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Case Studies 

Portsmouth Square

San Francisco



Contributed by 
Project for Public Spaces
July 22, 2015
January 3, 2018

What makes it Great?

Why it doesn't work?

Today, Portsmouth Square is considered to be part of Chinatown proper and is colloquially referred to as the “Heart of Chinatown.” Part of its popularity is due to a contemporary and inclusive design that caters both to the general public while including elements that make it a culturally significant space for local Chinese Americans. Used for practicing traditional martial arts, the square’s open lawns are equally popular amongst picnic-goers and frisbee players throughout the day. Likewise, the Chinese chess tables found throughout the square are used both by adept players and by the general public who are looking only for a comfortable place to sit and observe the activity in the square. Portsmouth Square’s Tot Lot is also a major draw for families, tourists, and art enthusiasts. The Tot Lot is an art installation and play structure for children that represents six animals from the Chinese zodiac by the sculptors Mary Fuller and Robert McChesney. While completely accessible to residents, local office workers, and visitors, the design of Portsmouth Square’s invites diverse users to engage the community’s culture and creates a central meeting point for local residents.

Access & Linkages

Comfort & Image

Uses & Activities


How Light?

How Quick?

How Cheap?

History & Background

San Francisco was founded on July 9th, 1846 at Portsmouth Square. As the first and only public square in the quickly growing city, Portsmouth Square was the heart of San Francisco’s political and civic life throughout the 19th century. During this same this period, the city experienced a significant wave of Chinese immigration, and many Chinese-American churches began to establish themselves in the nearby areas. The churches were places for both religious practice and social services for new immigrants, which helped in establishing a strong Chinese community in and around Portsmouth Square. As San Francisco’s urban fabric further developed, government buildings were constructed elsewhere in the city, and Portsmouth Square began to lose some of its political significance. Though it is no longer the center of local politics in the city, Portsmouth Square is still an active hub for area residents, tourists, and the Chinese-American community that is still concentrated in an area that has become one of the country’s best-known Chinatown districts.

Related Links & Sources

Image credits, from left: foxhog via Flickr, Michael Fraley via Flickr, Michael Fraley via Flickr

Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square

*Please note that these Hall of Shame nominations were written in a moment in time (most over a decade ago) and likely have since changed or even been transformed. If the above entry is now great, or still not so great, go ahead and comment below on how it has evolved or nominate it as a great place.


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