San Francisco sidewalk gardens cause kerfuffle

By Victoria Schlesinger

One of the first PlantSF projects on Shotwell, San Francisco. Photo by Alison Hawkes, Way Out West.

San Francisco sidewalk gardens are suddenly the buzz around town, but not quite in the way the city had hoped.

Last Saturday the city kicked off a series of free monthly workshops on how to create sidewalk gardens, but in the same week a Mission resident started a petition to save the potted flowers in front of his house after receiving a city letter giving him 30 days to remove the plants or face a citation and a lien on his home, according to Uptown Almanac, a San Francisco blog.

NBC Bay Area online reported that the letter has left it unclear whether the city does or does not want residents sprucing up the public space in front of their homes with flowers and plants.

While the city may have some explaining to do, there is no question that it wants to increase the number of the mini-streetside gardens. It recently received an $80,000 grant from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to generate interest in building the gardens this year. They hope at least 100 new gardens are built, according to the Department of Public Works.

The money will help pay for the monthly workshops hosted by the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society and a large demonstration garden to be built near the County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park.

“We’re trying to make it easy for people to do this and trying to show them it shouldn’t be intimidating,” said Carla Short, an urban forester with the Department of Public Works. “There are a lot of guidelines by necessity, but we’re hoping to show people that it’s not too scary. It’s not too hard.”

According to the city, the diminutive gardens will beautify neighborhoods, provide habitat for wildlife, and enable rainwater to soak into the soil rather than flow into the city’s combined sewer system, which during heavy storms overflows and pollutes the Bay.

The joint recipients of the grant – the San Francisco Department of Public Works, Botanical Garden Society and Parks Trust – are encouraging residents to take out several square feet of sidewalk in front of their homes and replace it with native plants. The workshops walk participants through the steps of designing, permitting and building the gardens.

Becoming a sidewalk garden owner is no small commitment. Owners can be fined by the city if they neglect the landscaping or allow trash to accumulate in their gardens. They must also fork over a $215 permit fee and pay for all other supplies.

Despite the recent influx of cash to promote sidewalk gardens, they are not new to San Francisco. Over the last several years more than 750 permits have been issued for the gardens.

“We’ve had this permit on the books for a couple of years,” said Short, “but it’s a great opportunity for property owners and the city to get more permeability in the city, so we wanted to promote it and make it more accessible to people”

Permeability is currently a hot topic in San Francisco. The Better Streets Plan approved by the Board of Supervisors last year went into effect on January 16, and the new guidelines for developing pedestrian areas are full of strategies for improving the city’s ability to absorb rainwater rather than letting it flow into the combined sewer system.

Improving permeability is the main benefit of sidewalk gardens according to Jane Martin, a commissioner for the San Francisco Commission on the Environment and landscape architect, who hit upon the idea for sidewalk gardens in 2003.

“The idea is to take a deep, dark ugly issue that we don’t want to deal with,” Martin said in reference to the city’s lack of permeability, “and make it something positive and give people a way they can access it on an individual personal basis that improves their life immediately.”

Inspired to plant a garden in front of her San Francisco house, Martin quickly found that obtaining a permit for the project was arduous and expensive. She set to work streamlining the process and today runs the nonprofit PlantSF to promote sidewalk landscaping.

But how effectively the gardens reduce the volume of rainwater entering the sewer system during big storms remains unknown.

“We are currently working on quantifying the benefits of impervious areas throughout the city, but this has not yet been completed,” Leslie Webster from the Urban Watershed Management Program wrote in an email.

Based on the the Better Streets Plan, it appears that at least some types of potted plants should be counted in that analysis.

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5 Responses to San Francisco sidewalk gardens cause kerfuffle

  1. Tweets that mention San Francisco sidewalk gardens cause kerfuffle | Way Out West News -- on 02/18/2011 at 11:36 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by San Francisco Towing and Gary Grant, Kelly Brenner. Kelly Brenner said: Street plantings – Contrast this in SF to this in Vancouver [...]

  2. peter on 02/18/2011 at 3:40 pm

    Started one in front of my building in the Mission about 2 years ago. Got tired of passersby treating trees as some kind of ashtray. Still happens, but I now have pride in removing it.

  3. Mani Iyer on 02/18/2011 at 5:52 pm

    If I plant anything in my garden I do it with love and am always happy to keep them healthy looking for all and take pride in it. I look after it as my own children. I want people to admire it. I do not want my neighbour’s animals dirty it. I do it all because I love it.

  4. Glenn London on 02/19/2011 at 6:21 pm

    Take out a lane of parking and put the gardens there. Give us back our sidewalks please. Kids, disabled, pedestrians — ripping up our essential sidewalks is absurd. A dense pedestrian-oriented city needs unencumbered sidewalks.

    What is going on here?

  5. Richard on 02/20/2011 at 7:57 pm

    Another subsidy for Park Trust and the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society!

    This is incredibly STUPID!

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