Nature, culture, the city and the park: The transformation of San Francisco's Presidio Army Post to National Park

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John Mercer


California, Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission, national parks

Subject Categories

Geography | Urban Studies


In 1988 the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission met to decide which military bases were no longer necessary to the defense of the United States. The Presidio, located at the far western edge of the city of San Francisco, was one of the first bases slated for closure. Because of the many unusual features on this military base (which include a collection of cultural, natural and historic landscapes), the Presidio is to be converted from an Army Post to a National Park.

This dissertation examines the plans for the Presidio's conversion. After three years of planning, the Park Service published the Presidio plan in October of 1993. The master plan or "Grand Vision" of the Presidio calls for the base to become an urban national park dedicated to environmental research and education. The highlight of this "Grand Vision" is a proposal to create a global environmental center which will address the world's most critical environmental, social and cultural challenges.

Because the Presidio is such a complex site of more than 800 buildings, the Park Service proposed that a public-private partnership called the Presidio Trust be appointed to manage the new park. This, however, requires Congressional approval. For several years Congress threatened to withhold the allocation of federal funds for the conversion and questioned the feasibility of the Grand Vision.

This project analyses several issues raised in the Presidio planning process: the potent symbolism of "swords into plowshares" at the Presidio; the influence of concern for the environment as evidenced in the proposed Global Environmental Center; the role of high-profile volunteers in underscoring the "national significance" of the post; private/public partnerships in development projects; the consequences of base closures and the effects on local communities; federal political struggles to control space and to control the Park Service; and the role of Urban Recreation Areas in the broader context of the National Park system.


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