San Francisco’s Parks and Green Spaces Guardian

For the last 10 years, Phil Ginsburg '93 has sought to create healthier, more welcoming and accessible public spaces in San Francisco.

Phil Ginsburg ’93 has one of the more enviable – and difficult – positions in the City and County of San Francisco.

As general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, Ginsburg manages roughly 15 percent of the city’s total land. It’s a job where major green infrastructure initiatives are heavily scrutinized, but also carry the potential for significant health and wellness improvements in neighborhoods. It’s a job where partnerships are vital to success and longevity. In other words, Ginsburg’s job – quite literally — shapes the character and landscape of San Francisco.

“I like to joke that I have 880,000 bosses, because everybody has a different opinion about how our park system should be run,” said Ginsburg, who has led the department for a decade.

“Some people like active recreation. Others want passive community spaces, while others want dog parks or playgrounds,” he said. “So, there’s a challenge there, but also an opportunity.”

From Golden Gate Park to Coit Tower to the Palace of Fine Arts and everything in between, Ginsburg affects it all. And it’s his “think like a lawyer” approach that has put him in a position to lead the department to new heights.

“Lawyers are trained to be good issue spotters,” Ginsburg said. “I run a $225 million organization with nearly 2000 employees. I negotiate land-use policies with elected officials and community groups regularly. No doubt, I use the skills I learned at UC Hastings every single day.”

Ginsburg practiced labor law for several years with Carroll, Burdick & McDonough LLP, where he represented police officers, firefighters and other government employees. He spent four years running labor negotiations for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and briefly served as Chief of Staff to Gov. Gavin Newsom when he was mayor of San Francisco. But, it’s his role with the Recreation and Parks Department where he feels most fulfilled.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be doing this,” he said. “I honestly think that my legal training and my time spent doing labor negotiations has prepared me for this job. It’s definitely helped me navigate the underpinnings of running a large organization, interpret contracts and negotiate agreements.”

Under Ginsburg, San Francisco became the first city in the United States where all of its residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. He has made equity and access to parks his mission. And, under his leadership, the Parks Department has raised over $150 million in philanthropic funding for parks, which has helped renovate Boeddeker Park, rejuvenate Civic Center Commons, and much more.

“With those projects, we partnered with organizations like UC Hastings and the entire Civic Center-Tenderloin community to create a healthier, more welcoming, and more equitable public realm,” said Ginsburg, who was also recently appointed to the California State Parks and Recreation Commission by Newsom due to his leadership.

In recent years, researchers have noted the link between access to green spaces and enhanced human health. Recognizing this, Ginsburg has advocated for parks and green spaces, and for the people who use them. He says that he is driven to provide access to a nature-based experience every day for every child in our city.

Phil Ginsburg '93 kneeling in front of goal post with you soccer players.
Phil Ginsburg ’93, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, poses with youth soccer players.

“Nature has very serious health benefits. People are calmer when they’re in nature. It’s an antidote to stress. It’s an antidote to trauma,” he said. “If you look around this city, there’s nature everywhere. There’s nature in the Civic Center. There’s nature in Tenderloin. There’s nature down in John McLaren Park. You’ve got the Presidio, Crissy Field, Golden Gate Park. Every neighborhood park has nature.”

And while Ginsburg admits that parks don’t solve all the woes of living in a city, they do provide enough of an incentive to allow those who live in San Francisco to thrive.

“Living in San Francisco can be challenging,” Ginsburg said. “If you can’t get your kid into the public school of your choice, housing is expensive, unhealthy street behavior abounds and parking tickets are super expensive, what is it that actually keeps families living here?

“For me, it’s my morning runs with my wife, Emily, in Golden Gate Park. It’s watching my kids play soccer on the Marina Green, staring at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. It’s the great music and food at Outside Lands. Our parks keep us here and keep us happy.”