Powell Street in downtown San Francisco is the type of corridor where, on any given weekday, hordes of workers, shoppers, and tourists hurry along past sidewalk bongo players and rattling cable cars, on their way to somewhere else. Amid the hubbub, though, something else is happening along a stretch between the St. Francis Hotel and a Skechers store: People are stopping. Some sit on the built-in benches, perhaps admiring the birds of paradise or asparagus fern in shiny modern raised beds that rise behind them. These people may not know it, but the Powell Street Promenade, opened in 2011, is quietly directing them to find tranquility amid the chaos.
Walter Hood, the man behind this inviting patch of green, designed it precisely this way, with wavy metal edges that suggest gentle motion, like ripples across water, and wider sidewalks that encourage people to stop for a chat, out of the way of the hurrying throngs.
“I like to work where people are,” says the Oakland-based Hood, who also teaches landscape architecture at University of California, Berkeley. His green oases come in unlikely places, such as under Interstate 580 in Oakland. There, his Splashpad Park invites pedestrians to stroll its paths or to sit beside the fountain and enjoy the city views.
Hood’s landscapes are boldly contemporary in style and material but highly functional. The grassy sculpture garden he designed for the modernist remodel of San Francisco’s de Young Museum includes giant ceramic apples, which beckon children to clamber on them. To create Lafayette Square Park in Oakland, Hood added a barbecue area and lawn berms angled to catch the sun.
The important thing, he says, is to design spaces that “listen to different voices and connect with people across cultures—the way hip-hop music has.” He tells his students: “Design for people and who they are today”—that is, busy people headed somewhere else who, thanks to Hood, are pausing along the way.