02, 2020.
(16) Mitchell D. Iconography and locational conflict from the underside. Political Geography [Internet]. 1992 Mar [cited 2020 Nov 24];11(2):152–69.
(17) The ‘People’s Park’ : a report on a confrontation at Berkeley, California, submitted to Governor Ronald Reagan (1969). Office of the Governor, State of California.