Now Playing

Is San Francisco's Parks Department Secretly Banning Sandboxes?

Nineteen playgrounds have been renovated over the past decade. Sand vanished at 16 of them.


When James Sword takes his three- and one-year-old sons to Panhandle Playground, near their home in the Haight, the kids make a beeline for the sandbox. Sword’s older boy loves to dig, build sandcastles, and, a little less adorably, pour sand all over his baby brother. So when Sword showed up last May for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department meeting about plans to renovate the beloved playground—part of a $26.5 million multi-park collaboration with the nonprofit San Francisco Parks Alliance—he was struck by the one thing conspicuously absent from the department’s presentation: sand.

Panhandle Playground wasn’t the only San Francisco park where sand would be disappearing. Among 19 playgrounds renovated by Rec and Parks over the past decade through a variety of initiatives, sand vanished at 16 of them. For three more currently being revamped, including the Panhandle’s, initial proposals didn’t include sand features either. Sword and other parents began asking: What’s the city got against sand?

Rec and Parks general manager Phil Ginsburg is adamant about his department’s position: “We’re not banning sand,” he says. But Sword and other parents believe the department is being less than forthcoming. Leyla Momeny is a special-education teacher and parent who lives near Merced Heights Playground, another location destined to lose its sand. A San Francisco Public Works landscape architect told her by email that Rec and Parks had indeed adopted a no-sand policy. Eric Andersen, superintendent of parks and open spaces, wrote in an email to another resident that although the department wasn’t planning to remove sand from every playground, it was getting rid of it during planned renovations. According to email records, Andersen was reprimanded by department higher-ups for the note.

Like so many other parental flash-point issues, the vanishing sand has gained symbolic weight, as if the city is eliminating an important, if admittedly messy, aspect of childhood itself. Many parents insist that sand is an irreplaceable component of kid life. Susan Osterhoff, director of the sensory-play program Project Commotion, says sand helps kids develop fine motor skills and an early understanding of math and science.

Despite the apparently fertile learning ground of the sandbox, parks departments across the country have been moving away from sand features for years, for a variety of reasons: They’re inaccessible for people with disabilities, they easily clog nearby plumbing, and they eat away at rubberized playground flooring. In addition, there’s the lurking danger of debris, glass, and especially cat feces showing up in sandboxes.

In the face of official disapproval of sand, in August, Momeny launched an online campaign in support of sand play for kids and, along with Sword and other parents, circulated a petition to preserve sand features in city playgrounds. The publicity seemed to give the sand brigade momentum: In October, Ginsburg asked his team to begin drafting citywide design standards for sand features in public parks, which would make it easier to integrate them into future redesigns. And in mid-October, at a community meeting regarding the Panhandle renovations, program manager Melinda Stockman revealed that sand elements were being considered in all three of the proposed redesigns for that park. “And that’s based on a lot of feedback we got from the public,” she said to cheers from the audience of neighbors. A final vote on the park redesign was expected February 15.

Elsewhere, the sand fight grinds on. At Momeny’s local playground in Merced Heights, it’s too late to put the sand issue back on the table. Ginsburg says, “Where there is strong neighborhood consensus for a sand play element, we will support it.” But not all neighborhoods—or playgrounds—are created equal, Momeny points out. In areas where parents have the time and means to stump for sand, they’ll likely get their sandbox. But for the rest, the sand may have run out of the hourglass for good.


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag