Ping Yuen, the first public housing development in San Francisco’s Chinatown, has offered support and sense of place for families during a century-long struggle for justice and equity for Chinese Americans. While its name means “Tranquil Garden” in Cantonese, it has suffered from underfunded management, sporadic maintenance, crime, and deteriorating infrastructure, and had become more “fortress” than “garden” in character.
The redesign, which was spurred by the development’s 2014 acquisition by the Chinatown Community Development Center, sought to fulfill the gardenesque quality promised by its name. The palette mixes California native plants with traditional Asian garden species in a sophisticated combination of cultural and local texture, improving quality-of-life for Ping Yuen’s 434 lower-income families.
Asserting that “everyone deserves a garden,” the rehabilitation de-institutionalizes the development and re-establishes access to landscape as a basic right. It replaces spear-pointed gates with entry portal facades and employs eccentric plantings, residential furnishings, and natural materials that signal a dramatic shift in the perception of the space.
Long-delayed rehabilitation efforts were initiated in 2014 with the help of HUD’s RAD program. Renovations included upgrades to all major building systems as, new staff offices, and community rooms for the buildings. The front gardens and Ping Yuen North’s “porch” along Pacific Avenue were redesigned to provide a softer, less institutional sense of place. Its courtyard was upgraded with an outdoor “living room,” a multifunctional sport field, a new playground, and new planting, while the courtyard of Ping Yuen Center was remodeled with a new community center.
As the most densely populated neighborhood west of Manhattan, Ping Yuen’s every inch of greenery is precious. For residents in public housing like Ping Yuen, a “simple” garden is never simply a garden. Given the below-average size of its living units, outdoor space is critical: serving as a place for mutual support, community gathering, exercising, play, and contemplation. For the elderly in particularly, and for those with lower income living in a dense urban place, landscape is not a luxury but a basic right. This has never been truer than during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people confined to their homes for much of the day and night.
Within the confines of a limited budget, the landscape design attempts to soften the overall environment with rich garden textures. The landscape frontage and courtyards of all four developments, which were once barren save for tree holes cut out of rough concrete paving, was completely reimagined, removing unnecessarily paved areas and adding lush, inviting places to sit or stroll. Homecoming warmth, as well as a sense of security, are both established with this sensitive touch.
While the frontage of Ping Yuen East, Ping Yuen Central, and Ping Yuen West were softened with rich-textured gardens, the once-harsh parking area along Pacific Avenue was transformed into a popular sunny, airy spot for residents and visitors. A linear stormwater treatment planter creates a discreet, low screening from the street while demonstrating resource conservation for the community and neighborhood.
Inspired by Chinese gardens’ traditional “moon gate,” the design aimed to dignify the entry for both residents and visitors. The red entry gates’ frame integrates security and lighting features while maintaining visibility through the entry threshold. Although a fence was maintained for security, the great red gate elevates the arrival experience with distinctive pride-of-place.
Given the below-average park area available per person in Chinatown, a protected, inclusive, multifunctional courtyard was critical to the rehabilitation. The original monotonous lower concrete terraces were broken down into three zones: a playground surrounded with lush planting, a multifunctional sport field with a blue koi pond supergraphic, and a fully furnished pad for outdoor social interaction. Invasive eucalyptus trees were replaced with Ginkgo and a layered understory on the upper terrace. Additional social seating was added to the edge of the planting areas along the informal promenade that connects the front and back gates. Together, the upper and lower terraces offer opportunities for diverse active and passive uses for residents of all ages.
The rehabilitation of Ping Yuen Public Housing extends the development’s viability and upgrades residents’ quality-of-life, retrieving the promise of “gardens for everyone.” It not only transforms the physical environment with much-needed new amenities, but also helps restore residents’ dignity. Rather than “home” being thought of as simply one’s private living space, the concept now extends to the development as a whole.
Architecture offices involved in the design
Gelfand Partners Architects
838 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
Design year: 2015-17
Year Built: 2020