Building Community at Presidio Tunnel Tops

By Christy Rocca|October 6, 2022

The Presidio of San Francisco, which serves the community with outdoor experiences and acts as a hub for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, was given a golden opportunity: a necessary highway redesign resulted in a chance to add 14 new acres of parkland with visitor amenities on top of the highway tunnels. Committed donors chose to create a site to welcome Bay Area populations who have encountered economic, cultural, and accessibility barriers to participating in the outdoors. Bringing national park experiences to those living in an urban area and providing an equitable connection to nature was a primary goal of the Presidio Tunnel Tops project, one stewarded by the “Partnership for the Presidio”: the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the Presidio Trust, and the National Parks Service.

It was a long time coming. In 2015, community workshops were held throughout San Francisco in neighborhoods where access to the Presidio was challenging, so community input could influence the park design, transportation, and program plans. Additionally, the Presidio Trust set up a gallery in the park where community members could comment and add their own ideas in the design process led by James Corner Field Operations. We learned that ample places to reflect, celebrate milestone events, sit and take in the views, barbecue, have access to bikes and public transportation, have food and entertainment on-site that reflected the rich and distinctive cultures of our Bay Area communities were important components of reaching new audiences.

But engaging the community in the design process was only one avenue to build lasting connections with those new to national parks. How could we best welcome new audiences upon opening? We established the Presidio Activator Council and the Presidio Experts—community leaders who are developing innovative ways to incorporate art, culture, food, healing, wellness, and music at Presidio Tunnel Tops, so it feels like a welcoming and inclusive space. Says Favianna Rodriguez, a Presidio Activator whose colorful art installation, Ancestral Futurism: Looking Back to Repair the Future, adorns the site: “For national parks to be accessible, there must be a deliberate and conscious attempt to reach out and include communities of color and leaders of color, so that these conversations can be had. Also, through collaboration with BIPOC people, the park can build trusted networks that can attract different kinds of communities. And that’s exactly what the Presidio Activators initiative is doing, engaging with trusted BIPOC leaders, environmentalists, influencers, and culture changers who are trusted in their respective communities and who have a track record of creating projects that benefit communities of color.”

Presidio Tunnel Tops is a 14-acre parkland that is the result of collaboration between community leaders, activists, and artists representing communities historically underrepresented in national parks. Photo Credit: James Corner Field Operations

Fast-forward to July 2022, when the public grand opening revealed an upgrade to the Crissy Field Center classrooms, a brand new art lab, a new Field Station designed for drop-in eco-discovery, and the two-acre Outpost nature play space with play elements made of all natural materials, founded on principles of the Children’s Bill of Outdoor Rights. To help new audiences enjoy the site, the Partnership launched the Adventure Guide program—graduates from the various leadership development programs offered to youth in the park since 2001. Adventure Guides represent many of the neighborhoods of San Francisco and bring their expertise, multilingual skills, and knowledge of the parks to their work, serving as outdoor educators and interpreters in the youth-focused areas of Presidio Tunnel Tops. Providing these talented leaders with employment opportunities to staff the site not only provides a capstone experience for youth graduates but deepens the sense of welcome and belonging for visitors new to the park, many from the same neighborhoods where Adventure Guides grew up and attended school. 

Encouraging access for all depends on partnerships like those with the San Francisco Unified School District, the San Francisco Public Library, and the YMCA, and relationships with over 100 community-based organizations (CBO) that visit the park each year—groups that also gave input into the design of Presidio Tunnel Tops. The Partnership operates free shuttle bus programs for CBOs to overcome transportation barriers, and community organizations can host events at Presidio Tunnel Tops.

We encourage you to visit and enjoy the free Presidio Tunnel Tops! For information on how to bring a group to the Presidio, please visit the website: Check the main website for current hours and events at

Christy Rocca
This article was written by Christy Rocca

Christy Rocca is a non-profit administrator, youth-development specialist, and community advocate whose work has focused on connecting marginalized communities with their natural and cultural environments for over four decades. From 1999-2020, she led the development, launch and work of Crissy Field Center, a partnership project of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, National Park Service and Presidio Trust that provides park experiences, education, leadership development and first-time recreational experiences to more than 28,000 youth annually. In 2021 Christy transitioned to a new role as Senior Advisor for the Tunnel Tops Initiative to support the activation of 14 acres of new parkland, situated on the tunnel tops of the Presidio Parkway, which opened July 17, 2022. She is an advisory board member of Ten Strands.