Jim Chappell, a retired urban planner, is greening Guerrero Street with a cadre of neighbors and the Department of Public Works. Photo by Anlan Cheney.

Standing on a busy Guerrero Street sidewalk, Jim Chappell held a shrub cutter that looked like it could do some damage. But he effused warmth and gentleness, dressed in a fluorescent vest that belied his mission.

Chappell said the “median guardian” he tends between 19th and 20th streets is due for a cleanup ahead of the rainy season. He apologized for the “terrible” state of the garden but, with the drought, he has had to hold back on watering.

Not that anyone would notice. The soft-leaved foxtail agave, purple rock purslane flowers, and reddish-green rosettes of the aeonium looked cheerful and welcoming, not parched.

Chappell is a retired urban planner who has lived on Guerrero Street for more than 30 years. He said the median gardens are meant to accomplish three things: beautification, traffic calming, and community building.

“The easy one to understand, of course, is beautification,” he said. “You know, living plants are nicer than concrete.”

“A second is traffic calming,” Chappell continued. “There are all kinds of studies that show that street trees and landscaping psychologically narrows the road, which then slows down traffic.” 

Drawing on his city planning background, he explained how Guerrero Street became the neighborhood’s traffic corridor: Mission Street accommodates public transit and pedestrians, and Valencia Street’s timed lights cater to pedestrian shoppers and bike traffic.

“Guerrero is essentially an onramp to the freeway,” said Chappell. “They just let it rip.”

The third “really, really important” reason for median gardening is community building. “Especially on a heavy-traffic street, you never meet your neighbors across the street. You hardly meet them next door, because you’re not socializing on the sidewalk,” Chappell said. “We’ve met all kinds of people we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

He said the original idea came to him about 50 years ago, during graduate school in Pennsylvania, where 17th and 18th century housewives cleaned up after garbage trucks by sweeping sidewalks and scrubbing Philadelphia’s famous marble steps.

When a fellow city planner with young children moved to his block around 2000, their shared vision for safety and sense of community sparked the Guerrero Street version, and the rest is history.

Chappell and a cadre of neighbors have since carried thousands of buckets of water and sustained an exchange of plant cuttings among blocks. With assistance from San Francisco Public Works, every block on Guerrero Street from Duboce to 27th has been planted.

Chappell has walked the full length of Guerrero Street, taking inventory of trees and plant conditions, which resulted in a Department of Public Works replanting in 2020.

Chappell did not take any credit for his vast public service, but his neighbor Ned Moran stopped by.

“Jim is a very modest person,” said Moran, who helps organize neighbors for regular garden maintenance, “but everything from getting this to happen, not only on our block but all the other blocks, as well as moving it forward, is this man’s effort.”

Chappell listened and laughed off a suggestion that he had a green thumb (although he has wanted to be a landscape architect since childhood). 

“The street is my garden,” he said. “It’s on all of us to take care of our neighborhood.”

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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  1. I met Jim when I thanked him for caring for the plants, and ended up helping a couple of times. This is the kind of person we all should try to be, one who does things that make our neighborhood better for all. Thanks Jim!

  2. Jim is great, I met him asking what he was up to out there, and ended up volunteering to plant and water a couple of times, even though I live on a neighboring block. We should all applaud those who do what they can to make the neighborhood nicer for all!

    Thanks Jim!

  3. Could Jim possibly head out to Sunset Blvd and do some word on the disgraceful median running from Sloan to Irving? DPW contracted with someone, likely a Nuru kickback scheme, to do work on that stretch. I took two or three years and last I saw it, about two weeks ago, a DPW crew was burning, yes, burning, parts of the median to remove God knows what.

    1. Steve – I would totally support you and band with you on Sunset Blvd. Climate Action Now is a nonprofit that has been engaged to do some work on the boulevard. They only got funding north of Taraval which explains why south of it such as Ulloa and Vicente look like hell. I would gladly band with you to hold Supervisor Mar accountable for improving this greenway.

      I also wish to second other comments here about Jim. I know him personally and he is absolutely wonderful and has done much good for our city.

  4. Thank you for writing about Mr. Chappell. He and his work deserve the recognition and appreciation. Guerrero is, indeed, a much more hospitable street since the “garden” was planted.

    1. Seems that builder is not building enough units! The city said give us more and they instead kept 24 units, just made each bigger?

      Hope this gets more units, can fit way more.

    2. Jim is a great civic leader, who has always acted with integrity. Contrast that with this unsubstantiated hit from someone linking to a page that identifies NONE of its backers. NIMBYism at its worst.

  5. Jim has a storied history of San Francisco civic activism, leading our incredible local, and now regional, non-profit organization SPUR.org for many years. He is a gentle and wonderful man, with a bit of a bite: one referring to the SFMTA (then known as the Department of Traffic: the bad old days) as the “Department of Cars”. Love you Jim!