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Landscape Architecture Student Transforms Derelict Footpath Into Pleasant Neighborhood "Street Park"

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(Pictured left) Robert Muehlbauer, Ridge Lane Neighbors member and (right) Mohammed Nuru, director of San Francisco Department of Public Works with Nahal Sohbati, School of Landscape Architecture M.F.A. student. Photo courtesy of Eric Arneson.

On her first site visit to a neglected parcel of public property called Ridge Lane, nearly two years ago, Nahal Sohbati was surprised by all the butterflies.

“The habitat wasn’t very good for them,” she explained. “I did some research and discovered that the whole parcel is located on a ridge, the highest point on a hill. It’s where butterflies go to find a mate.”

The butterfly mating grounds on Ridge Lane just got bumped up a notch thanks to Sohbati. The Academy of Art University School of Landscape Architecture graduate student transformed the first parcel of a five-parcel strip in San Francisco’s Ingleside neighborhood into a delightful butterfly-friendly walkway where the winged insects can frolic and local residents can enjoy each other’s company in a safe, attractive environment.

“We are so happy, and proud, and satisfied, and relieved,” said Patricia Ris at the ribbon cutting ceremony held on Saturday, June 18. A core member of Ridge Lane Neighbors—a group of Ingleside residents who launched the effort to transform the neglected strip into a landscaped walkway nearly five years ago—Ris said she was thrilled with Sohbati’s design. “It makes everybody dignified. When you walk in a beautiful park you have dignity, when you walk in something that looks like a dump, you lose it. I think it will lift everybody up.”

Spirits were certainly high at the park’s official opening when dozens of Ingleside neighbors came out to celebrate their newly designed outdoor space. Funded in part by San Francisco’s Street Parks Program, a partnership between the Department of Public Works (DPW), the Parks Alliance, and locals looking to create community-managed spaces on city-owned land, Ridge Lane can now be counted among the city’s 132 “street parks.” City officials, including SF Parks Alliance CEO Matthew O’Grady, DPW Director of Operations Mohammed Nuru, State Assemblymember Phil Ting, and District 11 Supervisor John Avalos were all in attendance and offered uplifting words of congratulations.

“There’s that line, ‘It takes a village,’” O’Grady said. “What does it really mean? Look around you. This is the village that is known as Ridge Lane Neighbors. This is a village living and breathing and doing, and I stand here in awe and humble appreciation of how this village has come together and what you all are achieving here. It’s really just an awesome transformation that is being done here.”

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Residents enjoy the newly transformed Ridge Lane. Photo courtesy of Nahal Sohbati.

Formerly a dirt footpath littered with trash, the new Ridge Lane features a paved walkway that Sohbati said was inspired by the voronoi pattern of a butterfly’s wings. Agave, manzanita and California poppies grow on either side while strawberry trees shade gabion benches constructed of wood, wire and recycled concrete.

“We chose a mix of Bay Area native plants and exotics that are adapted to a California climate,” said Eric Arneson (B.F.A. ’16), who worked with Sohbati on the plantings. “That way you have a beautiful garden and landscaping all year round. In the summer, when the native plants get a little dry with the natural cycle of the California landscape, the exotics will have a constant green, lush effect.”

An impressive “real-world” project for a landscape architecture student, Sohbati will use Ridge Lane as her thesis when she graduates next year. It was first introduced as a studio project in LAN 620: Site Design, in Fall 2014, when six M.F.A. students had the opportunity to present proposals to Ridge Lane Neighbors.

Photo courtesy of Nahal Sohbati.

“Nahal’s proposal immediately stood out because of the time she invested in observing and analyzing the site,” said Heather Clendenin, director of the School of Landscape Architecture. “In addition, it was clear that she had listened very carefully to the neighbors’ ideas, visions, thoughts for the future of the site as well as to complaints about the site as it currently existed.”

Ris agreed that Sohbati’s “consistency, vision, ability to communicate, and her passion for the piece of land” set her apart from the other students. “She was one who fell in love with Ridge Lane right away,” Ris said. “She had the most thorough plan for all five parcels and she was able to communicate that. There was also consistency between all the different sections. She just floated up.”

While everyone agreed that Sohbati’s design was the best one for Ridge Lane, each resident had their own concerns. “Prioritizing their needs in a way that addressed their concerns while recognizing the bigger picture was my greatest challenge,” Sohbati said.

“Also, some of residents who were not involved in the planning were skeptical about what will happen after Ridge Lane is built, they were worried about it becoming another place that attracts more crime. I think today proved how a space that is a reflection of its users can become a safe place for all. Even though it’s a small site, we can see what a great effect it has on community.”